High School Football

Investigation of Northwestern coach focused on football activities

Take a tour of the Northwestern Trojans’ new football players’ lounge

Northwestern (S.C.) football coach James Martin revealed the school’s new football players’ lounge May 30, 2018. Everything in the lounge was donated by community members. Martin hopes it will help build relationships between the coaches and players.
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Northwestern (S.C.) football coach James Martin revealed the school’s new football players’ lounge May 30, 2018. Everything in the lounge was donated by community members. Martin hopes it will help build relationships between the coaches and players.

A Rock Hill Schools investigation into Northwestern High School head football coach James Martin concluded last week.

According to a letter from the district responding to parent complaints, two football-related activities have been halted, and the letter does not attribute any wrongdoing to Martin.

Mychal Frost, spokesman for Rock Hill Schools, confirmed that a copy of the letter The Herald obtained had been sent by the district. The copy of the district’s letter was provided to The Herald by recipients, Alisha and Greg Johnson II.

Frost first confirmed to The Herald on April 3 that there was an investigation.

“We are investigating claims and are not able to comment further at this time,” he wrote in an email to The Herald. “This remains a personnel matter that is being addressed by school district officials.”

The Johnsons’ son, Gregory, is a sophomore football player at Northwestern. The couple prompted the investigation after raising concerns that included what they described as athletes getting injured in the football team’s weightlifting class.

“Thank you for bringing your concerns about the Northwestern Football program to our attention through emails and during our meeting on March 19. As you indicated in your correspondence dated March 15, 2019, your hope was to keep our students safe. Student safety is our primary focus at every campus, every day,” reads the letter’s opening lines.

The Johnsons said their son told them about kids getting injured in the football team’s weightlifting class. The Johnsons’ concern increased when their own son injured his lower back in late February, according to the parents. The Johnsons say their son was injured in the weightlifting class. The Johnsons said they took their son to a chiropractor, who wrote Gregory a note excusing him from lifting weights for several days while his back healed.

A 5-foot-10, 200-pound sophomore, Gregory was the top tackler on the Northwestern football team in 2018. The Johnsons said playing time or perceived slights by the coach are not an issue.

“We had no reason,” said Alisha Johnson. “It really hurt us to say anything.”

“Our whole concern is kids’ safety,” said Greg Johnson II.

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James West usually teaches weightlifting classes at Northwestern. He is a National Strength and Conditioning Association-certified specialist and a National Athletic Trainers Association-certified athletic trainer. He’s taught in the field for 19 years.

The Johnsons said their son told them Martin ran the weightlifting class this semester. Northwestern principal Hezekiah Massey said Grady and Knox Baggett, assistant football coaches, are the official teachers of record in the football weightlifting class.

According to the South Carolina Department of Education’s qualifications search, Martin has a social studies certification. The Baggetts, Grady and Knox, have certifications to teach several subjects, including physical education.

Frost said the state of South Carolina requires only P.E. certification for teachers overseeing weightlifting classes.

Not long after the Baggetts took over the weightlifting class, Gregory Johnson told his parents the team began to lift weights every day. A copy of the weight training program provided to The Herald by the Johnsons shows Olympic-style lifts were incorporated in the workout, including maneuvers like cleans, snatches and jerks.

“The true Olympic lifts are very technical, but by all means safe if taught correctly and gone through all progressions,” said Winthrop University strength and conditioning coach Ben Abbott.

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‘Why and when we do it’

An email from the Johnsons to the district claims that during a March 4 meeting with Martin, the coach told the parents he had shown his weightlifting plan to University of South Carolina strength and conditioning coach Jeff Dillman. Greg Johnson II emailed Dillman to learn more about the interactions with Martin.

In the last of several email exchanges, provided to The Herald by Johnson II, Dillman wrote, “I have spoken with Coach Martin and also told him that it is not what you do, it is how you do it.”

Dillman wrote in the email that he couldn’t say if the weightlifting plan was being taught correctly because he had not observed Martin teaching it. Dillman added, “That is why I don’t like to give coaches workouts because they don’t understand why and when we do it.”

