RICHLANDS, Va. — Greg Mance described Devon Johnson as “the most talented and most humble” athlete he ever worked with during his 22-year run as the head coach of the Richlands High School Blue Tornado.
In a phone interview Wednesday night, Mance said that Tuesday was one of the hardest nights he has ever experienced in coaching.
Shortly after practice late Tuesday afternoon, Mance learned that Johnson, 25, had passed away suddenly at Bluefield Regional Medical Center. No cause of death has been established, and the Johnson family has released a statement asking for privacy.
“Everybody here is just devastated,’” Mance said. “Devon was the ultimate student-athlete at Richlands, and the teachers, coaches and athletes just loved him. Devon just had a unique ability to make everyone he met feel important.”
When Richlands travels to play Grayson County Friday night in the opening round of the Region 2D playoffs, the coaches will bring one of Johnson’s old No. 44 jerseys to display on the team bench. A decal with Johnson’s initials will also be placed on the back of every Richlands helmet.
In addition to posting record-setting numbers as running back and linebacker at Richlands, Johnson excelled as a running back at Marshall University and was signed to a contract with the Carolina Panthers of the National Football League.
Mance said he has received countless messages of condolence from residents in the Richlands community and from over 10 head football coaches.
“The outpouring of support has been amazing and touching,” he said.
Ann Mance, the wife of Greg and the co-athletic director at Richlands, said the bonding process for Johnson began the first day he visited Richlands High School with his brothers, Austin and A.J., and his father, Albert.
“I had Devon in class all three years he was here. And of course, Greg and Devon had a close relationship,” Ann Mance said. “Devon was very special. Greg and I took so much pride in Devon and his many accomplishments.
“It’s a very emotional time.”
Brady Hess remembers the first time he saw Johnson on the colorful turf field at Ernie Hicks Stadium. Hess was in the eighth grade at the time.
“I know Devon was going to be special, and I learned just how special when I got to be on the same team with him in his junior and senior years,” said Hess via email.
From stiff arming his way past multiple defenders to terrorizing running backs, Hess said that Johnson had a way of dominating opponents as he led the Blue Tornado to the 2010 state championship game.
“My sophomore year, Devon showed that he was the best running back in the state of Virginia. He also showed he was a pretty daggone good linebacker,” Hess said. “There were so many plays that left you scratching your head.”
Hess said he appreciated the good nature of Johnson as much as he admired his athletic prowess.
“I looked up to Devon tremendously,” Hess said. “Before a game in 2010, a player tossed me out of the training room as I was going to get a Gatorade. I came back with tears coming to my eyes. I felt a hand on my back and a voice say, ‘You go in there and get you a Gatorade. If anyone has a problem with it, you tell them to come talk to #44.’ Devon and I were buddies ever since.
“Devon always told all of us that he loved us before saying goodbye. It’s fitting that the last conversation we had ended with us telling each other we loved one another. This is a void that will never be filled. I am heartbroken.”
Heath Brown was in the same graduating class as Johnson at Richlands and Marshall University. He currently serves as the assistant director of football operations at Marshall.
“I consider myself truly blessed because I was able to witness first-hand the entirety of Devon’s career,” Brown said. “The plays he made on the football field over the seven years we were together were truly unforgettable.
“Yet it is not these things that I will cherish the most. Devon was undoubtedly a great football player, but he was an even better friend. There will not be a single day that passes that I will not miss him.”
Reece Strong was the Richlands quarterback during each of Johnson’s three seasons with the Blue Tornado. Strong said Johnson left an indelible impression.
“It would be impossible for me to talk about one memory I have of Devon,” Strong said. “His whole career was basically a highlight reel.”
Strong said that Johnson’s impact off the field was just as strong.
“Devon was a big guy, but his heart was 10 times the size of his body,” Strong said. “I never once doubted that he had my back. Devon made everyone feel like they were his brother or sister and that they were special to him, and he really meant it.
“It’s hard to describe how good of a person Devon was, but I hope that is how he can be remembered. It’s how I will remember him and I think it’s how he should be remembered.”
Another athlete to earn folk hero status during the Mance era at Richlands was Caleb Jennings. The undersized running back, who graduated high school in 2007 and later starred at Emory & Henry, was famed for his blend of quickness, determination and toughness.
“I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of such a young soul,” said Jennings, who now works as a physician assistant in Thornton, Colorado, and lives in Denver. “Devon was a special person on and off the field. His smile was contagious, and he made an impact on anyone who he came in contact with.
“I always admired Devon’s strength, perseverance, and ability to overcome adversity with humility and grace. He will truly be missed but never forgotten.”
Josh Compton, son of former National Football League offensive lineman and Richlands High School graduate Mike Compton, said he struck up a quick friendship with Johnson after transferring to Patrick Henry to Richlands.
“Devon always had a smile on his face and he was always making those around him laugh,” Compton said. “Obviously, Devon will be remembered as a tremendous football player. I hope people also remember the type of person Devon was. I will always remember Devon as the type of friend who treated you like family.”
According to Greg Mance, Johnson took pride in his the football camp he hosted at Richlands the past two years.
“Devon would spend more than four hours with those kids, and it was unbelievable how well he treated them,” Mance said. “There are so many things about Devon that stand out. For example, he could have gone to the NFL after his junior year at Marshall, but he came back for his senior season because he wanted to graduate. And he earned that degree.”
Mance said he marveled at how Johnson was able to use his athletic ability in basketball, where he scored over 1,000 points.
“I used to laugh with Devon about how many points he got off his own missed shots and rebounds,” Mance said. “Devon was just amazing in so many ways.”
Just last week, the players on the Richlands football team attended memorial services for the father (Rick Compton) of a current player. The school was also impacted by the death of a Richlands student less than one month ago.
“The kids here have been through a lot,” Mance said. “Our current football players were in middle school when Devon played, but they watched him on TV and knew what he was about. On top of his ability, Devon was the first kid I ever coached who said that he loved me. I will never forget that.”
No decisions have been made regarding funeral arrangements.