As a Reeltown alum, Matt Johnson knows all about the storied past of Rebels football and the great accomplishments the program has had over the years. This fall, Johnson’s latest squad proved that Reeltown’s success on the gridiron isn’t ancient history.
Reeltown returned to prominence in Class 2A this fall by starting the year 9-1 and capturing the Region 4-2A title for the second straight year. Johnson’s Rebels took it to a whole different level come the postseason by winning four straight games — including a 29-28 overtime thriller against Leroy in the semifinals — to advance to the state championship game for the first time since 2010.
Thanks to Reeltown’s unforgettable season, Johnson has been named Opelika-Auburn News' Coach of the Year.
“(The season) was phenomenal. This is a special group of guys. We've got a special bond. They were freshmen when I came to Reeltown (as head coach), so we started varsity football at the same time,” Johnson said. “They had to kind of go through some fire early to build this thing to where we wanted to get to. I'm extremely proud of them. They've accomplished so much. They won the region two years in a row, and of course there's what they've done this year.
“What they've done here has just been remarkable.”
The Rebels did plenty of winning in 2019, but Johnson pointed to the loss that ended the previous season as being crucial for this year’s team.
After dominating the region in 2018, the Rebels unexpectedly exited the playoffs in the first round courtesy a 26-21 upset by Daleville. As devastating as the loss was for the Reeltown players and coaches, Johnson recognized right away that everyone involved with the team was taking the loss in stride.
The defeat stung, and the hurt it created became motivation for 2019.
“In our first staff meeting that we had after that loss, everybody was on the same page on what we have to do to get over that hump and what we had to do for the buy-in. The message was clear — it was resounding. It was one voice. The kids just grabbed a hold of it,” Johnson said. “I knew that they had a chance to do something special because of how they attacked this offseason. It was by far the best offseason that I've been a part of because of how those kids bought in.
“They weren't dragging to go in the weight room or dragging to go on the field — they were motivated. They were ready to get better every single day.”
That motivation quickly paid dividends. Reeltown rolled through its regular season with relative ease, as the Rebels won their first eight games and only had two victories by less than 12 points. Reeltown delivered a tough wake-up call in a 27-26 loss to Ranburne in the regular-season finale, but Johnson again saw his players make the most of the unwelcomed setback.
After their first defeat of the season, the Rebels responded by taking care of Zion Chapel, J.U. Blacksher and G.W. Long to advance to the state semifinals against Leroy. What transpired between the Rebels and the Bears was nothing short of an instant classic, one that Reeltown got the upper hand in when Cameron Faison pushed through for a two-point conversion in overtime to give the home squad a one-point victory.
In Johnson’s many years as a player and a coach, no game compares to the Reeltown victory that set the team headed to the Super 7.
“I told (Cameron) when we were in the huddle, 'Hey, there is nobody that can keep you out of this end zone.' He shot right through there, and the rest was a blur,” Johnson said. “I've got some guys on staff who have been here for 27 years and guys who have been coaching for over 20 years. I've haven't been coaching that long, but that's by far the most special or exciting game that I've ever been a part of as a player and as a coach. It was just an unbelievable game. Our kids kept fighting.”
Reeltown’s luck ran out in Jordan-Hare Stadium against a talented Fyffe squad, but it didn’t make the journey less enjoyable for Johnson. He was sure to praise his players — particularly his seniors — after the loss, emphasizing to all of them that they have put Reeltown back on the map.
Now, the goal is to bring the blue map back to Reeltown.
“They've created an expectation with the program and how we do things, and that expectation is going to continue on. It's gotten better and better, and we're just going to keep going,” Johnson said. “There's no doubt we're losing an enormous chunk of really good football players and a big part of our team. Right now, we've got a lot of people who people haven't talked about a whole lot. That's exciting because I know what they're capable of. I'm excited to see what these guys will do.
“It's going to be a different team with a different style of football than what we've been playing, but I'm excited to see where that takes us.”