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Cal Ripken coach finds recovery, succeeds on the field

by Jody Houle
Contributing Writer - Berlin Reporter

Cal Ripken head coach Duane Johnson has successfully coached the Astros and All Stars into championship wins this year. After years of drug use, he turned his life around, and, being four years clean in recovery, he used coaching as inspiration to remain clean. Pictured here from left to right is Johnson; Anthony Pizzuto, All Stars catcher; and assistant coach Rick Mercier. Courtesy Photo. (click for larger version)
July 31, 2017
BERLIN – As head coach of the Astros and the All Stars, he has led local Cal Ripken teams successfully this year. However, Duane Johnson, known as DJ, is a success story himself.

Born in Manchester and raised outside of Auburn, Johnson, 50, had a rough start at life. His sister and brother passed away when he was just a boy. However, he came from a hard-working family, he said, and he never went without.

He excelled in sports – especially in baseball and hockey.

"All through my school years I lived and breathed sports," said Johnson. "I was very fortunate to have been on a lot of winning teams. As I got older I shifted all my attention towards baseball and hockey, but it was baseball that would take hold of me."

He was an all-star from the ages of 10 to 18 and played in two Babe Ruth World Series, in four state titles and was one win away from the American Legion World Series. He received many accolades along the way including three MVPs and two outstanding pitcher of the year awards.

Things took a turn in his life.

"I am not sure where everything went wrong but somewhere in the 1980s I started experimenting with cocaine and other substances and from the very beginning I started losing things," he explained.

"I was drafted by the Chicago Cubs and basically threw that opportunity away. As my life went on I was in and out of trouble and was constantly trying to quit using drugs. I started coaching Little League and then Babe Ruth and it seemed to help. My dad, who was my absolute hero, said I had the 'it' factor in coaching and to never give it up. Although coaching helped, and, even winning several championships, I could not stop using drugs. As I watched several friends move on in life and raise their own families, I just kept making bad choices. This type of behavior would go on for years, there was a lot of good in my life but the bad was starting to outweigh the good by a wide margin. I've always had the heart to want to help people but could not help myself."

About 10 years ago, Johnson lost his dad as well as a lot of his family and decided to move to Berlin. He struggled for about six-and-a-half years and met his soulmate, Jennifer Douglass and took on a family of his own.

"This was the beginning of my change," he said.

He got diagnosed with an acute form of arthritis and became dependent on opiates. After a year or so, things "fell apart" he said.

"One night in October 2013 my girl and I were at the tail end of a bender when we turned to each other and simply said 'what the hell are we doing' and that was it," Johnson elaborated.

"We started going to meetings and taking responsibility for ourselves. We were close to homeless and broke but somehow, we managed to get by. Then day by day things started to get better."

Johnson decided to go to school at this point to pursue a career in substance abuse counseling. He was on the National Honor Society. He is currently one semester away from graduating with an associate's degree.

Although he was clean and sober and things were going well, he felt that something was missing. That's when he decided to go back to coaching.

"Lo and behold it was exactly what I had been missing," he exclaimed.

"I love the game and to see the kids happy and progressing is a great feeling. I never gave up and now whenever I can help, I do. Now it's all about what I can do to make things better. I'm no longer the problem, I'm part of the solution. This year has been amazing. It started out bad – some parents were concerned about my past and if I was capable of being a positive role model and instead of running away and giving in, I fought and asked them to just watch me with the kids and then make the judgments."

The coach said that the Cal Ripken board of directors as well as the President, Roger Fecteau, assistant coaches Mark Hartford and Rick Mercier all encouraged him to "push forward."

"He's a passionate coach," said Mercier. "He obviously loves baseball and passing on his knowledge to kids. I've been with him since the beginning of him coaching in Berlin and he truly cares about the kids – all of them – from the top players right down to the kid who is unsure baseball is for him. He's a great asset to Berlin baseball."

The Cal Ripken Astros, headed by Johnson, started out last and ended up first in the regular season championship and won the playoffs.

Johnson went on to coach the 12 and under All Star team, consisting of players from Berlin, Gorham and Milan, and the team won the district III championship.

"I'm very proud of all that but what makes me even prouder is that I now feel like a contributing, functioning member of society and for me it's all about the kids," he said. "I would like to thank everybody who supported me. If you are out there struggling and not sure you can change, well, you can and while it's not easy, it is possible and my greatest feat. It all starts with taking responsibility for everything in your life. I am the most grateful person you will ever meet. What those kids accomplished and all the strides that they made by letting me coach them is nothing compared to what they did for me."

Johnson will be coaching Cal Ripken next year and has started a new Babe Ruth league next year as well. The team will play in Berlin, Littleton and Conway.

He is also looking to start a local league this fall for ages 10-13. Games would be played the last week of August into September on Sunday evenings. For anyone interested, contact him at 915-3997.

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