Andrews man’s HS football ‘addiction’ puts miles on the car

Andrews Clerk-Treasurer Bill Johnson hangs on to a football outside of Andrews Town Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 25. Johnson attends high school football games all over the state of Indiana to satisfy what he calls an addiction to the sport.
Andrews Clerk-Treasurer Bill Johnson hangs on to a football outside of Andrews Town Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 25. Johnson attends high school football games all over the state of Indiana to satisfy what he calls an addiction to the sport. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

Originally published Nov. 30.

Bill Johnson has big plans for the evening of Friday, Sept. 26, 2016.

Johnson, of Andrews, intends to be sitting in Eagle Stadium, which is located in Allen, TX. It’s an 18,000-seat high school football stadium, replete with luxury boxes and a gigantic high-definition screen. It cost $60 million.

Johnson will be watching the home team, the Eagles of Allen High School, take on the Buccaneers of Hoover High School, from Alabama. Both schools’ football programs are among the nation’s elite.

Between the quality of the game and the magnificence of the venue it will be played in, Johnson couldn’t be more excited.

“I’ve got a guy on the chat room who is a season ticket holder for Allen,” he says, referring to a high school football website he frequents. “He said, ‘If you make the trip here, I’ll give you my tickets.’ So, I’m going to make the trip.

“To me that is,” he pauses, searching for the right word to describe the stadium, “the Mecca, of high school football, right there.”

Johnson’s pilgrimage to Eagle Stadium next year will mark the latest chapter in his love affair with high school football. It’s an obsession that began quietly one evening almost two decades ago, he says.

“About 20 years ago, I read an article one night about a big game in Fort Wayne and at the time I was single, no dates or no women, nothing in my life,” he explains. “‘You know what, I’m going to go up and watch this game.’ It turned out to be a tremendous game. Fall evening. Big crowd. Food cooking on open grills behind the stands. And I said, ‘You know what? You can’t beat this.’

“So, I became addicted.”

Today, Johnson attends games all over the state. He and a group of friends start scouting games on Monday to locate where the best game will be that week.

“I’ll throw some options out at them,” says Johnson. “Say these are three or four games that we could go to that the quality of play is good, the teams are highly competitive.”

Once Johnson and his friends select a game, they choose a golf course to play a round at and a restaurant to have dinner at.

“And then we spend a fall afternoon, which is the best weather we have, on a Friday and we’ll go play 18 holes of golf somewhere, grab a great meal at a restaurant somewhere within 100 miles, let’s say, and then catch a quality high school football game that Friday night,” he says.

Out of all the stadiums Johnson has caught a game at, one venue in southern Indiana stands out above the rest.

“The best place to see a football game is the Reitz Bowl in Evansville,” he says. “And let me tell you why: The Reitz Bowl sits up on this hill and it’s carved into the side of the hill, so when you walk in, the field is down here and you walk down.

“Then as you walk down, you sit there, you have a panoramic view of the Ohio River and the city of Evansville. You’re way up above it. Talk about an absolutely stunning view.”

For the past 17 years, Johnson’s season of football road trips has culminated with an excursion to Indianapolis for the state finals. Coming the Saturday following Thanksgiving, Johnson says the trip makes for “the greatest weekend.”

He and his friends have their hotel rooms booked for this year’s slate of games. The close proximity of their hotel to the state finals venue, Lucas Oil Stadium, makes the experience that much better, says Johnson.

“I mean, we can actually walk to the game, watch a game and then in between, go back to our room, get something to drink or eat, put our feet up, wash our face and then go back to the next game,” he shares. “So, we do that every year, done it 17 years in a row and of course we’ll be doing it again this year.”

Something that Johnson did for the first time this season was serve as a voter for The Gridiron Digest, which is a popular online forum for Indiana high school football. Each week, Johnson voted on who he thought were the top 10 teams in all six of the state’s football classes, from A to 6A.

“We had a very good poll, I thought,” says Johnson. “… I’m going to probably be involved with that over the next couple years.”

Johnson’s work as a voter at the state level supplements his contributions to a website that covers high school football on the national level, the aptly titled www.nationalHSfoot ball.com. A contributor to the site for the past couple of years, one of Johnson’s main duties is compiling dynasty rankings.

“It’s a statistical analysis of his (site founder Dallas “DJ” Jackson’s) top 100 at the end of each year,” he explains. “In other words, we compile them and say, over a 10-year period, what program’s been the best program in the country – and the answer to that question is a team out of California called Concord De La Salle.”

Concord De La Salle holds the national record for most consecutive wins, reeling off 151 victories in a row from 1992 to 2004. Still one of the top programs in the nation, Johnson hoped to see the team play this past October when he and wife Cathy were vacationing in San Francisco, but an ailing foot prevented him from attending a game.

While Johnson may have missed that game, he’s attended plenty of others across the country, his enthusiasm for high school football far from constrained to the borders of Indiana. Typically, he hits the road once a season to attend a game in a different state. Last year, Johnson and his friends trekked down to Alabama to see the aforementioned Hoover High School play. Another year, he and a buddy went to Batesville, MS, to attend a game featuring South Panola High School.

“South Panola that year was the mythical national champions and I had never seen a mythical national champion play,” says Johnson.

As there is no playoff system to determine a national champion in high school football, whichever team tops national rankings compiled by entities such as USA Today or National Prep Poll following the season is considered to be the “mythical national champion.”

Just as he does for the games he sees in Indiana, Johnson’s Mississippi trip was also about more than football, with he and his friend stopping in Memphis to sample some of the city’s famous barbecue fare and also play a round of golf just outside the city.

“To me, it’s just not high school football – it’s everything that surrounds it,” Johnson says. “Just makes for a great living experience to be able to do that.”
Johnson may be passionate about high school football, but his interest in the game does not extend to the college and professional ranks.

“There’s just more action, more big plays, more excitement in a high school game than college and pros, in my opinion,” he contends.
In particular, Johnson loves the unpredictable nature of high school football.

“By that I mean, plays happen in high school football that shouldn’t happen,” he explains. “I’ve seen 4th-and-29s converted for 71-yard touchdowns. You don’t see that in college. You don’t see it in the pros. You see it in high school football.”

The fact that his affinity for the sport has grown so much since that first game he attended in Fort Wayne says something about how he’s wired, observes Johnson.

“I’ve done it like I do a lot of things in life,” he reflects. “I get overly indulgent in things. I’m not a person who’s ever looked to something and never got all caught up in it. I think I have addictive behavior syndrome or something. I’ve got to know more and more and more about everything I like.”

It’s that passion that’s compelled Johnson to travel to Eagle Stadium next fall. As excited as he may be for that evening down in Texas, seated in a high school football stadium that’s equaled by no other, he knows nothing will ever top the experience of watching a high school football game in Indiana.

“When you sit out on a fall evening, especially a school like Heritage High School… their field sits out in the middle of a cornfield, and you’re sitting out in the middle of this cornfield in September, beautiful fall evening, moon up there, the smell of hot dogs grilling, hamburgers grilling in the air, and two good high school football teams – for five dollars? You can’t beat it,” muses Johnson. “There’s not a better bargain, better entertainment dollar in the world than that.”