Johnson’s Baseball Journey Launches In Cocoa Beach
By Thomas Carrigan // June 27, 2012
Chasing His Dream
BREVARD COUNTY • COCOA BEACH, FLORIDA – It was the first inning of a district semifinal baseball game back in May 2009 when Merritt Island High School’s baseball team decided to challenge No. 17 again.
No. 17 was Cocoa Beach Jr./Sr. High School senior Brian Johnson.
Johnson had torched the Mustangs earlier in the season, hitting a three-run homer while also striking out 12 hitters in six innings.
Determined not to let Johnson beat them again, the Mustang’s coaching staff intentionally walked Johnson every time he came up to bat, six times total in two games.
With ace pitcher Kyle Van Alstine (who is now pitching for Air Force Academy) on the mound for Merritt Island, the Mustangs challenged Johnson with a fastball in the first inning. With one swing of the bat, Johnson was soon circling the bases after he deposited his 17th career home run over the right field fence.
Driven To Succeed
According to former Cocoa Beach baseball coach Matt Kellam, Brian’s success on the field was a result of the hundreds of hours he spent working on his game.
“Brian put the time in and was reaping the rewards,” Kellam said.
“He was driven to succeed and worked extremely hard to become the player he is. Most high school athletes do not want to put in the extra hours in the cage, the bullpen or long toss.
“Brian Johnson was one of the most fundamentally skilled baseball players that I had seen in my time as a player and coach,” he said.
Fast forward three years later and Johnson is still hurting teams with his arm and bat.
Johnson was named the Southeastern Conference Player of the Week in May and he was a big reason why the University of Florida Gators baseball team was ranked in the top five for the majority of the 2012 season before being knocked out of the College World Series last week.
As a 6-foot-4 and 230-pound junior for the Gators, Johnson pitched in the weekend rotation for all three seasons he attended the University of Florida while also serving as the Gators’ primary designated hitter.
This season, he was been named to the Golden Spikes Award watch list, given to the top amateur baseball player in the country and also was on the “John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award” watch list.
After earning Space Coast Player of the Year honors in 2008 and 2009 for Cocoa Beach, the honors didn’t stop for Johnson as he was named a Freshman All-American by Baseball America in 2010 and First-Team All-SEC in 2011.
Team USA: ‘Proud To Represent My Country’
While helping lead the Gators to back to back appearances in the College World Series, Johnson also suited up for Team USA the past two summers.
“Team USA was one of the best experiences I ever had in my life,” Johnson said.
“Traveling to Taiwan and Japan and playing with some of the best players in the country was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I never felt more proud to represent my country.”
After accomplishing these feats over the past half-decade, many would think that the southpaw was born to play baseball.
However, he wasn’t even born a lefty. Johnson is a natural right hander.
His father, Billy Johnson Sr., had an interesting story on what led to his son to become a lefty.
“When Brian was about 3, he started swinging one of those big orange Flintstone bats,” his father said.
“One day, I was watching him hit and swing right and left-handed. So I started working with him to swing from the left side. His older brother and sister were right-handed and he’d ask me why they were doing it that way. I used to joke with him that ‘they were doing it wrong.’ My mother used to work with him when she was babysitting him and being a lefty just started to become natural for him. He still bowls and writes right-handed though.”
Johnson was born in Lakeland before moving to Cocoa Beach in 2003. He played in the Space Coast Little League for a couple seasons before moving on to the high school ranks.
Because Cocoa Beach allowed seventh and eighth-graders to compete in high school athletics, he spent a year on junior varsity in 2004 before making the varsity squad in 2005.
According to Kellam, it was apparent that Johnson would be one of his top players as an eighth-grader.
“He certainly was one of our top players,” Kellam said. “I saw a kid that was very skilled beyond his years. He was mentally mature to handle that type of situation.”
Cocoa Beach had long been known for its cross country and basketball programs, but Johnson helped make the baseball team one of the stronger programs in Brevard County.
Despite perennial state-caliber contenders like Merritt Island and Rockledge high school nearby, Johnson made it well known that he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, a 1971 Cocoa Beach grad and to graduate as a Minuteman as well.
“I made a lot of good friends and I loved Cocoa Beach,” Johnson said. “It was such a good atmosphere and the high school always treated me great.”
Regardless of the fact that his father played football at Florida State University, both of his parents were FSU graduates and that his uncle, Joe Williams, was the head coach for the Seminoles’ mens’ basketball team in the 1980s, Johnson went on to sign with the Gators.
His older sister, Brooke, played softball for Florida and Johnson also liked the fact that the coaching staff was good with pitchers.
“I wanted to go somewhere where winning is expected,” Johnson said.
“I grew up a FSU fan, but after going to a lot of Brooke’s games and just being on campus, winning was contagious. It started to feel like this was the school to come to.”
Less than three years after playing with seventh and eighth graders at Cocoa Beach, Johnson has vaulted himself to national recognition.
As the 31st overall selection in the Major League Baseball draft by the Boston Red Sox, Johnson signed with Boston for a $1.575 million bonus this week and will report to the short-season Class A Lowell Spinners of the New York-Penn League to begin his professional career.
Red Sox scouts considered Johnson to be a left-handed pitcher with an advanced feel and the ability to command both his fastball and an array of off-speed pitches.
Boston officials have said that that when Johnson focuses full-time on pitching as a professional, he has a tremendous upside from what he showed during an impressive college career at one of the finest college baseball programs in America competing against quality opponents.
“The fastball is at 90-94. He can pitch with a plus fastball, can spin a breaking ball, throws two different breaking balls, obviously has a feel for his changeup, very repeatable delivery and it’s a guy that throws strikes,” Boston Red Sox scouting director Amiel Sawdaye said about Johnson on draft day. “He has performed in many different levels and in the College World Series. He’s a guy that we think is super competitive and somebody who’s pitched on the big stage.”
Whenever Johnson’s baseball season ends this year, he knows there’s only one place he’s going to be — happily back in Cocoa Beach, trading his baseball glove for a fishing rod.
“All my family is back home,” Johnson said.
“I’m ready to come back home to the beach, do a little surfing and relax. Being with people you love, there isn’t anywhere else I want to be.”