Military appreciation entrenched in Auburn's Ellis Johnson
By James Crepea | Montgomery Advertiser, Ala. | Published: October 6, 2013
Leon Darvin Flanders and Harold McGill Renwick Jr. are forever linked in several places, including in the memory of Ellis Johnson.
The Auburn defensive coordinator grew up in Winnsboro, S.C., was close friends with the older Flanders and Renwick, and all of them played high school football. Flanders and Renwick were part of the 1958 Mt. Zion Institute team that won the Class A South Carolina State High School Football Championship, and both went on to play for legendary Clemson coach Frank Howard.
The friends from rural South Carolina are two of the far too many 58,272 names carved into the nearly 247 feet of black granite on “the Wall,” the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, just to south of Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. On the 56th line of Panel 08E is Lt. Flanders, a UH-1 Huey helicopter pilot, and down the eastern side of the Wall on the 54th line of Panel 41E is Capt. Renwick Jr., who served with Military Assistance Command Vietnam.
The former Clemson football players both went on to serve in the U.S. Army after their days on the gridiron concluded and were killed in action in South Vietnam. Flanders suffered a fatal wound from mortar shrapnel on June 17, 1966, and Renwick was killed by small arms fire Feb. 27, 1968. They were 23 and 26 years old, respectively.
“It was just tragic,” Johnson said. “They were burying kids every six months in my hometown.”
Johnson is not speaking in hyperbole; despite its small population, Fairfield County, S.C., lost 18 men in Vietnam, including his close friends Flanders and Renwick. They are listed on a white memorial stone in their hometown of Winnsboro and are among an unfortunately still growing list of 484 Clemson alumni identified on the Scroll of Honor, for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Flanders and Renwick are forever linked by the Clemson football award that bears their names; the Renwick-Flanders Award has been given annually to the most improved football player at Clemson since the mid-1970s. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett received the award last season after recording 49 tackles, with 8½ for loss, two sacks and a fumble recovery in 11 starts as a sophomore, a year after making just two tackles in nine games as a freshman.
It is a symbol of appreciation for the sacrifice of men who played college football, though never lettered under the more stringent requirements of the past but would have by today’s standards.
So, too, are events such as Saturday night’s Military Appreciation day at Auburn, which defeated No. 24 Ole Miss, 30-22, at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
While Johnson attended and coached at the Citadel, he never had to serve in the military. But he deeply appreciates the service of his father, John T. Johnson Sr., his brothers John Jr. and Oliver, nephews John III, Oliver Jr. and Butler Strain and his brother-in-law Treb Courie, who returned from Afghanistan in March.
“You admire it and you appreciate it,” Johnson said. “It was always hard, even when I was a teenager, but you get a little older and you realize, it comes home a little bit more when you realize the sacrifices they make.”
Johnson grew up in what he describes as a “very stable, supportive, disciplined” military home in Winnsboro with both parents college-educated; something not commonplace for rural South Carolina in the 1960s.
He remembers being asked by a classmate in the third grade what his brothers would do in Vietnam and thinking the war would be over by the time they would ever be called upon to serve, which of course was not the case.
John Jr. and Oliver both graduated from West Point in 1965 and ’68, respectively, serving a combined three tours.
“I was a ninth- or 10th-grader when my older brother did his first tour,” Johnson said. “In ’71 they were pulling out of there. The level of communication then was still mostly by letter and occasionally you could get a phone call.”
Johnson attended the Citadel from 1971-75, and thanks to the G.I. Bill several veterans were attending classes with the then-defensive end.
“I think it’s had a great effect on me,” Johnson said of his military-style education, citing time management as one of the top qualities instilled in him at the time that still carries over to today.
He coached defensive ends at the Citadel in 1975 and, after stints at Gaffney (1976-78) and Spartanburg (1979-81) high schools, returned to coach linebackers in 1982. Johnson would have stops at Gardner-Webb, Appalachian State, East Carolina and Southern Miss before getting to Tuscaloosa and becoming the outside linebackers coach for the Crimson Tide from 1990-1993.
He moved on to Clemson and served as the defensive coordinator from 1994-96. It was during that time Johnson met his future wife, Caroline Courie, who was working at the ticket office.
Joining forces with Caroline
When Johnson ended up back with Alabama in 1997, Caroline made several trips to Tuscaloosa, eventually saying the long treks would stop unless they were getting married. Johnson joked that her ultimatum made his decision easy.
Caroline’s family also has a military background, with her grandfather serving as a lieutenant colonel and then her older brother, Treb, who is in the Army JAG corps.
When the Johnsons returned to the Citadel in 2001, Treb Courie joined the Army. In an eerie coincidence, he was commissioned just days after Sept. 11, 2001.
“I remember my mom called me up that week, about Sept. 14, basically crying because she said ‘my baby’s going to have to go to war,’ ” Courie said.
Caroline, forever the target of her older brother’s teasing, was limited to communicating with him via email and Facebook.
“I don’t think reality set in for me or family, I didn’t get the seriousness of it, until he went to Turkey and then Iraq and Afghanistan,” she said. “That was when it became unsettling.”
