Friends and teammates of Stevie Ray Johnson – the former South Johnston High School baseball standout who died July 4 – remember two sides of his personality.
On the diamond, Johnson was a fierce competitor, said Keith Durham, his coach at South Johnston.
“He believed he could not lose,” Durham said. “When he stepped across the line onto the diamond, especially on the mound, he didn’t think there was anything you could do to stop him.”
And Aaron Parnell, a former teammate who later attended college with Johnson at UNC-Pembroke, remembers him as funny, outgoing and friendly– a goofy prankster who once left catfish under a friend’s front porch in the middle of summer.
“You could never relax around him,” Parnell said. “He’d always do something if you let your guard down.”
Johnson, 23, of the Meadow community, died July 4 in Morehead City, a coastal town where he was vacationing with family. According to police, an altercation outside of a bar left him floating in the water nearby.
Citing their ongoing investigation, police in Morehead City would say only that they considered Johnson’s death a crime. As of last Thursday, no one had been arrested.
Johnson’s death came as a shock to friends not only for its suddenness, but also because of its violent nature.
“He’s not a fighter; he’s a competitor,” said Jeremy Byrd, an assistant baseball coach at South Johnston.
“I’ve never seen him in an instance where I’m thinking, ‘He’s getting ready to fight.’ ”
Byrd and Parnell have both seen the Facebook photo of Johnson smiling, his arm around a friend, just before the July 4 incident. That was the Johnson they remember.
“That was Steven being Steven,” Parnell said.
Friends say that’s how they prefer to remember Johnson – the life of the party.
As he often told friends, “I ain’t scared of a good time.”
On the field, his competitive nature came out. He was a gifted player as an infielder who also pitched.
He made the junior varsity team his freshman year, but he was promoted to varsity when coaches realized his talent.
His intensity set an example that pushed his teammates to step up as well, Durham said.
“He definitely set the bar with his actions athletically; and he was also the vocal guy, the guy that was going to keep things up,” Durham said.
But Byrd said no one should confuse Johnson’s competitiveness with combativeness. His style was to lead by example, and he tried to stay positive with teammates, even when things weren’t going well, Byrd said.
Byrd said he couldn’t recall an instance in which Johnson got heated with a teammate.
“He was always the solution to things like that,” Byrd said. “He was always the guy to come in with a joke or pull the player to the side.”
As soon as he was done with practice or a game, Byrd said, Johnson wanted to have fun. He had a unique way of picking up everyone’s spirits after intense offseason workouts.
“He’d ask, ‘Anyone up for a game of whiffle ball after this?’ ” Byrd said.
“After we do our drills and stuff, everybody – coaches included – would be playing whiffle ball.”
At the funeral, Parnell called Johnson “the best player, the best friend and the best teammate” he’d ever seen.
“When I think about him, I think about those three things,” he said, “and I always will.”