Growing up, Aaron Johnson knew the basics of church – when to pray, when to stand, when to recite. Attendance was expected and he did so grudgingly, yet faithfully. But as soon as he graduated high school and was out of the house, so was church out of his life.
That lack of a relationship with Christ continued through his years at the University of Pittsburgh and into his teaching career. A move to South Carolina eventually placed him into contact with Lisa Richardson, FCA’s South Coastal Area Representative, when Johnson became an assistant coach at Hilton Head High School.
“He was wearing a Pittsburgh Penguins lanyard,” she remembered. “I’m from Pittsburgh, so we connected as fans of a lot of the same teams. I would go by the school and get to know the head coach as well as Aaron during his first year (2014-15) there.”
In 2016 Johnson became the head volleyball coach with the opening of May River High in Bluffton, S.C. As is typical with first-year-programs, the Sharks struggled in its first season, which was also Johnson’s first as a head coach.
“I was kind of down on myself,” he admitted. “We had won a state championship at Hilton Head and now it was a situation where you’re starting over, so it was a challenge.”
Richardson suggested he take the team that next summer to an FCA camp in Columbia, S.C. Skeptical at first, Johnson was instead blown away by the quality of its leaders and the impact left on his players on and off the court.
“This became an awesome opportunity for my girls to work with college athletes and see what it took to compete at a higher level. But even more, they saw how your relationship with Christ was such a big part of who you are.”
That message also came home for Johnson, who was personally challenged.
“One night a speaker asked, ‘Do you know who Jesus is, or do you know Jesus?’” he recalled. “I sat there and realized I didn’t have a relationship with Jesus. I had been going through the motions.”
That night he watched several of his athletes walk forward to commit their lives to Christ. “It was such a huge moment in my life,” he said, “to see my players go up there and know they wouldn’t have had the opportunity if I hadn’t brought them.”
When he returned home, Johnson couldn’t stop telling his wife, Julie, about the camp and his new relationship with Christ. The two sought out and joined a Bible-teaching church and began to grow deeper in their faith through a small group.
In May 2018, both were baptized in the ocean off Hilton Head Island Beach. Their first son, Luke, was born two months later. Recently, Julie was approved to begin an FCA chapter at the middle school where she teaches.
Richardson watched Johnson’s transformation the whole time.
“He became eager about diving deeper into Scripture and growing as a Christian coach and husband. He asked me to begin team Huddles the next year and has continued to take them to FCA Camp in the summer,” she said. “He has also taken on more leadership roles with FCA in the area, attending FCA coaches Bible studies as well as other FCA events and leading the campus Huddle.”
His team’s record has improved since then, too. After one win in 2016 and four the next season, the Sharks turned the corner with 12 wins in 2018 and then 18 in 2019 while becoming a perennial playoff team.
The 2021 season brought a 17-10 record and tough first round playoff loss. But even in that disappointment, Richardson observed how Johnson’s faith had matured.
“That was a game they probably should have won, but he’s about building leaders. When you watch him in a match, he’s always positive. You never see him get upset. It’s great seeing a young coach grow like that.”
After the first camp, Johnson noticed a definite change in his team. They were renewed and seemed to be closer. They became more comfortable with each other. As a chemistry teacher, Johnson knows when relationships begin clicking in a positive manner.
“We had FCA Huddles each week and you could see them just talking about their relationship with Christ,” he said.
FCA Camp made a huge difference in his team, both on and off the court. That same difference can be applied to Johnson, who came to understand that a relationship with Christ is more than just showing up.
“Having that moment at the first camp was so special,” he said. “I thought it was going to be for them, but it was just as much for me.
“It brought that extra element beyond the X’s and O’s.”
Want to be a part of FCA’s work in the South Coast area? Recently embarking on its second decade of ministry, continue to pray for Richardson and coaches like Aaron Johnson as they lead FCA Huddles in the area. To volunteer as a coach or become involved as an athlete, find more information at southcoastalfca.org.
Photos courtesy of Aaron Johnson