Keith Durham had a duty no high school baseball coach would ever want Wednesday when he conducted a ceremony memorializing one of his former players who died far too young.
But the late South Johnston pitcher-infielder Steven “Stevie Ray” Johnson (’08) was still bringing laughter and smiles to people through their tears as his coach talked about him before a game with West Johnston at Bruce Coats Field.
Johnson, who was a conference MVP for Florence-Darlington Technical College in South Carolina and had continued to UNC Pembroke to continue his baseball career, was killed last July 4 in Morehead City.
“He loved to joke and have fun, but when he stepped across the chalk line it was all business,” Durham said, the big man’s voice often breaking during his moving, folksy talk to a crowd of several hundred. “He believed you couldn’t beat him, and most of the time he was right.
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“Some of you (opponents) hated seeing his name on the lineup card. … Steven was one of a kind. From his quotes to the newspaper – “Why throw it inside when they can’t hit it outside?” – to the respect he commanded from opponents.”
Johnson holds the school’s career doubles record (29) and season (12), sharing that record with current Trojan assistant coach Aaron Parnell. As a Trojan, Johnson was a part of 59 wins, two conference championships, a Johnston County Easter Invitational tournament championship and a run to the third round of the state playoffs in his senior year.
“My favorite story came after (Johnson) had broken Aaron Parnell’s career doubles mark,” Durham said. “Coach Jeremy Byrd asked him ‘Stevie Ray, how many of those doubles do you think I helped you get as your first base coach?’ He responded ‘Coach, I don’t even see you down there. I’m looking two out of the box every time.’ That was Steven, and if we all played the game the way he played it we’d be better for it.”
Durham announced that the Steven Johnson Memorial Scholarship – also known as The “Deuce” Scholarship – will be awarded annually to a senior Trojan baseball player in his memory.
Johnson’s parents, Scott and Sonya – two of 18 family members who attended the game – were presented with their son’s framed No. 2 Trojans home jersey in the style of the 1975 Houston Astros.
The green road jersey will be permanently displayed in the ballpark’s press box.
“The ceremony was fitting,” Scott Johnson said. “He spent four years right here on this ball field and this is where he wanted to be.”
Mrs. Johnson said she was really touched by the honor for her son.
“It was amazing,” she said. “It was very good and we were very, very pleased. We were very fortunate that so many good people have come into our lives because of him. He had a real spark. He always knew he could do it.”
Durham said it wasn’t hard to come up with good words about one of his most accomplished players.
“He was a real special kid - a heck of a player and the kind who can make you look like a good coach,” Durham said. “He was mainly a pitcher and third baseman, but I guess he played about every position on the field before he graduated.
“We wanted to play this (memorial) game against West because we wanted somebody close by that knew the history and knew the kid and had played against him.”
West’s first-year coach Joey Worley made a point of talking about Johnson in his post-game interview.
“What Coach Durham did tonight was very important,” Worley said. “I tell our kids this is a game. But when it’s all said and done we’re all brothers in baseball. Coach Durham is a good friend, and I feel privileged and honored to be here when they honored Steven.”