Former Tech football star Steve Johnson makes substantial gift to football program

BLACKSBURG – The Virginia Tech Athletics Department announced Wednesday that former football student-athlete Steve Johnson (1983-87) of Bristol, Tennessee, made a gift of $1,000,025 toward the construction costs of the award-winning Virginia Tech Indoor Practice Facility. Johnson also made a second leadership gift commitment to launch Phase 2 of the Merryman Center renovations, most specifically, the total renovation of McConnell Auditorium and team meeting rooms.

“Through Steve’s continued generosity, we will be able to continue the modernization of our athletics facilities at Virginia Tech,” said Director of Athletics Whit Babcock. “Our entire athletics department has benefitted from the Indoor Practice Facility and will again benefit from the Phase 2 renovations of the Merryman Center and McConnell Auditorium, which was originally constructed in 1996. The upgrades to our football meeting spaces will help keep the Hokies competitive with other nationally renowned programs and assist in our recruiting efforts of the best-and-brightest. On behalf of Hokies everywhere, we express our heartfelt gratitude to Steve for his ongoing dedication to helping students at Virginia Tech.”

An honorable mention All-American and All-South tight end for the Hokies, Johnson made a $1 million pledge toward the Virginia Tech Indoor Practice Facility in the spring of 2013 and completed that pledge in full via a $1,000,025 gift made prior to Virginia Tech’s victory over UVA. The final $25 of the pledge will be used to cover the cost of the football that he tossed into the stands after scoring a go-ahead fourth-quarter touchdown in the Hokies’ 25-24 win over NC State in the 1986 Peach Bowl (the video can be seen by clicking here). Tech later won the game on Chris Kinzer’s field goal as time expired. The victory marked Tech’s first bowl win, and Johnson caught a team-high six passes in the game.

“I wanted to certainly make an impactful gift and to ‘pay it forward’ to Virginia Tech,” Johnson said. “The school and the football program were critical in instilling the values that have served me well personally and in my business career. Team sports promote many positive life skills, including setting goals, persistence, dedication, sacrifice, accountability and work ethic – all of which have helped shape who I am today. I will be forever grateful for my scholarship and the opportunity provided to me. I’m fortunate to be in a position to give back.

“I love the momentum at Tech right now, both academically and athletically,” Johnson concluded. “And the extra $25 in my gift is for Lester Karlin [former long-time VT equipment manager and currently a part-time member of the athletics department] who has hounded me for the cost of that football since I threw into the stands in the 1986 Peach Bowl!”

And rest assured, Karlin hasn’t forgotten the episode from 30 years ago that led Johnson to finally ante up that extra $25.

“We were driving down the field late in the game for a go-ahead score,” Karlin recalled. “Steve catches this beautiful pass to put us up and Steve tosses the ball up in the stands. The ball boy comes to me and says ‘I need a ball.’ I said ‘what the heck happened to the other ball?’ He said ‘your guy threw it up in the stands.’

“There are a lot of things an equipment guy never forgets, and this is one of them,” Karlin concluded. “I’ve been bugging the heck out of Steve every time I’ve seen him the past 30 years that he needs to pay for that ball, so I’m glad he finally did the right thing! I’ll just consider the rest of his donation as interest due.”

NC State would kick a field goal to retake the lead before a 40-yard field goal by Chris Kinzer as time expired gave the Hokies a 25-24 victory.

While Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente doesn’t hold the same decades-long playful grudge against Johnson for that Peach Bowl celebration, he is likewise grateful for Johnson’s generosity and commitment to the Hokies.

“Once our staff hit the ground running at Virginia Tech, it didn’t take long for Steve to embrace us and our approach,” Fuente said. “Steve’s passion for the Hokies and his willingness to invest in Virginia Tech’s football program speaks volumes. I have a special appreciation for the guys like Steve who helped build our winning tradition at Virginia Tech, and I know our student-athletes will benefit greatly from his latest gift.”

Athletics department officials named the football team’s practice fields in Johnson’s honor following his commitment to the indoor practice facility project and a sign will soon appear bearing his name. The Steve Johnson Practice Fields sit adjacent to the Virginia Tech Indoor Practice Facility.

”Steve has been a great friend and former teammate for over 30 years,” said David Everett, who currently serves as associate AD for major gifts with the Hokie Club and played alongside Steve from 1985-87. “He’s such a big guy with a big heart who wants to win in everything he does. His passion for Virginia Tech football and our athletics program burns strong.

“It is particularly gratifying to me personally and professionally to have a teammate give back to the Hokie Club and program that he loves,” Everett continued. “Steve has continued to provide valuable philanthropic leadership to the athletics department. We’re grateful for his loyalty, his ongoing generosity and the tremendous example he has set for all Hokies.”

Athletics department officials plan on renovating and expanding McConnell Auditorium (please see renderings), adding new seating, lighting, graphics on the walls and a sound system. Additional plans call for the renovation of the Hokies’ nine position meeting rooms, adding similar features, while also renovating a portion of the bottom floor of the Merryman Center. The bottom floor serves as the home to the Hokies’ strength, conditioning and rehabilitation areas, along with offices for the athletic performance staffs (strength and conditioning, sport psychologist and sports nutrition).

Johnson currently serves as president and owner of Bristol, Virginia-based Johnson Commercial Development, one of the largest commercial developers in the Southeast. Johnson Commercial Development recently completed one of the largest commercial projects in the country, The Pinnacle, a one million-square-foot upscale retail development in Bristol, Tennessee.

Johnson has contributed to other athletics department projects in the past. His philanthropic gifts helped with support of construction of the Merryman Athletic Facility, which includes a room for speed and agility training. He also is a member of the Ut Prosim Society, a select group of Virginia Tech's most generous supporters.

The Huntsville, Alabama native caught four passes as a freshman for 83 yards and a touchdown, and as a sophomore, he hauled in nine passes for 109 yards and a score. He burst onto the scene as a junior in 1986 when he caught 33 passes for 391 yards and three touchdowns. In 1987, he hauled in a team-leading 38 passes for 475 yards and three touchdowns. He still ranks third in school history among tight ends in terms of career receptions (84), receiving yards (1,058) and touchdowns (eight).

The New England Patriots drafted Johnson in the sixth round of the 1988 NFL Draft, and Johnson spent two seasons with the Patriots. He played in 14 games during the 1988 season, starting three and catching one pass. He signed with the Dallas Cowboys as a free agent in 1990, but injured his knee in a preseason game and retired from football shortly thereafter.

Tech officials plan on starting Phase 2 of the Merryman Center renovations and McConnell Auditorium and position meeting room renovations in early January following the conclusion of the football season. The project is due for completion by the start of the 2017 football campaign.

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