Chris Johnson felt uneasy, and that stretched back several months ago.
The longtime head coach at Forbush was officially let go in January, after nearly a decade leading the Falcons' football program. And then came the coronavirus outbreak. But Johnson wanted to find another landing spot either as a head coach or assistant — anything.
"You know, we are all that way during this pandemic," Johnson said of the uncertainty. "But, like a lot of people who have been laid off their jobs, it's difficult trying to land something. It was troublesome, and always on my mind.
"... Really, I had given up hope. I didn't think that I'd be a head coach."
That search came to an end when West Stokes announced Johnson as its next head coach today. He takes over the football program previously led by Jimmy Upchurch, who retired in late June after nearly two decades guiding the Wildcats that included the school's lone NCHSAA Class 2-AA title in 2011 and a Class 2-A West Region final appearance last season.
The Stokes County Board of Education approved Johnson's hiring Monday night.
Johnson, who lives in Mount Airy and will be a physical education teacher at West Stokes, coached Forbush teams to a 44-67 record. He became aware of the West Stokes opening June 26, just a day prior to the Wildcats' announcement of Upchurch's retirement, during a conversation with Coach David Diamont of South Stokes. Johnson looked to join the Sauras as an assistant, while cleared to hold a teaching position within Yadkin County Schools.
Upchurch, who arrived at West Stokes in 2003 and compiled 137 wins in 17 seasons, moved to retire as a teacher and coach following a meeting to discuss safety protocols for limited football practices set to begin July 6 — the date for a lift of the dead period on high school sports in Stokes County and several surrounding districts. According to a report from The Stokes News on June 27, Upchurch and his wife, Crystal, entered a partnership last summer with longtime assistant Harrell Bowen and his wife, Jan, to open a restaurant and bar in Pilot Mountain dubbed The Tilted Ladder. Upchurch bought out Bowen's share of the company last fall, and it brought about a bigger time commitment for the former coach.
Johnson's hire for Travis Gammons, the athletics director at West Stokes who served as the interim coach upon Upchurch's departure, came on schedule — prior to Aug. 1. He said Johnson's knowledge of the program helped, since Forbush and the Wildcats both compete in the Western Piedmont Athletic 2-A.
"I think we're in a good place. I think we nailed it," Gammons said. "His passion and energy and knowledge are contagious. … He's widely respected around, specifically this area."
Johnson, who coached Forbush since 2010 before being replaced by Jeremy Funderburk in February, led the program to a 7-5 record with and a Class 2-A playoffs appearance during his final season. That record marked the most wins in a single season at Forbush since Pat Mitchell guided the team to an 11-2 mark in 2004.
Upchurch and Johnson crossed paths during the 1997 season when both coaches were on Kelly Holder's staff at Surry Central. He spent two years with the Golden Eagles, before serving an 11-year role as the defensive coordinator at Mount Airy under Holder. In that span, the Granite Bears reached the Class 1-A championship twice — even claiming a title in 2008 — prior to his arrival in East Bend.
Johnson's new role, however, was ideal.
"Somebody was looking after Chris Johnson, for sure," Johnson said. "Things couldn't have played out any better for me. … I couldn't have asked for a better situation."