By BRENT STUBBS
Senior Sports Reporter
THE Eleuthera Softball Association’s Jets, the New Providence Softball Association’s perennial kingpins Budweiser Eagles and Truckers softball teams and the men’s national softball team, lost one of its most talented and versatile players in the death of Van “Lil Joe” Johnson.
Johnson, short in stature, but known for his speed as a player, passed away on Thursday, February 8 at The Princess Margaret Hospital.
The 60-year-old is survived by his parents Lillian and Prince Petty. His father, Benson Johnson, predeceased him.
Johnson, who moved back home in Eleuthera a couple years ago to continue to work at the Ministry of Works, has eight children - Leonardo McKenzie, Amber Johnson, Cailyn Johnson, Sherese Johnson, Joshua Johnson, Mariah Gibson and Diego Hutchinson.
He also has eight sisters Aretha Rolle, Avis Bethel, Vanessa Mayne, Christine and Jennarosa Johnson, Beatrice Hall, Jodie E Wilson and Tamiko Williams and four brothers Thaddeus and Ezra Petty and Ettiene and Jeremy Johnson.
Mayne, speaking on behalf of the siblings, described Johnson as a “protector, surrogate father, confidante, friend and a great big brother.”
When Van Johnson migrated to Nassau, he couldn’t make the Budweiser Eagles’ line-up in the NPSA, so he was encouraged to play in the B division with the T-Bird Flyers.
Despite not being on the team, he attended the Eagles’ practices and eventually was allowed to play for Budweiser.
According to long-time manager Philip ‘Sparrow’ Saunders, Johnson was a welcomed addition with his tremendous speed that he executed on the base path.
“He was a guy willing to fit in any position. He was a guy you would like to have on your team,” Saunders recalled. “He could hit and run, but the weakest part of his game was on defence in the infield.
“He eventually moved to the outfield where he turned out to be a great defensive player. He was also a very nice fella. It’s so sad to know that he passed away. He didn’t have a bad reputation. Nobody could say that he was one to argue with anybody in the ballpark.”
Eagles’ ace pitcher Richard ‘the Lion-Heart’ Johnson said he had fond memories of Johnson both as a player, as a friend and a brother.
“We started out together with Elvis, Jerry Rolle, Marcus Johnson, George Johnson, Edmund and Edney Bethel as little boys in JC (James Cistern) with the Prop Jets, the younger version of the big Jets,” Johnson said. “We played a little in the league
(Eleuthera Softball Association), but we didn’t do well because we were scared and everyone was bigger than us. Then we moved to the Jets and the Guinness Jets and a number of other teams before we came to Nassau.”
While Richard Johnson was establishing himself with Budweiser, when Van Johnson came to the Eagles, the rest was history.
“He was hard-headed, fast and a very good ball player,” Richard John- son said. “He put the ball down with his bunt and got on base. He was the table setter for us for a lot of years. We enjoyed him and we enjoyed playing with him.”
Marvin ‘Tougie’ Wood, who played on many Eagles and Truckers championship teams, called it a hard pill to swallow.
“This is a hard one. Lil Joe was the heart of the Truckers’ organisation for years,” Wood said. “He was also a national team player, whom I played on the side. He was a man small in stature, but a giant of a man. He’s going to be missed a lot.”
For those men reading this, Wood also offered this piece of advice.
“For all of the older guys, let’s take care of our bodies and go and get checked up regularly,” he stated. “If we can prevent any type of sickness, let’s do it. Lil Joe was an eye-opener for many of us. He will be missed.”
From 1999 until 2015, veteran coach/manager Godfrey ‘Gully’ Burnside said he got the opportunity to view Johnson as a player, either on the opposite side of the field or on the same side as members of the men’s national team.
“He was a lot of energy, fast and one of those guys who was really enthused
about playing the game,” Burnside said. “What I liked the most about Van is every time we took some of the younger fellows, he was able along with Greg Gardiner, to work with them.
“He was never one to keep his talent to himself. He worked with them, demonstrated to them and he encouraged them. I know he did the same with my son when he was playing. So he will be missed,”
Martin ‘Pork’ Burrows said his relationship with Johnson transcended beyond the baseball diamond or softball field.
“Van wasn’t just a teammate, or a friend, but he was like a brother,” Burrows said. “When Van came to Nassau, I had the opportunity to make sure that he got employment over at Paradise Island. “But we went a long way back. So it’s a tough loss for me.”
Shocked by his passing, Minister of Youth, Sports and Culture Mario Bowleg said he will follow up with his contacts in Eleuthera because Johnson was very committed and dedicated to the game of softball.
“He always wanted to ensure that the Eleuthera teams were always represented in every aspect as it relates to softball,” Johnson said. “So we will miss a legend of softball in the country. I hope we can find a way to remember him through what he has given back to softball.”
Plans have already been announced for his funeral service, scheduled for Saturday, February 24 at 1pm at the Wesley Methodist Church in James Cistern, Eleuthera.
A memorial service is set for Thursday at 7pm at the Global Outreach Ministries in James Cistern and on Thursday, February 22 in New Providence.