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Thursday, August 11, 2022

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Tony Gwynn (Photo: Ernie Anderson) Tony Gwynn (Photo: Ernie Anderson)

A Gift From Tony

A community mentoring program launched while Tony Gwynn was head coach just keeps on giving.
By Coleen L. Geraghty

Tony Gwynn (’81) gave generously to San Diego throughout his lifetime. “Mr. Padre” was a tireless ambassador for the city and for his always-a-bridesmaid baseball team. His benevolence extended to the San Diego community through the Tony Gwynn Foundation and his involvement in the Padre Scholars program, which awards college scholarships to academically talented, financially challenged local students.  

Eight years before cancer ended his life in 2014, the celebrated San Diego State University alumnus made another gift that never grabbed the headlines.

Gwynn helped jump-start the SDSU Big Brother Program, a mentoring initiative created by then-assistant coach Anthony Johnson (’90). At its inception, the initiative paired student-athletes from the SDSU baseball team with underrepresented students in the King-Chavez Neighborhood Schools.

Johnson has a wealth of stories from the early days of the program, when youngsters would visit SDSU to watch a baseball game and meet Coach Gwynn.

“Are you famous?” one asked, and Gwynn—with his signature laugh—admitted that yes, he was.

A proud legacy

Johnson has led the program for 11 years during its growth to include student-athletes from the softball, lacrosse and tennis teams; its name change to the SDSU Big Brother/Sister program; and its move from Barrio Logan to the Learn 4 Life charter school in Lakeside, where Johnson is now assistant principal.

Hundreds of SDSU student-athletes have participated. Record-breaking Aztec pitcher Stephen Strasburg, now with the Washington Nationals, and Aztec slugger Greg Allen, drafted in 2014 by the Cleveland Indians, continue to keep in touch with their “little brothers.”

Mark Martinez has given the program his full support since he succeeded Gwynn as baseball head coach.

Aztec record-holder

Johnson, also known as AJ, was himself an exceptional student-athlete at SDSU. Effective at second and third bases, shortstop and outfield, he was an all-Region VII and all-Western Athletic Conference selection as a senior when he hit .329 with 47 runs scored, 39 RBIs and 16 stolen bases. He still ranks in the Aztec top 10 in career triples and holds a career batting average of .313.
Since graduating, Johnson has served Aztec baseball for 16 seasons in several roles, including assistant director of operations, volunteer assistant coach and baseball ambassador, but the mentoring program is his proudest achievement.

“AJ gets so animated when he talks about Big Brothers/Sisters,” said SDSU softball scholarship player Jenavee Peres. “We were all excited to take part.”

Field of dreams

Peres, a catcher for Aztec softball, began working with the Big Brother/Sister program in fall 2017. Her mentee is an eighth-grader “who just needs someone she can vent to. She reminds me of the little girl that used to be inside of me,” Peres said.

A senior majoring in criminal justice and sociology, she matter-of-factly recalled the challenges of growing up poor in Anaheim, California. After her family lost their house, they lived with relatives for a time. Peres said the setbacks made her strong and humble, and taught her to look for the happiness in life—lessons she tries to convey to her little “sister.”

Although the current Lakeside-based program Big Brother/Sister is smaller in scope than the original, Johnson was determined to relocate it when he moved from the King-Chavez Neighborhood Schools.

Aztec first baseman Jordan Verdon shares Johnson’s commitment. A native San Diegan from Granite Hills High School, Verdon recalls attending Aztec baseball games as a kid and, years later, getting to meet Gwynn personally when he committed to SDSU in 2014.

The kinesiology major has been a mentor for each of his three years as an Aztec. He helped his first “little brother” overcome shyness and form new friendships at school. But the support goes both ways, Verdon said. Through mentoring, he learned to reevaluate his own strengths and weaknesses and appreciate the advantages he has enjoyed.

“I’m just playing baseball, but to those kids, I’m a celebrity,” he said.