We never called him The Big Unit.
To us, members of the Saratoga Springs High boys track and field team, Randy Johnson was Coach, Coach J., Coach Johnson or just Randy.
The Big Unit Randy Johnson, the one baseball fans around the country know as a Hall of Fame pitcher mainly for the Seattle Mariners but plenty of other clubs along the way, wasn’t even in our minds back in the mid to late 1980s.
That’s when our Randy Johnson, Coach J., was in the prime of his life and the Saratoga High track team fired on all cylinders. Just ask, or look it up. Coach J. came into my life when I went out for the track team in the spring of my sophomore year. Sprints were the destination; after all I could adequately steal a base during my youth baseball days and could consistently outrun most of my friends in the backyard or down the street. That plan changed after a couple practices. Maybe one practice.
“Let’s try you with the distance guys,” Randy said, and I dutifully joined that group led at the time by Coach Art Kranick. Thank goodness for that, sprinting against the likes of Mike Settles, Rich “Scooby” King, John Christenson and Kenny and Keith Parker wouldn’t have turned out too well.
The distance guys became my best friends and we logged mile after mile, in the heat, rain, snow, sleet, you name it. Ever see the kids running around Saratoga? That was us, minus the fancy running gear, good shoes and coaches following along on bike or in a car.
But back to Randy. Even though he didn’t deal with the distance runners directly he was the head coach, tasked with coming up with the lineups for the meets, JV and Varsity, and for three years he was my head coach who became a friend.
Smart, fun, hilarious, gregarious, empathetic and full of life, Randy proved the perfect coach for athletes of all abilities, young men of all backgrounds, rich and poor (yes, there are poor people in Saratoga), fast and slow, you name it.
Some of my favorite memories of high school have Randy cast as a central character.
All the hard work in outdoor track, indoor track and cross country paved the way to a spot on the Blue Streaks’ 4x800-meter relay team for the spring season of my senior year. We had designs on the school record – which we got midway through the season – and then set a goal to run under 8 minutes. That would require each runner to run sub-2, a true benchmark for the 800 at the time.
When our top squad – Brian Bishop in leadoff, me running second, Justin Jenkins running third and Jeremy Briell on the anchor leg – lined up we were tough to beat. We clicked off wins at dual meets and invitationals and late in the season started thinking about landing a spot in the state meet.
The morning of our senior prom we knew if we rode the bus to the Niskayuna Invitational we’d probably get home late, have to rush getting into those rental tuxedos, clip-on ties and cummerbunds and miss all those things we didn’t really want to do so Randy came up with a plan. Half the squad would ride down to the meet with Randy, run the 4x8, win it, get a photo taken and all of us would ride back home with Brian.
Somehow this plan was legit and legal, since we didn’t take the bus down we didn’t have to take it back. Details, details. Randy worked it out, our parents signed off and down to Niskayuna we went.
Who knows what we talked about on the ride down, but I’ll never forget the drive. We’d been close with Randy before that – how could you not, considering he was a teacher we’d see in the halls and our coach for three or more years. He also became our friend that day, and he’d be a friend of mine until I heard of his passing late last year. He died Dec. 28, just about a month after his 63rd birthday.
Word started to spread from my close friend Dave Burns to me, members of that 4x8 squad and others from the team. We shared stories and remembrances from high school and mourned a coach, teacher, mentor and friend.
So where does all this Big Unit stuff come in?
Fast forward to my first few years with The Special, I remember Joe telling me stories about a larger-than-life racing fan yelling to his son Jack delivering the paper from his golf cart, “The Big Unit loves The Special.”
“Big Unit, what’s that all about?”
“That’s what we know him as, he’s a teacher or former teacher from around here.”
“Wait, is his name Randy Johnson?”
“I think so, that sounds right.”
And the circle is complete.
The Big Unit, Coach J., Randy, Randy Johnson suddenly and happily was back in my life.
How lucky can one person be? Not once but twice to be blessed by such a character, such a blast of positive energy.
There’d be stretches over the years when I wouldn’t see him and his wife Cheryl out walking but then I’d seemingly see them all the time. Most of the time I’d see them while out for a run on Union Avenue or East Avenue, and every time when I ran toward them he’d say, “I knew that was you, I recognize you running a mile away.”
The last few summers he’d walk past our office on East Avenue almost every day, cooler in tow before the races, greeting the team with a wave even if he couldn’t see us in the window. Same thing at the end of the day. More times than I can count I can hear Joe say, “There goes the Big Unit.”
I miss seeing the Big Unit around town, either out walking or on his way to the races. Every once in a while I’ll see a couple walking and think, ‘Is that…?” and remember that my coach, my friend, is shedding his beautiful bright light someplace else.
And I’ll never forget one of our last conversations, about Saratoga High Track and Field, Class of 1989 of course.
“Man you guys were good,” he said. “You broke 2, right? Sub 8 for the team, school record. Still the school record. I’ll never forget it.”
“It was awesome. We were on that day. We don’t have the school record anymore though Coach, another group of guys broke it a few years back.”
“Thanks for calling me Coach. I don’t hear that a lot anymore. I like it. We liked it, too, and love you even more.
Rest in peace, Coach.