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Published: Saturday, 8/25/2007

Pair of City coaches have tough nights

John Johnson has survived a stroke, heart bypass surgery, a hip replacement, and a knee replacement.

"The parts are all good now," he said. "I feel like my old self."

Well, it's not like there's much left to go wrong. So J.J., as the old coach is known to about everybody, was doing his thing on the Waite Indians' sideline last night at Maumee's Kazmaier Stadium.

St. John's and Findlay jumped the gun with a Thursday night game in Bowling Green, but for the hundreds of other high schools in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan last night fired the opening salvo of the football season. And it was quite a salvo, with Mother Nature adding her bright lights to the arc lights throughout much of the area.

Where weather permitted, drummers and tuba players were back on the fields at halftime, pretty girls were leading cheers, and boosters were back in the concession stands push-ing hot dogs, popcorn and cold drinks.

Opening night is special, even if it's too early and too hot. Maybe the state athletic associations can just let everybody into the playoffs and we can start the regular season in mid-July. Just a sarcastic thought.

Anyway, this was opening night No. 40 for Johnson, who started his coaching career in the late 1960s as an assistant at St. Francis. Waite is his third head coaching job to go with long stints at the late, great Macomber and Clay.

"Four years ago, we had a freshman class with 27 players," J.J. said. "Now we have six seniors. Where did they all go? I couldn't tell you. It makes it hard. But the season opener is still exciting for me. If we don't play well, it's not as exciting."

Alas, Johnson's excitement was surely dimmed by a 49-0 loss.

While J.J. was disappointed, his Maumee counterpart, John Boles, had to be delighted after suffering through a one-win season in 2006. Aggressive linebacking play snuffed Waite's running game and the Panthers' no-huddle, spread offense, led by quarterback Jordan Jakacki, had the Indian defenders on their heels. Maumee scored twice in as many possessions in a driving rain at game's start before players and fans coped with a long delay caused by lightning in the area.

Libbey and Toledo Christian, meanwhile, started before everybody yesterday - the Cowboys' stadium has no lights, so kickoff was at 5 p.m. - but did not finish first. The game was suspended at halftime with a small, but good Eagles team leading 12-6 and is scheduled to be completed this morning.

The current Libbey stadium is nothing like the old one, a big, raucous venue that lit up the old south end on Friday nights and drew standing-room crowds. But Libbey football is nothing like the old days, either.

Thirteen is definitely an unlucky number on the corner of Western and Hawley. In the last 13 seasons, the Cowboys have won 13 games and lost 113 times.

Libbey coach Eric Henderson, who is young and bright and impressive on the sideline, still fights the numbers game - there were 28 players suited up for the opener - but he has more experienced and better-conditioned players than the Cowboys have sported in many years.

"This is probably the best team at Libbey in a while," Henderson said. "We have some expectations. First and foremost, though, we want to be a program that does things the right way."

If so, wins that have been so rare for so long will finally come. It will be easier, though, if a late first-half injury to Eugene Byard, who earlier had exploded for a 62-yard touchdown run, is not as serious as it appeared.

Henderson is 35 years old. Waite's Johnson has been coaching longer than Libbey's coach has been alive. J.J. had been coaching for three decades before Toledo Christian fielded its first varsity team. He was an assistant at Bowsher when Boles was a player there and the Maumee coach got his start on the sidelines as a Clay assistant under Johnson.

But prep football is timeless and everybody is equal - unbeaten and unscored upon - when opening night rolls around. Of course, there's nothing you can do about the weather gods trumping the football gods and stealing the show.



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