CEDAR BLUFF, Va. – Former Richlands High School football player Aaron Daugherty said he was shocked Tuesday night when he heard the news that Devon Johnson passed away suddenly at age 25.
“It was like somebody telling me that Superman had just died,” Daugherty said. “Devon battled through so much, and he was the toughest guy I knew. I just didn’t want to believe it.”
Daugherty was among hundreds of mourners who attended Sunday afternoon’s funeral service for the former Richlands and Marshall University football star at the Southwest Virginia Community College gym.
Before the ceremonies, a video montage flashed images tracing Johnson’s circuitous journey from childhood in Big Creek, West Virginia, until the day he signed a contract with the Carolina Panthers of the National Football League.
The speakers, including head football coaches Greg Mance of Richlands and Doc Holliday of Marshall, spoke of a rare athlete who treasured his family, football programs and friends.
“I’ve coached football for about 40 years and I don’t know if I’ve ever met a young man that had the impact on a community, university and program that Devon had,” said Holliday, a native of Hurricane, West Virginia.
Johnson was recruited to Marshall as a linebacker, but he rushed for a total of 2,373 yards after moving from tight end to running back before his junior season.
As his voice broke at times with emotion, Holliday shared the story of how Johnson earned his enduring nickname as a freshman.
“We put Devon on the kickoff team,” Holliday said. “On his first time on the field, Devon never slowed down. He just put that big head of his right through the wedge, sent blockers on their backs and made the play. We called him “Rockhead” after that, and he embraced it.”
Johnson also made an immediate impact on Holliday through his effusive personality.
“Every day, I would sit on the steps and talk to each kid as they went to practice,” Holliday said. “There wasn’t a day where Devon didn’t stop to shake my hand with that big smile on his face. He never had a bad day.”
Just before Saturday’s afternoon home game against Charlotte, Holliday said he reminded his players about Johnson’s legacy. The Thundering Herd came away with a 30-13 win.
“Those kids went out there and played their tails off,” Holliday said.
Several mourners wore Johnson’s No. 47 jersey Sunday. Another uniform was placed in his casket.
“That No. 47 will be remembered forever,” Holliday said.
Mance said he will savor his memories of Johnson, on and off the field.
Those memories ranged from Johnson jumping atop a 42-inch high box and posting a time of 4.5 in the 40-yard dash to setting a Marshall single-game record with 272 yards rushing in a 2014 contest against Florida Atlantic.
“By the end of that night, around 50,000 people were shouting “Rockhead” in honor of the effort and heart Devon played with. I remember that chills went up and down my arms. Devon was truly the best athlete I’ve ever coached or seen, and he was an even better person,” Mance said.
According to Mance, one of his biggest regrets in coaching was failing to win a state championship ring for Johnson.
“Devon told me not to worry, and that he was going to get a bowl ring,” Mance said.
Johnson helped guide Marshall to the 2014 Boca Raton Bowl and the 2015 St. Petersburg Bowl, with the Thundering Herd winning both games.
“Devon was so proud of those Marshall teams and what he accomplished,” Mance said. “When we lost the state championship two years ago, Devon came up to me after the game and said that he would give me his Marshall ring. Devon was trying to comfort me in a time or sorrow. That’s the kind of person he was.”
Mance said the death of Johnson will “leave a hole in my heart.
“I loved Devon Johnson,” Mance said. “He did way more for me than I ever did for him.”
Ben Brown played two years with Johnson at Richlands.
“Devon was so loved by everybody,” said Brown, a senior kicker on the Bluefield College football team. “He was so genuine and he never failed to tell his friends that he loved them.”
Gabe Hunsaker, a basketball and football teammate at Richlands, also spoke about the compassionate side of Johnson.
“Devon was the most down-to-earth person I’ve ever met,” Hunsaker said. “He was like my big brother. He instilled confidence in me and really believed in me. That dude will always be my hero, and I just wish he was still here.”
Former Richlands quarterback Gray Baker said that Johnson helped guide him through the pain of three serious knee injuries and the death of a family member.
“Devon and I both lost our fathers while we were at Richlands, so he could relate to my struggles. Devon would give me a bear hug and say that he knew what I was going through,” said Baker, who is currently studying physical therapy at High Point University.
As is the case with Daugherty, Baker felt Johnson was worthy of superhero status.
“He was a bigger-than-life role model,” Baker said.
Neil Carini graduated from Richlands last year after starring as an offense lineman. Carini reflected on the day Johnson visited his classroom at Richlands Middle School.
“We ran over to Devon and he signed autographs for all of us,” Carini said. “When I got to high school, the coaches stressed the importance of leaders and it seemed like Devon’s name always popped up.”
Johnson displayed his pride for the Richlands football program during Carini’s junior year.
“We were playing Graham and losing at halftime when Devon came into our locker room and gave a speech that I will never forget,” Carini said. “I’ve never been so pumped up.”
In her message to the crowd Sunday, Kellie Johnson, a sister to Devon, thanked Richlands area residents for their acceptance and support.
“Seeing all the people here to support my big brother helps me to make it through each day,” Kellie said. “In his 25 years, Devon lived the life of someone 100 years old with the things he accomplished and the lives he touched.
“With each video you watch about Devon, each story you tell and each moment you share, you carry my brother with you and he will forever live on.”
Daugherty, who blocked two seasons for Johnson as an offensive lineman, said he will cherish those memories, stories and images.
“Devon was an unbelievable athlete, but what made him truly special couldn’t be seen on any film. It was his smile, heart, laughter and kindness. Those are the biggest things I will remember about Devon,” Daugherty said.