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High school football on Friday night: It doesnt get any better
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Friday night football is the game at its purest form.
That was the reference to high school football once made by former San Francisco 49er defensive back Jimmy Johnson.

It was 1996 and he had just been enshrined to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Johnson grew up in the small valley town of Kingsburg, located several miles south of Fresno. At the time, I was a reporter for the hometown publication.

He was home that day for the retirement of his No. 16 high school football jersey.

Jimmy Johnson had retired years ago from the National Football League. He had a spectacular yet quiet career, playing all 15 years with San Francisco. He was a perennial all-Pro and held the club record for interception (his 47 picks were eclipsed by another Hall-of-Famer, Ronnie Lott).

One of his teammates early on was current Manteca resident R.C. “Alley-Oop” Owens.

It took Sports Illustrated reporter Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman to finally get Jimmy Johnson the recognition necessary for induction into the Canton, Ohio shrine.

On defense, Johnson’s man-to-man pass coverage was considered flawless to the point that quarterbacks of his days rarely threw the ball his way.

As one of three No. 1 draft picks for the Niners in 1961, he also played on the offensive side as a wide receiver.

It took a few years before Johnson, who was 6-foot-2, 187 pounds during his playing days, found a home at cornerback.

At home, he grew up in the shadows of his famous brother, Rafer Johnson, who was an Olympic Gold Medalist in the decathlon.

His older brother not only held the title of World’s Greatest Athlete but was also a natural leader, serving as student body president in both high school and college.

Jimmy Johnson attended Kingsburg High. He was a skinny kid back then and endured some bumps along the road to football immortality. Included was an injury that sidelined him during his first year on the varsity squad.

He was encouraged by his football coach to stay involved with the team as an equipment manager. But when his time came a year later, Jimmy Johnson would forever cherish those memories of playing football in front of friends, family, and community on those Friday night.

Add the support of the student body, marching band, cheer squads, etc.  

“It was football at its purest form,” he said.

Jimmy Johnson would further hone his athletic ability – he was also an outstanding track and field athlete – at Santa Monica City College and UCLA.

He played the game on a scholarship and, later, for a pay check.

And when Johnson was inducted into the hall of fame in 1994, he turned to his oldest brother to present him during the ceremonies.

Rafer, after all, was his hero and role model.

Every year since, I’m reminded of Jimmy Johnson’s reference of Friday night football.

It is the game at its purest form.