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scene in the Southland

Worthy Of A Salute

At Jefferson High, a Postgame Tradition Exemplifies Sportsmanship

October 01, 1998|GARY KLEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a postgame tradition unlike any other, a ritual that began more than 20 years ago because Hank Johnson says it "just seemed like the right thing to do."

After games at Jefferson High in Los Angeles, Democrat players line up and cross the field to shake hands with opponents like virtually every team. But once the handshaking is complete and Jefferson reaches the visiting team's sideline, the Democrats make a hard right and head to the visitors' exit gate at the south end of the bleachers. Once there, they stand single file and remove their helmets.

And--win lose or draw--they begin to clap.

They clap as their opponents run to the locker room or bus. They clap as the visiting band exits the stadium. Sometimes, they continue clapping until the last visiting spectator is gone.

"When you lose, it's tough to go over there and clap for your opponent," Johnson said. "But we're trying to teach our young men to have some character, integrity and pride. I often tell people we want these kids to be winners at the big game--the game of life."

Johnson's teams have been winning admirers, and a fair share of games, ever since he began coaching B-level football at Granada Hills Kennedy in 1975. In 1982, Johnson became head coach at Jordan. Three years later, he returned to Jefferson, the school from which he graduated in 1960.

Johnson, 57, has never won a City Section title, but his teams are a regular playoff participant and have won several sportsmanship awards. Last year, the Democrats lost in the 3-A semifinals. Jefferson is 2-1 this season heading into Friday's Southeastern Conference game against Fremont.

"It's all about discipline and making kids accountable," Johnson said of his coaching philosophy. "If you have high expectations and demands, the kids will come up to meet them.

"Some kids don't play football here because of the demands we put on them about treating adults right and having pride and self-respect. It's tough love, but they adhere to it. We have a saying around here, 'It's my way or the freeway.' "

Jefferson, which opened in 1916, has undergone several demographic changes during its history. When Johnson attended school there, the students were predominantly African American. Today, 92% of Jefferson's students are Latino, many of whom are recent immigrants to the United States.

Johnson's methods transcend the changes.

"Coach always tells us, 'The only trophy you guys are going to get is the blood, sweat and tears you left on the field,' " junior lineman Baylord Dolmos said. "So if you didn't do that, I guess you would feel bad about clapping for your opponent. But if you play your best, why should you feel mad about what you did on the field?"

Johnson began the postgame clap-out at Kennedy, but it began gaining prominence when he took over at Jordan after Henry Washington left to become coach at Los Angeles Southwest College.

"I wanted to do something because Jordan is in Watts, and everyone has this connotation that nothing positive is happening there," Johnson said. "So you want to do things that will make people see when they come to Watts, they can see what class is all about."

Hue Jackson, USC's running back coach, got a firsthand look when he played quarterback for Dorsey in the early '80s. After Dorsey defeated Jordan in the playoffs, Johnson sent Jackson a letter congratulating him on a fine season and encouraging him to pursue his goals.

Jackson, who went on to play at the University of Pacific, said city teams usually wanted to decisively beat other city teams. "When you lose, you don't want to shake hands," he said. "You want to go out and fight it out in the parking lot. . . .

"Hank Johnson brought a whole new perspective to getting along every day and how to deal with winning and losing. He is one of the greatest men I have ever known."

Le-Lo Lang, a former Jordan standout who played cornerback at the University of Washington and in the NFL, feels the same way.

"Coach Johnson doesn't just care about you because you play football," said Lang, who works in the real estate business in Colorado. "He teaches you the proper way to carry yourself and treat people with respect.

"My Dad died when I was 14. Coach Johnson did so much for me, I worked that much harder in school so as not to disappoint him. I tell him that if it were not for him, I wouldn't have been able to do the things that I have done or be where I am today."

Johnson acknowledges that there have been times when saluting opponents with respectful applause was difficult. He remembers a particularly heart-wrenching game from a decade ago, "like it happened yesterday."

Jefferson lost to Bell by more than 30 points in a game in which Bell was still passing and trying to score late in the fourth quarter. When the game ended, some assistants begged Johnson to excuse the players from clapping.

"A lot our players didn't want to do it," Johnson said. "They were walking slow and hesitantly. I said, 'You better get in line and clap.'

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