Dillman confirmed the email exchange with Johnson II during an April 3 phone call with The Herald. Dillman declined to comment about Northwestern during that call. But he said kids get hurt when there is too much weight on the bar, or a breakdown in technique or coaching.

“I don’t think they did it maliciously,” Alisha Johnson said. “They just did not know how to do it.”

Asked by The Herald if he thought there was a safety issue in the weight room, Northwestern principal Hezekiah Massey said last week, “That is a personnel matter that is continually being investigated.”

Part of the Rock Hill Schools’ investigation looked into the Olympic lifts and determined they should stop.

“The physical education teachers are certified to conduct weight training that is outlined by the P.E. standards,” the letter said. “However, upon further review, staff members have ceased using the Olympic type lifts in the weight room, including power cleans.”

Cortisone shots

The investigation also looked into whether Martin recommended Gregory Johnson receive a cortisone shot, in a situation not related to weightlifting.

The Johnsons told The Herald their son injured his ankle late in the 2018 season. It was the day before the Trojans faced Boiling Springs in the 5A state playoffs when Gregory Johnson told Martin about the injury.

The Johnsons wrote in an email to the district, which was shared with The Herald, that Martin told Gregory, if he wanted to play in the game, he should get a cortisone shot. The email also said that Martin told Gregory that if he went to the athletic trainer she would hold him out of action for a few weeks.

Martin said he had a doctor who would give Gregory the shot, according to the Johnsons.

The Johnsons said they texted Martin that night, asking for the name of the doctor. Martin texted them back a photo of a doctor’s business card. That text was shared with The Herald.

Frost told The Herald that “If a student is injured while at school or while in the care of the school, there is an expectation that an adult works with student to seek proper care from the appropriate staff member or medical professional. Circumstances can vary as well as the type of injury, which changes who is involved in the immediate care of the student. On campus, assistance is often provided by the Certified Athletic Trainer or the Registered Nurse.”

Here is Rock Hill Schools’ response to the Johnsons’ claims in the letter:

“Coach Martin fully understands that he cannot diagnose or prescribe a course of medical treatment. He stated he was offering to help make a contact if needed. He recognizes that the doctor would diagnose the injury and recommend a course of treatment based upon the injury.”

The investigation also addressed an activity the Johnsons described as ‘hazing,’ taken from Randy Jackson’s book, “Culture Defeats Strategy.”

The district’s investigation letter described the activity as “tug of war -- one athlete against another -- in front of the team to earn a t-shirt.” The letter said the activity will no longer be replicated.

The investigation also looked into an alleged Title IX violation against the Johnsons’ daughter, when she wasn’t allowed to train with the Northwestern football team at District 3 Stadium. She was allowed to work out in the same facility, leading the district to conclude it was not a policy or legal violation.

“The football coach told your daughter to work out on the visitor-side steps, which provided her the same workout activity on the opposite side of the stadium,” said the letter. “The same workout facility was provided to both males and females, and as such, no violation of policy or law occurred.”

‘Very disturbed’

Martin was named head coach of Northwestern’s football team in March 2018, after leading the Trojans in the final seven games of the 2017 season as interim head coach, and following the firing of David Pierce five games into that season. Martin immediately set about trying to energize the program, outfitting a room with a pool table, video games and a barber’s chair for gameday haircuts, accessible only by Trojan football players.

The Johnsons said they are not satisfied with the investigation results and will appeal to Rock Hill Schools superintendent Bill Cook.

“We’re very disturbed with the results of the investigation,” said Alisha Johnson on Monday afternoon. “We feel as though they failed to acknowledge the facts and all the evidence was ignored.”

Johnson said she and her husband will meet with Cook on April 9 to discuss the investigation findings.

“And then appeal to the board if justice is not served,” Johnson added.

Bret McCormick joined The Herald in July, 2012. In the years since, the Charlotte native’s creative and original coverage of sports in York, Chester and Lancaster counties has won numerous state and national awards.
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