On April 29, at the 77th annual Gold Key Dinner hosted by the Connecticut Sportswriters’ Alliance, legendary Granby field hockey coach Dot Johnson was honored with a prestigious Gold Key Award.
She knew she was going to be honored. That wasn’t a surprise. What was a surprise was that many of her former players, mostly from the 1980, 1982 and 1985 Championship Teams, were in attendance, eager to honor their former coach, mentor and friend. I was lucky enough to be one of those women.
As Dot and the other 2018 honorees began their procession into the room, 12 of us donned our decades-old, maroon and gold, mothball-scented State Championship jackets and waited in anticipation for our beloved coach’s name to be called. When it was, we rose to our feet and cheered loudly—almost as loudly as we cheered each time our team bus pulled into the GMHS parking lot after a victory—and for a moment the procession was halted as “Miss J” stopped dead in tracks, stunned.
It was our attempt to honor and thank the woman who gave us some of the most exciting moments of our lives, helped us be a part of something far bigger than ourselves and taught us some of the most important lessons of our teenage years.
A true competitor who knows how to have fun
A pre-Title IX, three-sport athlete in college, Dot Johnson was a pioneer in women’s sports. She was a fierce competitor who loved to play; and, even more, loved to win. She carried that competitive drive into her career. When Connecticut high school field hockey first played a state tournament in 1973, there was just one open division, in which towns of all sizes competed. That didn’t deter Coach Johnson from entering and, sure enough, tiny Granby beat Guilford, a school with twice as many students, 2-1 to claim the first Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference field hockey title. The Granby Girls carried their coach off the field after the game and history was set into motion.
The following year, Johnson led the Bears to the Class M championship, then five Class S crowns followed: in 1978, 1980, 1982, 1985 and 2000. After seven state titles and four second-place finishes, Johnson retired in 2002 with a 393-83-80 record, a .779 winning percentage. That’s right. She won seven state titles and had a .779 winning percentage.
She was a coaching legend, and she established a tradition of excellence for Granby Field Hockey that continues today. Granby Field Hockey now holds 13 state championships, the most of any school in Connecticut history; current coaches Sandy Wickman Mason and Jody Bascetta both played for Coach Johnson when they were in high school.
Coach Johnson knew how to elicit drive and determination from a group of high school girls in a way few could. Playing for Miss J was a commitment. We were held to a very high standard, but I doubt anyone would call her “intense.” She had a great sense of humor and she always kept it fun, no matter how high the stakes were. She also taught us important life lessons. While she valued skilled stickwork, speed, endurance and an understanding of the game, what she valued far more was hard work and teamwork.
Former player Susan Flint, who played on the 1980 and 1982 championship squads, said, “I remember when other teams would try dirty tactics to get ahead, Miss J would remind us that we were better than that, and we would have to outplay them to win. She was a great leader who taught us how to be not only great field hockey players, but great people in life.
“She was an amazing coach,” Flint continued, “who really encouraged great sportsmanship and fostered a feeling of family and that we were all in it together and there to lift each other up.”
It was this feeling of “family” that led each of us to the dinner. When former player and 1982 State Champion Elaine Brassard heard Johnson was being honored, she used Facebook to get in touch with as many players as she could, asking who might want to attend the ceremony. In no time, a table of 12 was filled with former players from Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maine—many of whom hadn’t seen each other in nearly 35 years. With those years has come perspective, and many of us have realized just how special playing for Miss J was.
“She instilled great self-confidence and leadership in her players, and that helped shape the rest of our lives,” said Brassard. “I’ve been thinking about her influence a lot lately, and when I heard about this dinner, I knew I wanted to be here to thank her in person.”
Brassard, who drove all the way from Maine for the ceremony, continued: “When I saw all of my former teammates come to the table, I said to myself, ‘Wow. It’s Dot’s Dynasty.’ Coach J leaves a legacy of wins and, more importantly, she fostered strong bonds among her players that exist to this day.”
The Gold Key
The Gold Key is regarded as the highest sports award in the state. The roster of past honorees reads like a Who’s Who of Connecticut sports: Joe Cronin, Julius Boros, Willie Pep, Andy Robustelli, Floyd Little, Joan Joyce, Carmen Cozza, Otto Graham, Calvin Murphy, Gordie Howe, Bill Rodgers, Geno Auriemma, Rebecca Lobo, Brian Leetch, Kristine Lilly and Dwight Freeney are just a few of the athletes and coaches who have won Gold Keys.
Johnson has received numerous other awards over the years, as well, including induction into four halls of fame (Connecticut High School Coaches Association, 1992; New Agenda Northeast, 1996; National Field Hockey coaches Association, 2005; Connecticut Field Hockey, 2005). She was a three-time Connecticut Field Hockey Coaches Association Coach of the Year, the 1996 National High School Athletic Coaches Association Coach of the Year, and was presented the Doc McInerney High School Coach of the Year Award by the CSWA at the 2001 Gold Key Dinner.
In other words, Johnson has made a number of acceptance speeches over the years. But the surprise of seeing her former players caused her to break away from her prepared remarks and maybe even get a little emotional this time, as she accepted her Gold Key award. “I am truly moved that you all showed up,” she said to us. Then she turned to the crowd and said, “I really can’t say enough about them. I want to share this honor with them, because without them, I wouldn’t be up here.”
Following the ceremony, we presented Miss J with some gifts, on behalf of everyone who ever played for her—maroon and gold pansies, a miniature golden field hockey stick and a cap bearing her career record. They were small gifts, but you know what they say—it’s the thought that counts. In this case, the thought was this: “Thank you, Miss J, for all you did for us, on and off the field. Thank you for teaching us to be strong women. And thank you for giving us a field hockey family that lives on, all these years later. We were proud to play for you.”