While Ellis was game planning for opposing offenses at Mississippi State from 2004-07, Treb was in Iraq facing a far different challenge. During Easter Sunday of 2004, Courie and his fellow soldiers were taking indirect fire during the church service, which was held in a tent.
“I was about to take the communion elements to the altar when the mortars started hitting,” Courie said. “So we stopped, put on all of our body armor, and then continued the service. ... It’s random. You get used to living that way.”
While in Starkville, Johnson experienced a unique military and coaching family moment. Before the Bulldogs played Alabama on Nov. 5, 2005, three planes performed a military flyover of Davis Wade Stadium, including a T-1 Jayhawk piloted by his nephew Oliver Jr.
“Operation Bulldog” was a Composite Formation of a T-37 Tweet, the T-1 Jayhawk and T-38 Talon out of Columbus (Miss.) Air Force Base that took part in a flyover, which few coaches in the country can say they’ve experienced.
“His nephews’ biggest concern was how fast he could land and get back not to miss the game,” Caroline Johnson said of Oliver Jr., who has served in Iraq.
While Johnson was at Southern Miss last season, Courie was deployed at Bagram AFB in Afghanistan in July 2012.
“I have an 8-year-old son and a daughter who is 6,” Courie said. “Leaving them was the hardest thing I had to do.”
It was once again football that helped bring the family together, despite Courie being halfway around the world. He was able to watch the first game of Johnson’s season thanks to the Armed Forces Network showing Southern Miss at Nebraska on Sept. 1, 2012.
When Johnson had a road game at Central Florida on Oct. 13, Caroline brought their children and they took a trip to Disney World with her mother, Treb’s wife, Anna, and their two children, Patton and Merryn.
“It was really hard to miss that,” Courie said. “But I loved that they did that because everything little thing they do helps.”
Merryn recently asked her father if he remembered something from their trip to Florida, having forgotten he wasn’t there.
Still, Caroline had to be mindful of whenever the news was on TV during the trip. She recalled having to quickly and discretely change the channel when news of a bombing attack on a base in Afghanistan came on.
The difficulties Johnson endured in a winless season at Southern Miss paled in comparison to those of his brother-in-law. Perspective was never lost for Johnson, even as the losses continued on the field for the Golden Eagles.
“It’s hard. I think everybody gets so caught up in day-to-day activities sometimes they don’t really realize how hard that is,” he said. “When you sit down, and time kind of stops and you have an opportunity to think about it, and think about them, it’s always very concerning.”
Traveling men: military and coaching
Johnson was hired by Auburn coach Gus Malzahn just two days after he took over the program on Dec. 4, 2012. It was another move for the Johnsons, less than a year after relocating to Hattiesburg, Miss.
The migrant nature of coaching and military families is a common ground for the Johnsons and their family as a whole.
“They probably moved as much as we have,” said Courie, whose son has attended six schools. “They can relate to having to pick up and move your family every couple of years and a lot of uncertainty.”
The uncertainty he experienced later in December was far different than anything in the family, though. On Christmas morning, Courie was awoken by a rocket attack.
“Many of us, including me, had stayed up late the night before to attend midnight services or to celebrate since Christmas Day was a light-duty day,” he said.
The Johnsons prayed each night for Treb’s safe return from Afghanistan, where he was serving as the Chief of Military Justice for Regional Command East — the top prosecutor for all soldier and civilian misconduct. Courie also served as the deputy staff judge advocate, a senior legal advisor to the commanding general of the first infantry division.
Courie returned in March and was able to see his sister, Ellis, and their family in July.
“He went straight to picking on me, and my kids think it’s hysterical to see how he treats me,” Caroline said.
Nice to be recognized
Auburn’s Military Appreciation Day on Saturday night featured four Wounded Warriors who joined the team captains for the coin toss. Johnson gives to the Wounded Warrior Project and other funds for veterans.
The moments of remembrance and gratitude during public events mean a lot to Courie, particularly those involving college football.
“It’s really nice to be remembered at those times,” he said. “At Clemson’s Military Appreciation Day, friends were posting on my Facebook wall. They bought me the Military Appreciation Day T-shirt. Whenever a team is having it, it’s a very nice reminder that in the middle of all the pageantry that is college football, that people make it a point to stop and remember what’s going on in the world with the military.”
Johnson and the rest of the Auburn coaching staff adorned a Military Appreciation patch on the sleeve of their gameday shirts, but the meaning goes far deeper for him.
“When I was younger, when they first left it was kind of emotional,” Johnson said. “But you’re at an age where weeks and months go by, and you think about them occasionally, and all of a sudden you worry about them now and then. As you get older, you realize the true danger and the trials and hardships of it. It’s a little bit harder because you’re constantly concerned about their safety.”
Courie and his family live in Kansas now, and he hopes to be able to get to Auburn for a game in the near future, if not possibly this season.
What’s most important, though, is that he’s home and that he’s safe.
No military family wants to search a memorial for the name of their loved one.