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For St. Joseph’s Prep’s Liam Johnson, a fitting end to family’s legacy of linebacking greatness

Playing in his last game, Johnson set a career high with five sacks in the Hawks' victory in the PIAA Class 6A state final.

Senior linebacker Liam Johnson of St. Joseph's Prep with five sacks in the Hawks' 35-13 win over Central Dauphin in the PIAA Class 6A state title game Saturday night in Hershey.
Senior linebacker Liam Johnson of St. Joseph's Prep with five sacks in the Hawks' 35-13 win over Central Dauphin in the PIAA Class 6A state title game Saturday night in Hershey.Read moreBob Williams For The inquirer

HERSHEY, Pa. -- St. Joseph’s Prep players and coaches were prepared to pose for a commemorative picture under the scoreboard Saturday following their 35-13 victory over Central Dauphin in the PIAA Class 6A state championship game.

One athlete was missing.

“’Liam! Liam! Get down here,’” players and coaches yelled from one end of the field at Hersheypark Stadium to the other, exhorting senior Liam Johnson to end a television interview and join the celebration.

Johnson grabbed a football, dropped it, scooped it and raced across the frigid turf like a linebacker returning a fumble for a touchdown.

Reaching his teammates, Johnson spiked the football and dove into the pile for the photos that would forever preserve the moments after the final game of his career.

“Unbelievable,” Johnson said later, standing on the field as the Hawks and their supporters basked in the afterglow of the program’s second straight state title and third in the seniors’ four seasons in crimson and gray.

Johnson’s spike was more than just an emphatic end to his full-field run from postgame interview to team photo.

It also was the exclamation point on perhaps the best game of his career.

“He was all over the field,” St. Joseph’s coach Tim Roken said.

Johnson was officially credited with 10 tackles as St Joseph’s defense shut down a Central Dauphin team that scored 65 in a Nov. 29 state semifinal win over Downingtown West.

Unofficially, Johnson generated five sacks, a signature performance in his last game in a Hawks uniform.

“It feels great, but I attribute that to Coach Stratz [defensive coordinator Shawn Stratz] and all the work he puts in,” Johnson said. "He had us so well prepared for this game, a lot of late nights at the Prep this week.

“It’s a crazy feeling, but it’s not an individual performance. It was everyone else’s work that made me shine.”

Roken said Johnson, as team captain and vocal defensive leader, sometimes needed to get the Hawks into position without input from the coaching staff.

“He was calling it a lot out there,” Roken said. “We were trying to get signals in, but it’s loud here and he is so prepared, calling a lot himself, putting those guys in right positions.

“His preparation is everything.”

A Princeton recruit who lives in Moorestown, N.J., Johnson is renowned in St. Joseph’s Prep football circles for his film study, sure tackling and leadership skills.

The same was true for his three older brothers, all of whom played linebacker for the Prep and went on to serve as key players for their college teams.

“Eleven years,” Johnson said of the run of siblings who have played linebacker for the Prep, a remarkable stretch that ended Saturday night.

The oldest brother, Paul, was a captain at Amherst. Thomas Johnson was a senior captain at Princeton in 2018. James Johnson was a standout junior linebacker for Princeton this past season.

Liam plans to follow in the footsteps of two of his brothers, starting in September.

“They taught me everything I know,” Johnson said of his brothers. “They taught me leadership skills, they taught me how to play linebacker with passion.”

All linebackers. All leaders.

But only one of them, only the youngest, finished his career with five sacks, a full-field, postgame run with a football tucked under his arm, and a spike worthy of a flamboyant running back.

“I just want to thank Prep football for giving me such unbelievable opportunities,” Johnson said.

Basking in the cold, clear radiance of another state championship, Johnson seemed to suddenly realize that his career was over.

He shook his head in wonder.

“It’s crazy -- I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life after this,” Johnson said.