Columbiana native, former Cornerstone player Kirk Johnson wins Class 4A title as Montgomery Catholic coach

Published 11:01 pm Friday, December 8, 2023

By CHRIS MEGGINSON | Special to the Reporter

TUSCALOOSA – Before Kirk Johnson left the turf at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Friday afternoon, he paused for one last photo. With the AHSAA Class 4A state championship blue map trophy in hand, Johnson stood on the grass taking a photo by himself, or so people may have thought.

“I have someone who is going to put mom in,” Johnson said.

In his third season as Montgomery Catholic Preparatory School head football coach, the Columbiana, Alabama native and former Cornerstone Christian School linebacker/fullback led his Knights to a 35-0 shutout win over Cherokee County on Dec. 8 in the AHSAA Class 4A championship in Tuscaloosa. The Knights’ ninth shutout of the season was only the third in 4A championship history and marked the second time a defense allowed zero passing yards.

Following the win, Johnson celebrated with his staff, players, administrators, faculty and others who came to support him. He hugged and kissed his wife Meghan, but the one hug he could not give was to his mother, Margie.

Last November, with Montgomery Catholic poised for a run at a state championship appearance in Auburn, Johnson’s time was split between visiting his mother in the hospital and being with his team. When he was with the team, he said he was thinking of his mother. When with his mom, he was thinking of his team.

The Knights fell short in the state semifinals for the second-straight year, 29-26 to Andalusia. Two days later, momma was gone.

“We went through a lot this last year,” Johnson said. “Where I come from, your mom is all you’ve got. I grew up with no father. I was basically dad in my house, the oldest of six kids. Losing her just put a lot of pressure. She tried to hold on through that season, and I took that L hard last year.”

Following his mother’s death, Johnson said he took a week and a half off, and then went to work for his team, setting out to win a state title in 2023.

“When I came back, these boys were ready to go,” Johnson said. “They got after it.”

Ten days ago, as Johnson prepared for his Knights for the state semifinals again, he dedicated this postseason on Facebook to his mother, who was able to follow her son through his first two seasons as a head coach.

In 2020, the Knights finished runner-up in the 3A state finals in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Three weeks later, Johnson was promoted from defensive coordinator and associate head coach to succeed Aubrey Blackwell as head coach. Now sitting at 41-2 in three seasons, including 21-0 in region play, the Knights completed the program’s first 15-0 season on Friday in the school’s 150th year.

Montgomery Catholic’s top-ranked defense allowed 189 total yards in the game. After leading 7-0 at the half and 14-0 entering the fourth quarter, the Knights scored 21 points in the final 12 minutes.

Quarterback Caleb McCreary’s 66-yard touchdown to open the fourth quarter was the third-longest TD run in 4A state championship history and sealed his MVP honor. McCreary had 197 yards of total offense and three touchdowns, including a 29-yard touchdown with 1:39 left in the game

That is when Johnson unclipped his headset for the season, and the State Champs towels began to come out of their box on the Knights’ sideline.

“This is very surreal,” Johnson said. “It is something I’ve dreamed about for a long time. I’ve had blue in my mind the last three years. What God has for you, nobody can take way. It was already written, and God was a faithful God. We have a great coaching staff. Our OC grinds, our DC grinds. We all love each other. When you have a family atmosphere, it feels a little different.”

Boasting one of the best win percentages (.953) in state history through his first three seasons as a head coach, Johnson spoke Friday about those who opened football doors for him in the past.

When speaking about the program’s motivation and dedication, he quoted the man who took a chance on him in high school, former Cornerstone headmaster and head coach Tim Smith, now head coach of Evangel Christian School.

“We’re extremely proud of this team,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of these kids that believe in their coach way too much. It’s almost like we tell them something and they truly, truly believe it. Sometimes I tell them something and walk away not sure if I believe it. They believe in you. A wise man named Tim Smith told me one time that the way you judge your program is if they come home, and watching all of our guys come home every week makes you know you’re doing something right.”

Johnson is doing something right. Not only is he winning championships, but he’s honoring his promises to his mother and living up to the expectations of his former coaches.

Smith was unable to attend the game with some of his former CCS coaches, but beamed with pride watching on TV as his former AISA state runner-up player became a state champion head coach.

“I knew when he played for me, he was special,” Smith said. “You coach a lot of kids who like to play the game, and a few that love it. But then there is a small group that live to play. That was Kirk. He would start calling me on Saturday morning wanting to know if I had the film for the next opponent yet. He would study like a coach. I am so proud of him and what he has accomplished. To watch what he is doing in those kids’ lives just makes me proud to be a small part. I know God has a special plan for him. I’m just excited to see what that is.”

Johnson also credited Blackwell for taking a chance on him as a coach when no one else would.

“When I was nobody in the coaching world, he saw something in me early,” Johnson said. “He was like, ‘man, you’re going to be a monster in this.’ I owe a lot to him.”

Blackwell was in attendance Friday to watch his state runner-up freshmen turn into state champion seniors.

“Having the opportunity to watch Coach J win a state championship means the world to me,” Blackwell said. “So much hard work, blood, sweat and tears went into this championship. By his determination and standard that he holds, he was able to take Montgomery Catholic to the next level and get his staff and team to buy in in an incredible way. I saw him coach in every aspect of the game today. From excellent scheme and plan, to encouraging his players, celebrating with his staff, and honoring his fans and faculty. I am so proud of him, and I know his family and our alumni are too.”

Johnson also credits his championship journey to growing up in Shelby County, Alabama.

“Growing up in Columbiana shaped me. From being at Shelby County and Cornerstone,” Johnson said. “All of your trials and tribulations lay the foundation for who you are as a man. I’ve had a lot, but I couldn’t stand on these two feet without them.”