If you’re a Virginia Tech football fan, you’ve heard of guys like Shyrone Stith and Vince Hall. They are just two of many former Western Branch High School (Chesapeake, VA) players to go on and play for Virginia Tech. That’s one thing they’ve got in common. The other thing is their high school head coach, Lew Johnston.
Johnston is a legendary coach in the Tidewater. The long-time head coach at Western Branch, Virginia Tech fans read about him and his players a lot from the late 1990s through mid-2000s as the Hokies recruited Western Branch heavily.
Johnston has coached many great players, and he himself also played under a couple of pretty good coaches while attending William & Mary: Marv Levy and Lou Holtz. You may have heard of them. Having coached so many top players on so many good teams, and playing under a couple of Hall of Famers, it stands to reason that Johnston has some good stories. In 2020, he decided to turn those stories into a book.
Like many other ideas in 2020, the idea was born during quarantine.
“My high school coach when I was at Great Bridge [High School] in the 60s, Billy O’Brien, had written a book, and I read it years ago,” Johnston said. “I somehow pulled it back out, and in one of his chapters he had the questions, ‘who was your best quarterback, who was your best running back, who was your best team?’ And you can’t name just one. If you turn the pages in his book, he’s got like 30 different categories like ‘meanest player I ever coached’, ‘smartest player I ever coached.’
Johnston himself got a mention.
“For myself, it was ‘best player I coached who went on to coach in high school himself.’
As a way to cure the doldrums of quarantine, Johnston began to make his own list, breaking it down into 30-40 different categories. He posted it on his website, and it eventually made it to Facebook, where it drew a lot of comments.
“One of our friends who was an English teacher at Western Branch, her post was ‘Lew, you ought to write a book.’”
Fast forward to January of 2021, and The Best Is (Still) Yet To Come is now available for purchase on Amazon, and it’s quite a read, especially if you are interested in former Virginia Tech players such as the aforementioned Stith and Hall, but also guys like Jeff Holland, Emmett Johnson and Keith Burnell.
As Virginia Tech fans, you know all about Stith’s career in Blacksburg, but you probably didn’t know that he was originally cut from his JV football team at Western Branch.
“Shyrone came out for football as a freshman in high school, for the JV team,” Johnston remembers. “He was probably about 5-4, 125 pounds. He was just kind of lost in the shuffle. Our JV coach came to me and said ‘I’ve got to cut some kids, we just have too many, we don’t even have enough uniforms.’ One of the kids that he cut was Shyrone Stith, a little bitty freshman that we thought didn’t have a chance of getting on the field, and if he did he would probably get killed.”
In a fortuitous set of circumstances, Stith didn’t end up getting cut.
“He posted the cut list on Friday, but Shyrone never came by and saw the list on the weekend, so he reported for practice on Monday. On Monday morning, we found out that we had like 12 kids on the JV team who weren’t eligible because of SOL tests. And they were all good players. Well fortunately, because Shyrone didn’t look at the list over the weekend, he shows up for practice on Monday, and it’s a good thing he did because we needed him at running back.”
If Stith had stopped by Western Branch over the weekend and seen the cut list, perhaps he never would have found his way to Virginia Tech, maybe he wouldn’t have started in the National Championship Game against Florida State, or even gone on to the NFL.
Reporting for practice on Monday, even though he wasn’t supposed to, it didn’t take Stith long to start turning heads.
“The part that stands out to me, we ran a pursuit drill where a coach would toss the ball to a JV running back and he’d just haul tail to the sideline, a scared rabbit, that’s what we called the drill because you’ve got the varsity first team defense running you down,” Johnston said. “Well, this one kid, he takes the toss and he’s down the sideline and nobody is touching him. And he does it again, and again. I finally asked the JV coach ‘who is this kid?’ The JV coach said ‘that’s the Stith kid.’ And I said ‘the one you were going to cut?!?’
Long coaching careers are filled with stories like that, and The Best Is (Still) yet To Come is nearly pages of such stories.
“As that unfolded, I thought ‘you know, I really ought to mention this guy and that guy’ and the next thing you know, I had 400 pages. It was a labor of love. If it never sells a copy, I just enjoyed reminiscing.”
Ultimately football coaches are teachers, and Johnston remembers one of his first teaching moments. It came when he was still in high school.
“I had actually started thinking about coaching when I was in high school,” Johnston said. “My best friend played on the basketball team, and I was the scorekeeper. He was shooting free throws in a game one night, and he kept clanging it off the back of the rim. So I yelled at him, I said ‘Mike, step back about three inches. Just move back a little bit and shoot it normal.’ Swish. Swish. I looked at him, and he looked at me, and it was like ‘wow, this is really neat trying to teach somebody something and they succeed at it.’ I think that was sort of the seed that was germinated.”
Johnston remembers the lesson that he taught in that high school basketball game, and through his work as the current Character Coach for the Western Branch football team, and his book, he hopes to continue teaching. The title of the book represents the turn Johnston’s career took after his original retirement. After taking a year off, he missed working with players, so he became a middle school coach, and then took the head coaching job at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy, where is career culminated in a State Championship victory in his final game in 2015. It was his first and only State Championship, which is something that he never expected to experience after he originally retired in 2006.
“I thought in 2006 when I retired that that was it…I just wanted to encourage people, as I was wrapping the book up, that you may think it’s as good as it’s going to get, but you keep walking with the Lord, he’s going to keep blessing you, things will keep happening, and the best is still yet to come. That’s sort of the message that I’m trying to leave with the book.”
Click here to purchase your own copy of The Best Is (Still) Yet To Come.