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Modest coach has a special knack

His name is Don Johnson.

He's not the movie star Don Johnson, but to Special Olympics athletes, Don Johnson of Williamsville is worth all the Oscars in Hollywood.

In fact this Don Johnson recently won another kind of award -- the Jefferson Award, named for the chief author of the Declaration of Independence.

"This award came as a huge surprise to me," Johnson says of the honor, co-sponsored by The Buffalo News and WNED-TV.

Johnson admits he avoids the spotlight. That modest attitude is another reason why Johnson, a University at Buffalo maintenance worker, is a winner.

"The recognition is very nice," he says, "but the true reward comes from sharing joy with athletes when receiving their ribbons or medals.

"I've learned more from these athletes than they have from my guidance."

Johnson is one of those Western New Yorkers, who, as News Publisher Stanford Lipsey says, "quietly, and without fanfare, donate their time and energy to making our community a better place to live."

For the past 15 years, Johnson has volunteered as a Special Olympics coach in Erie County.

"He impresses upon each athlete the Special Olympics oath -- let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt," said Mary Ann McClellan of Williamsville, who nominated Johnson. "To Don, the exercise and training is important -- the winning will come eventually."

Johnson and his wife, Carol, have a son, Eric, who was born with Down syndrome.

"His disability opened up a new world for us," Johnson recalls.

Eric began competing in Special Olympics at age 6, training at his school.

"After a few years, he moved to a training club in the Amherst area," Johnson says, referring to PARC, a parents group.

"I helped out when I was able, but the head coach's schedule prohibited her from continuing the program. Rather then seeing it disband, I took over."

Most of the athletes live in group homes, Johnson says.

"But some still live with their families. Each participant has his own strengths and weaknesses, and they learn from each other as much as they do from the coaches," he said.

The athletes prepare for regional and statewide competition.

"Our coaches are mainly parents and some dedicated group home workers. There's little 'showboating' on our teams -- more appreciation for effort put into each sport."

His job at UB enables him to coach evenings, said Johnson, the father of three. He took certification courses to teach sports like basketball and softball.

"I'm a high school umpire, and try to work my schedules around the Special Olympics practices and tournaments," he said.

"Don has a knack to bring his instruction to the appropriate level," McClellan noted. "He's an example of what a leader, an innovator, a gentle but strong guardian should be."

Have an idea about a local person whose life would make a good profile or a neighborhood issue worth exploring? E-mail: lcontinelli@buffnews.com; or write to Louise Continelli, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240.

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