Rocketeers football coach Johnson retiring after 39-year sideline stay

By Peter Gobis pgobis@thesunchronicle.com

NORTH ATTLEBORO — After 39 seasons on the sidelines for the North Attleboro High football team, the past 13 of which he has served as head coach, Don Johnson is passing along his playbook and whistle.

Johnson has served the North Attleboro High athletic community for nearly four decades, since 1983 until guiding the Rocketeers into the MIAA Division 3 Super Bowl game at Gillette Stadium in December.

Johnson has been the Big Red’s head coach from 2009 to this past season, with the Rocketeers, compiling a 103-37 record for a 74 percent win percentage.

During his tenure, the Rocketeers have advanced to two MIAA Super Bowls (also 2017) and won six Hockomock League titles (2011, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2020).

Johnson is a true “townie,” having grown up on Peck Street as the son of George and Donna Johnson. Johnson is one six boys and three girls who were all athletic and highly competitive, lining the street, backyard and driveway for games of all natures.

His sisters include Carol, along with the late Kathy and Patty Johnson. High brothers include the late George, Jr., Jack, Jimmy, Steve and Rick.

“We broke more windows than I can count playing wiffleball and everything,” Johnson said of his family roots, always to be cherished — the family tradition like many others in town being passed along through generations.

Johnson will be departing the North Attleboro High coaching ranks along with two of his most trusted advisors, former North head coach and offensive coordinator Paul Sullivan, along with Johnson’s brother Jack, who has served as a defensive coordinator and positional coach.

“I think growing up with the family that I was a member of always impacted me, there was always someone to go outside and play ball with,” Johnson said. “Football, basketball, baseball, whatever, you always had someone to run around with.

A graduate in the Class of 1979 from North Attleboro High, Johnson began his varsity career as a sophomore playing for head coach Ray Beaupre, his first season as a Rocketeers’ coach.

“It was the combined experience, the people that I was surrounded by,” Johnson said of his path to becoming a teacher-coach.

He noted that he was been most influenced by his high school coaches — North Attleboro High staples like Jeff Grant and Jack Harris, long-time assistant football coaches, playing basketball for the late Ken Pickering.

“It was a great experience for me at North Attleboro High, there were great role models around me,” Johnson said. “That kind of made me fall in love with athletics and maybe pursuing coaching as a career.

“I was a typical North Attleboro kid — I remember back going to Thanksgiving Day games when I was like in fifth grade and seeing Paul LaCasse catch that last-minute touchdown (pass from Jack Rioux to beat Attleboro High at Community Field in 1972). Those are memories that you never forget.”

Johnson was selected to participate in the first-ever Shriners Classic Football game as a senior. He then went on to play four varsity seasons at the College of the Holy Cross, a member of the graduating class of 1983.

Through 13 seasons of coaching in the highly competitive Hockomock League, Johnson-coached North Attleboro High teams have suffered just one sub .500 season, in 2019.

Johnson had served as an assistant coach in a number of roles for 26 years from 1983-2008. During that time, Rocketeer teams posted a 211-51-6 record. Over those years, Johnson and the Rocketeers found themselves in seven MIAA Super Bowls, winning five titles.

Johnson has served as a member of the North Attleboro High faculty since 1983, retiring in 2020 as the chairman of the Social Studies Department and serving as an Advanced Placement psychology instructor.

In addition, Johnson wore two coaching hats for several seasons, serving as the boys’ varsity basketball coach from 1994-98, winning a pair of Hockomock League titles during his tenure.

“It was something that I was thinking about last year,” Johnson said of pondering retirment during the pandemic-curtrailed 2020 season. “The way that the season got all messed up and we ended playing up in the spring (of 2021). Then the short turnaround for the next season, I didn’t think it would be fair to the kids in the program to walk away at that point.”

North started the fall 2021 football season at 0-2, losing to arch-rival Bishop Feehan and then in double overtime at Mansfield. The Rocketeers then went on to rally in the second half for a one-point (20-19) win at King Philip, only to lose (21-14) in the fourth quarter to Foxboro.

After that, North rolled to six straight wins, scoring points aplenty before running out of steam in the second half of the Division 3 Super Bowl, bowing to Marblehead by seven points.

“I was fortunate to play in such a great program at North Attleboro High, for great coaches, in a great league. That grows on you and you’re happy to be a part of it.

“I didn’t want to be that guy that hangs around for a few more years, or suffers through a losing season or have that one angry parent,” Johnson said. “It’s all positive — we have had great support at North Attleboro.

“I’ve been so fortunate to have Ray Beaupre and Paul Sullivan as head coaches, you couldn’t ask for better role models as coaches,” he added. “And all of the assistants and I think to all of the guys that I’ve coached with. Those guys figured out a good formula, and when I took over, I just didn’t want to screw it up.

“I wanted to see this senior class through the season,” Johnson added. “The timing is right for me personally and for the school.”

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