Tech football program unveils renovated team meeting room

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – On his way to Roanoke for a meeting recently, Steve Johnson decided to hop off Interstate 81 and swing by Blacksburg for a brief stop.

He later admitted that he simply wanted a sneak peak at the football team meeting room renovations occurring within the Merryman Athletic Center.

“I thought it looked awesome,” Johnson said.

Johnson, a former Tech football player who played from 1983-87, stopped by Blacksburg again Friday to meet with the team, as department officials unveiled the renovated team meeting room to players, coaches and support staff members before they departed for Greenville, North Carolina for Saturday’s game against East Carolina. Johnson, who owns and runs a successful real estate development company in Bristol, Virginia, made a substantial gift commitment to cover construction costs toward McConnell Auditorium and ultimately position meeting room renovations.

“I’m grateful that Coach [Justin Fuente] and Whit thought enough of me to invite me to be a part of it,” Johnson said. “They didn’t have to do that, and I just think it speaks to how strong this Hokie family is and how appreciative everyone is for giving back. I think it shows a tremendous amount of leadership from those guys to think enough of what I did to bring me back and be a part of it – an opening day, so to speak.”

Babcock pitched several ideas to Johnson in early 2016, but a renovation of the team meeting struck a chord with the former tight end, who pointed out that the team meeting room serves as one of the few places where all members of the team gather together. It serves as “ground zero” of sorts for a football program.

Not to mention, Johnson thought – correctly – that the team meeting room needed a fresher look. The renovated version includes 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 athletics performance staffs (strength and conditioning, sport psychologist and sports nutrition).

“Through Steve’s continued generosity, we will be able to continue the modernization of our athletics facilities at Virginia Tech,” Director of Athletics Whit Babcock said last year in a release announcing Johnson’s gift toward the renovations. “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.”

Fuente, likewise, is 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.”

Johnson’s gift marked his second major commitment in recent memory. In 2013, he made a gift of $1,000,025 toward the construction costs of the award-winning Virginia Tech Indoor Practice Facility. He completed that pledge before the Hokies’ 2013 victory over UVA. The final $25 of the pledge was used to cover the cost of the football that he tossed into the stands after scoring a fourth-quarter touchdown in the Hokies’ 25-24 win over NC State in the 1986 Peach Bowl. 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.

A longtime supporter and often a regular on sidelines at Tech games, Johnson hopes his commitment to Virginia Tech serves as motivation for other former student-athletes to make similar commitments.

“I think it can become a bit contagious and infectious,” he said. “Of course, that’s my hope. My hope is that, in the process of doing things, that other players who have benefited from the program and gone on and achieved some success think enough of what the university did for them to do the same. That’s my hope. My sense is that some of the friends that I have, some of the former athletes, that’s their mindset and their level of giving depends on how strong they feel and their socioeconomic situation.

“My hope is that every former athlete gets involved in some capacity and gives back. It could be tremendous, if that were to occur.”

Athletics department officials named the football team’s practice fields in Johnson’s honor following his commitment to the indoor practice facility project. 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 an associate AD for major gifts with the Hokie Club and played alongside Johnson 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. 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.”

Johnson currently serves as president and owner of Bristol-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 Center, 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. At that point, he started his path toward building his successful business career.

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