HAMMOND, Wis. -- One word that keeps popping up when Brian Johnson talks about St. Croix Central -- family.

His mother, Kathleen, was part of the last graduating class at Roberts High School before it consolidated with Hammond to create the St. Croix Central School District in 1961 and taught third grade in the district for over 20 years. And his sister Jean is a 1989 SCC graduate and teaches sixth grade at the middle school.

Johnson graduated from St. Croix Central in 1999 before earning his teaching degree from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He spent 16 years in Hudson teaching middle school and high school science and serving as an assistant coach for the Raider wrestling team.

Now he’s back at his alma mater as its athletic director.

“It’s awesome,” Johnson said. “Everybody I’ve talked to, when you talk about the St. Croix Central School District, the word that always comes up is family. I’ve still got a number of family members, relatives, friends that come to school here, and talking to them all the time it’s all about, we’re family.”

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But Johnson’s definition of family and St. Croix Central goes far beyond bloodlines. He played football and wrestled all four years as a Panther and played baseball his freshman and sophomore years before, as he put it; “I realized I wasn’t very good, even though it’s one of my favorite sports. So then I ran track and threw the shot and discus, pretty terribly, but it was something to stay active.”

Johnson said he owes a lot to the teachers and coaches he had at Central, and wants to make them proud in his new role.

“Nobody is putting pressure on me except for myself. But I have to do right by the people who did so much for me,” he said. “I think about my coaches and my wrestling coach and the wrestling program. All of that to my core is who made me who I am today. And there is this unseen pressure to do right by all these people. You can’t let them down, and that’s on me. I want to do a great job because I don’t want to let these people down, because they’re my family.”

Johnson replaces Jason Koele, who resigned to take a job in Missouri at the end of last school year. And in addition to the usual challenges associated with scheduling games and referees, and hiring coaches (he’s still looking for a dance coach, by the way), Johnson is starting his first job as an athletic director in the middle of a pandemic.

“There’s so many perspectives and so many guidelines and recommendations,” he said. “And we have to sift through those to figure out what works for our unique community here. That’s step one; what works for St. Croix Central to keep our kids safe, our staff safe and our community safe? And what also allows us to get back to the things that we love and that keeps us who we are?”

Johnson said he’s coming into a great situation at Central, both athletically and academically, and pointed to the recent success of everything from the football, volleyball and cross-country teams to band, choir, drama and ag programs.

“Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?” he said.

He said coming from a larger school district, people may wonder what he can bring to a smaller district. But he said it’s not what he can bring, it’s what he can learn from the people already here.

“I want to learn what you’re doing because what you’re doing is right,” he said. “I don’t know what I can bring yet besides my hard work, which I learned here. My commitment to the people I’m close to, which I learned here. All those things I learned here and I used in Hudson, I’m bringing that back and now I want to take what I’ve got and help wherever they need it.”

He said the biggest thing he learned as a young teacher and coach is to listen, and that will be important in his new role as an administrator.

“You have to observe and you have to hear people,” he said. “Listen to what people have to say because they’re going to help you out in the long run. Even those conversations that are hard to listen to some times; you have to hear them. This is a helping job, and I have to help the kids; I have to help the coaches; I have to help the teachers; I have to help the families. And you have to listen and get that message.”

Johnson’s wrestling coach at UWRF was his former high school science teacher Lindy Johnson. It’s also where he met his wife, Stacy, during his freshman year in 2000. The pair have been together ever since and reside in Hudson, where Stacy is a teacher, along with their two kids, Ava, 10, and Lincoln, 7.

“She picked up and did so many things to allow me to fulfill my passion for coaching. And she’s just as supportive of me in this role. I couldn’t have coached to the level I coached, and I couldn’t do this job the way I know this job has to be done without her," he said.

Johnson said it was a difficult decision to leave Hudson. He’s had his administrator's license for about a year but wasn’t looking extensively for an admin job. He was also excited about the upcoming wrestling season, where the Raiders are returning a talented group from last year’s state qualifying team under head coach Chris Hansen. Johnson was also looking forward to watching Hansen’s sons, senior Peter and junior Jacob, contend for individual state titles.

“I was around them when they were in diapers,” he noted. “So to leave right now when they’re in their prime as they go for a state championship, the timing as far as my own coaching goals maybe wasn’t perfect. But this opportunity was so great, I couldn’t pass up coming home. The decision to leave Hudson was hard, but life is about opportunities, and this was an opportunity that was too good to pass up.”