May 18, 2021

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Exclusive Interview: Tavaris Johnson-Buccaneers Nominee For The Don Shula High School Coach Of The Year Award

7 min read

Image Credit: The Ledger

Buccaneers’ nominee Tavaris Johnson:

Head Coach Tavaris Johnson of the Lake Wales Highlanders was recently named by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as their nominee for the Don Shula High School Coach of the Year Award, which honors high school football coaches for their character, integrity, leadership, dedication to the community, commitment to player protection and on-field success similarly portrayed by the winningest football coach in NFL history, Don Shula.
All thirty-two NFL teams nominate one coach from their area for this honor, and the pool of candidates consists of the coaches who have won Coach of the Week and Coach of the Year awards during the high school football season. Tavaris Johnson won the award in week 10 and was ultimately awarded picked by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as their 2019 Coach of The Year. The Buccaneers awarded him $2,000, which goes to his high school’s football program and a trip to this year’s Pro Bowl.

While enjoying the Pro Bowl, the list of coaches will be shrunk down to just three, and those three will be guests at this year’s Super Bowl in Miami, Florida, where they will announce the winner of the 2019 Don Shula High School Coach of the Year. The winner will receive $10,000 and the school’s football program $15,000, and that can really make a difference to their football program.
Best wishes to Coach Johnson, he is certainly very worthy of his nomination.

My Alma Mater:

Since I played football at Lake Wales and graduated from there, it was special to me to be able to sit down with Lake Wales Head Coach, Tavaris Johnson. To say that I was impressed with the man, would truly be an understatement. From the moment we shook hands, I was struck by his “Draw you in” personality. From his smile to his tone, he gets your attention and easily keeps your focus, as he conveys what he wants to say. I was most impressed with his air of ingenious, caring nature, and true concern for his players. He just fits the profile of Coach perfectly. Coach Johnson started the interview by saying that this is about coaching the young men on the Lake Wales Varsity team and not about me. “It all starts with trust and love. That’s two things that we all need in any relationship. When you have those two things, invested in your fellow players and your coaches, things go so much smoother and make it much easier to gel as a team and find success.”

A mentor as well as coach:

It was apparent that Coach Johnson values his role as a mentor to these young men as much as he does being able to don the title of Head Coach. To him, these two roles are inseparable and vital to his players’ journeys into young adulthood. His journey started when he played wide receiver for Lake Wales High School and earned a scholarship to Wayne University in Nebraska, where he learned many of life’s lessons – the ones that have made him who he is today. He spoke very fondly of the Midwestern people he met while there and noted that He didn’t experience any of the discrimination and racism that he encountered at times while growing up in the south. The residents of Wayne, Nebraska, were just good people, “always open to lending a hand and helping out any way they could. Not that there aren’t good folks around here, there are, I just didn’t know what to expect there, and that’s just how it was there. I owe a lot to my college days and the people I encountered during that time,” Coach Johnson said.

Returning the Highlanders to elite status:

Coach Johnson was eager to get the Highlanders back on track.
“For many years, when opponents saw Lake Wales on their schedule, they knew they were in for a hard-fought game, but then for a time that wasn’t the case, so I wanted to get it back to that state, that was a goal I set for the program, and I think that is, one that we are achieving.” Coach Johnson, his staff, and the players have become a team that is to be respected and feared to some degree. There are no more automatic W’s for anyone.

The best Highlander team ever?

The 2019 Highlanders may just be the best football team the school has ever seen. Seven players have received division one offers. Defensive tackle, Gervon Dexter, who is a 6’7″ 286 lbs monster, was ranked as the third-best defensive tackle in the nation and has committed to the University of Florida by signing a letter of intent during the early signing period. “We wish we would have had more time with him. He’s only been playing football for two years,” said Coach Johnson, “his upside is very high; he’s not as good as he’s going to be. He’s a very coachable player, and the amount of interest he drew from just about every major football power in the nation was incredible.”

The Best Highlander running back ever?

Another standout player, Coach Johnson had the chance to coach, is Running back Johnny Richardson. This young man rushed for almost 2,500 yards and 34 touchdowns in this his senior year, and is ranked in the top 20 all-purpose backs in the entire nation. He has committed and signed with UCF. Coach Johnson couldn’t contain his smile when I asked him about the Senior Phenom. “He’s one of the few players that I can say ‘leaves it on the field every game,’ he’s a very special player, highly dedicated. UCF is getting a heck of a ballplayer,” said Johnson. There are many other players for the Highlanders that stood out; this was absolutely a team effort.

Losing to Jesuit in the state playoffs.

I then changed the pace and asked him a tougher question. I asked him to describe the locker room after the loss to Jesuit in the second round of the State playoffs and ending their goal of becoming state champions. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the room; it was tough. If there was ever a Lake Wales team that had a chance to win it all, I thought it was this one. A good number of our guys were battling the flu the week leading up to the Jesuit game. It’s not an excuse; it’s just the way it was. We weren’t able to prepare properly for them, and our starting quarterback wasn’t able to go. We just weren’t able to prepare like we needed to.” I could sense the regret he felt for the missed opportunity, but also that he had come to terms with it, and was moving forward. Coach Johnson added, “It’s really motivated the underclassmen that will return next year, they want that chance again.” I truly hope they get that chance again, Coach.

Two questions about the Buccaneers:

To finish off our talk, I turned the questions towards the Buccaneers and asked him; “With all the improvement of the defense, two of the best wide receivers in the game, a young running back in Ronald Jones with so much potential, and a very talented quarterback – minus the interceptions – in Winston, what did he feel was the weakest spot that needed the most attention this offseason to make the team a little more complete.”(I’ll admit that I was on a fishing expedition, hoping that he might give the same answer that I’ve had on my mind, myself, for many months, and had written about more than a few times. I smiled the moment he gave his answer.) “It all starts in the trenches, the offensive line could probably use some upgrades.” My thoughts exactly, coach! I’m glad to hear you say that.

The final question I asked is one that has been asked a million times over the past several years. I just shot it out there and asked him. “What do you think is the cause for Jameis Winston and his interception problem?” He didn’t hesitate and replied, “It’s fixable. It all starts up-front, the trust in the guys up-front isn’t maybe what it should be. They keep him scrambling quite a bit, and he’s making some bad decisions based on that lack of trust.” He realizes that the line isn’t the only thing that contributes to all of Winston’s errant throws, but that it is a reason for a lot of them. That part of it is fixable for sure.

Wrapping it up:

That concluded my interview with Coach Tavaris Johnson, one of the most charismatic, caring, and dedicated individuals I have ever met. He’s one of those people that is magnetic, he draws you to him, and he’s the kind of coach that makes young men want to give their all for him on the football field. Not just because he is their coach, but because of who, and what he is, and what he represents to them: A friend, a mentor, and a father figure. He is an example of how to treat others and how to believe in yourself and your teammates. If I could sum Coach Johnson up in one word, that word would be Love. He loves his kids, and they know it and respond to it because they feel the same way about him. They trust him.

My best wishes to Coach Johnson and I hope he can win the Don Shula High School Coach of the Year Award, because, in my opinion, the Buccaneers could not have chosen a more worthy nominee. The Lake Wales Football Program is in good hands with Coach Tavaris Johnson at the helm. He’s one of the good guys in a very important way. Go Highlanders, Go Bucs!!

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