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Almost 14 years after leading the school to a state championship, Jarret Johnson returned to Chiefland High to help coach youth ages 9-14 at the Suwannee All-Skillz Football Camp.
Johnson, a starting linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, said he’s passed through Chiefland often on his way to visit family in Cedar Key, where he was raised. However, he hadn't made his presence known until Saturday's camp at C. Doyle McCall Field.
"It's good that coach (Jim) O'Neal is back because now I have my contacts back here with coach Randy (Fuller) and coach O'Neal," Johnson said. "Before that, I really didn't have any contact with Chiefland, so it's good that they're back."
It certainly was good for the 35 campers in attendance, who got one-on-one instruction from Johnson, former Florida Gators Reid Fleming and Dan Plonk, and former Florida State Seminole Derek Schmidt. In addition, a couple of University of Central Florida players as well as some of Johnson's teammates from the 1997 State Championship team helped at the camp.
"The numbers weren't quite where we wanted them but other than that, everything else we were pretty much batting .1000," O'Neal said. "We wanted to just get the love of football back in Chiefland again. I think that's been missing."
Missing as much as the community has missed Johnson and his return was the second part of O'Neal's goals for the camp. Johnson also met with boosters at a "social" at the Chiefland Golf & Country Club on Friday night that was hosted by the Chiefland High School Quarterback Club.
“One of the big things is we wanted to get Jarret back in the community and get his feet back into here because I think this is the first time he's been back here since he graduated," O'Neal said. "Just his name probabaly helped get some extra kids in here, and then getting guys like Reid Fleming, Don Plonk, Derek Schmidt and (all of the others).
"For them to give up their day like this, I just think it was tremendous."
Plonk, who played defense up until his final year at UF when he moved to offensive line, spent his summers working in Chiefland. He still visits often from his home in Newnan, Ga., and was proud to be a part of Saturday's camp.
"It was a great camp," said Plonk, who lettered at UF from 1979-82. "I know Coach wants to build it up and you've got to start somewhere. Some day this thing will see 100 kids and hopefully have a bigger reach, where it gets some kids from Bronson and Newberry and Trenton. Though we may have had a few, I suspect he'd like to see more out here."
Fleming teamed with Johnson at the linebackers station. He now works for Nature Coast Insurance in Chiefland and was asked to help at the camp by his boss, Charles Corbett.
"I commend Jarret for taking time out of his busy schedule and coming out here and just particpating in this event," Fleming said. "The (kids) busted their tail out here and it was such a fun thing to do that if they want me to do it again, I'm going to do it again."
As will Johnson. The plan is for him to return to next year's camp that will again be near the beginning of July.
"As long as coach O'Neal is here I'm going to stay in contact with him and it'd be great to get back here every year," Johnson said.
Johnson, who said he keeps up with CHS football through his brother-in-law, planned to return to his current home in Niceville to prepare for the upcoming NFL season. The league has been in a lockout, but Johnson said he was pleased to see the owners and players appear close to working out a deal.
Johnson said O'Neal was a "huge influence" on his career that led him from CHS to Alabama before hitting the NFL. Of course, his most memorable moment was winning the state championship, but also the hours of sweating spent at the practice field that "hasn't changed a bit."
"(O'Neal) has a such a positive atmosphere and that's why he's good at building a program from the bottom up," Johnson said. "He taught me how to work hard, how to approach the game and how to play the game."
With only about a month to publicize the camp and thunderstorms in the area Saturday morning, O'Neal wasn't too surprised by the turnout. However, seeing parents, campers and instructors all leaving with smiles on their faces after the camp-ending autograph session made Coach smile as well.
"(Johnson) said the timing would work out good for him next year, too" O'Neal said. "So we're going to start looking on the calendar and figuring out when we want to do it. Then we can start getting it publicized early enough that maybe we will hit that 100 number next year."