Dennis Johnson played three full seasons of SEC football at Kentucky and 29 games in the NFL. He does not remember ever having as many butterflies in his stomach leading up to a contest as he has for Friday's Woodford County High School season opener with North Bullitt.
It will be Johnson's first game as a high school head coach.
"When I was playing, I felt like I had some control over what happened," Johnson said Wednesday. "With coaching, you're trying to get kids to do things the right way, motivate them to play hard, but they are the ones who have to do it on Friday night."
For Johnson, his debut as Woodford County's football coach is him stepping into his family legacy. His father, Alvis Johnson, was a coaching staple at the old Harrodsburg High School. Alvis Johnson won 194 games as head football coach and led Harrodsburg to state runner-up finishes in 1988, '96 and '97. As track coach, his teams won five state championships.
Never miss a local story.
"From the time I was 3 years old, any time my dad would get in the car to go over to the football house, whether it was to hand out equipment or just open the weight room, I went with him," Dennis Johnson said. "This is in my blood."
Alvis Johnson says he tried to discourage his sons, Dennis and older brother Derrick, from following in his career path.
"I told them to do something where you could make some money," Alvis Johnson said. "But you also want to do what you love. And football and being around the kids, it's something I know Dennis loves."
It is hard to imagine any high school coach in Kentucky has a more impressive athletic résumé than the new Woodford County head man. A multi-sport star at Harrodsburg, Dennis Johnson was Kentucky's 1997 Mr. Football and USA Today National Defensive Player of the Year.
In basketball, he scored 2,306 points and took Harrodsburg to the quarterfinals of the 1996 Sweet Sixteen. He won eight individual state titles in track and field.
Johnson stayed home to play college football for UK. In 2001, the defensive end set Kentucky's single-season quarterback sack record with 12. His 29 NFL games included 10 starts and three sacks for the Arizona Cardinals in 2003.
Yet Johnson, 35, says his relative youth is a bigger advantage as a high school head coach than his playing exploits.
"I'm young enough I can still relate to the kids in terms of the music they listen to, the kind of shoes they like," he said. "It's different now. In this day and age, with Oregon, the best uniforms and cool cleats really matter to the kids."
For Dennis Johnson, high school football has always been intertwined with family. Derrick Johnson first dressed out for his dad's Harrodsburg varsity as a 160-pound third-grader; Dennis did the same as a 140-pound second-grader. Derrick and Dennis went on to start on the same defensive line at UK.
A pharmaceutical salesman by day, Derrick, 37, is also coaching the Woodford County offensive and defensive lines for Dennis.
Asked what it's like working for his younger brother, Derrick cracks, "Someday, I'm going to write a book and it will be called 'Dennis Johnson's Brother.' But it's cool. I think he's going to be one of the best young coaches in Kentucky. He knows the game and he knows how to relate to the kids."
Woodford County went 4-7 a season ago and is 16-36 over the past five seasons. Still, there is some hope for 2015. Led by Kentucky Wildcats commitment Drake Jackson, the Yellowjackets could have four Division I prospects starting on their offensive line.
"I think we have some good skill people, too," Dennis Johnson says, "but we've got to get them healthy."
It would be foolish, Dennis thinks, not to draw on his father as a coaching resource. So at the age of 68, Alvis has been breaking down Woodford County practice video at nights.
"I continue to give him this advice on a daily basis — don't make it too complicated," Alvis Johnson said. "Young coaches, sometimes, are a little too eager to show all that they learned in college or, in Dennis's case, the NFL. Football is a basic game, keep it simple."
With the first game near, Dennis is not the only member of his family feeling anxiety. Having endured decades as a coach's wife with Alvis, Rosetta Johnson is now a head coach's mother. "She's a little nervous," Alvis Johnson said. "But she's been through this before."
For the Johnsons, the butterflies on the week of Dennis Johnson's head coaching debut mean the "family business" is again up and running.