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The Clarion

The Student News Site of Bethel University

The Clarion

The Student News Site of Bethel University

The Clarion

Johnson’s final game epitomizes legacy

Despite a season-ending, first-round playoff exit in a 42-14 loss, several of Bethel’s players act out the legacy their head coach is leaving behind.
Sarah Bomhoff
Bethel University Head Football Coach Steve Johnson says goodbye to junior kicker Hugo Cifuentes after the last game of his coaching career. After the Royals’ loss, the team huddled around its coach, exchanging hugs with Johnson and each other, many of them crying.

[Editor’s note: The headline has been changed for clarity]

Six NCAA Division III national championship flags pointed northeast as the orange streamers above each field goal post at Perkins Stadium in Whitewater, Wisconsin fluttered in the 13-mile-per-hour wind Saturday.

The Bethel University Royals made the nearly five-hour drive to take on the fifth nationally ranked University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Warhawks in the first round of the Division III football playoffs. The Royals lost 42-14, finishing with a record of 8-3 despite starting the year 1-2. 

Bethel started the game with the ball, going three-and-out on their first drive of the game, trying to set the tone early by establishing the run. Its first two plays were rushes of little to no gain before an incomplete pass from junior wide receiver Joey Kidder, forcing the Royals to punt. 

UWW started its first drive near midfield and opened the scoring on a 49-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Alec Ogden to wide receiver Steven Hein. Whitewater made the most of its offense while Bethel failed to sustain drives or connect on deep passes, setting the tone for the first half as the Warhawks went into the locker room up 28-7. Soon, they added another score early in the third quarter after a long run by running back Tamir Thomas. 

Bethel managed just 167 total yards of offense, while Whitewater succeeded in its early game plan of taking what the Royals gave them, ending up five yards shy of 500.

Bethel fans and students made the nearly five-hour trip to Whitewater, Wisconsin to cheer on the Royals as they looked to upset the fifth-ranked Warhawks in the first round of the Division III playoffs Saturday, Nov. 18 at Perkins Stadium. | Photo by Bella Haveman

Only a week prior, Bethel running back Aaron Ellingson had a career-high 224-yard, three-touchdown performance in the MIAC Championship game against Gustavus Adolphus College. Seven days later, in the game against UWW, Ellingson had 13 carries for 32 rushing yards and failed to reach the end zone. 

Ellingson’s season took a drastic turn when he was thrust into the starting role after sophomore David Geebli broke his leg halfway through the Royals’ first game of the season Sept. 9. 

“[Geebli] going down, I was like, ‘Here we go. I need to step up big here,’” Ellingson said. “[I’m] so grateful for that opportunity. It was just a blast every week going out there.”

The junior stepped up to lead a dynamic Royals rushing attack all year, running for 954 yards, averaging 5.6 per carry along with eight scores. He earned an all-conference nod for the season in which he expected to be second on the depth chart all year. 

Having not lost a game since Sept. 21 against St. John’s, fifth-year quarterback George Bolt admitted the team struggled mentally after giving up three touchdowns before scoring.

[Johnson will] be the first one to hug you and say he loves you. It’s truly special.

— Joey Kidder, wide receiver

“You want to control the game, and that’s what we’ve tried to do,” Bolt said. “It is a different fundamental approach to have to shift into that mindset of going from behind and chasing.” 

Despite the sting of a season-ending loss, the Royals players had something much bigger on their minds, as it also marked the end of Head Coach Steve Johnson’s last career game. The 68-year-old informed the Bethel community that he was retiring three weeks ago. This season marks an end to a 35-year-long career that saw Johnson win 252 games and five MIAC championships. 

“[Johnson will] be the first one to hug you and say he loves you,” Kidder said. “It’s truly special.” 

Johnson, pausing every few words as his face turned red with emotion, still credited his success to the players around him. 

“It’s a choice to love each other and build good stuff and then give it away,” Johnson said. “And that’s what our guys do.” 

After the game, Royals players huddled around Johnson as he battled tears. The coach started praying.

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Reciting the Lord’s Prayer after games is a long-lasting tradition for Johnson and Bethel’s football players. And, in the middle of the huddle, he did it one last time. 

Whitewater Head Coach Jace Rindahl, who is in his first year leading the Warhawks, commended Johnson’s legacy despite never facing him on the field before Saturday. The programs’ only meeting was in 2018, a 26-12 Whitewater win in the NCAA quarterfinals. 

“34 years in his profession at the same institution is pretty outstanding,” Rindahl said. “The consistency they’ve had… is pretty awesome.” 

As Rindahl allows his players to celebrate their win for 24 hours before preparing to play Wheaton College, Johnson heads back to Arden Hills with his team. 

Ellingson, who will be running in an offense under a new head coach next year, described several of Johnson’s oft-repeated phrases and lessons he uses in speeches: knowing the base each player has in Jesus Christ, playing for each other and having freedom to run.

Junior running back Aaron Ellingson is consoled by his mom following the Royals’ 42-14 loss to the Warhawks. Ellingson rushed for 954 yards in 11 games following starter David Geebli’s untimely injury. } Photo by Sarah Bomhoff

“[There’s] so much gratitude to be able to be a piece of the legacy he’s created,” Ellingson said. “The leadership and the kind of man that Coach is and the example that he’s set for us is really special.” 

Johnson said he aimed to make “grateful, tough and devoted” men, and he sees each of these attributes in the attitudes of Ellingson, Kidder and Bolt. None of them mentioned being disappointed by the loss – rather, they were excited to know they had the privilege of being taught by “Coach J.” 

As Johnson analyzed the game and looked down the post-game press conference table at the three players, he quickly turned away, afraid he’d cry. Then the six-time MIAC coach of the year smiled and clapped his hands once.

“Tough ending to this one but… [it] is what it is,” Johnson said. “We’ll figure out what’s next.”

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About the Contributors
Aiden Penner, Staff Reporter
Aiden Penner, 19, is a freshman journalism major. His favorite activities are snatching every rebound in pick-up basketball, driving the combine during harvest on his farm and researching obscure statistics on Baseball-Reference. His biggest flex is that he met Carl Azuz. [email protected] | 507.621.4619
Bella Haveman, Staff Photographer
Bella Haveman, 19, is an art and English double major with an emphasis in creative writing. She enjoys reading, listening to music and exploring new places. She loves traveling to different countries and adding to her fan and earring collection. She is currently trying to discover all the coolest coffee shops in the Twin Cities.  [email protected] | 515-520-4142

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