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Veteran teacher called hero in Cold Spring school shootings
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Mark Johnson (MPR Photo/Tim Post)

Cold Spring, Minn. — Even at 50, and even under stress, Mark Johnson was intimidating enough to disarm with a shout a high-school freshman who had already allegedly shot two students. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound former football coach was sitting on the bleachers in the Rocori High School gym Wednesday, preparing for his next class when he heard a sound he couldn't tune out.

"I heard a shot in front of me," Johnson said. "I looked up and saw Seth (Bartell) on the gym floor. He was right in front of me ... Then I saw Jason (McLaughlin) with the gun. He pointed it at me."

Johnson thrust out his hand and shouted, "No!"

"Fortunately for me and the other kids, he put down the gun," Johnson told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis. "I grabbed the gun right away. He didn't struggle."

Johnson, a former football player at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, took the 15-year-old suspect to the school office, then ran back and tried to help senior Aaron Rollins as the boy lay bleeding in a hall outside the locker room.

Rollins had been on his way to Johnson's racquet-sports class when he was shot, said Brian Athman, another Rocori teacher. The kids were going to play badminton.

Later that night on the streets of Cold Spring, stunned students and residents said Johnson, who has taught in Cold Spring for 27 years, probably saved the lives many students.

"He is a hero," said Jordan Weber, a senior, who was in Johnson's strength-training class last year.

"It didn't surprise me to hear that he did it," said Lynn Ritter, who graduated from Rocori last year. "He's a sweetie at heart, but if I didn't know him, I'd be scared of him.

"He's a big guy."

Scott Hanna, the school's longtime baseball coach, had only praise for his former UMD football teammate from 1971-74.

"A very competitive man and very tough individual," he said of Johnson. "He's old-school. A tough guy, but a good guy. And a humble guy. It doesn't surprise me at all that he would risk his life to save others.

"If I had to go into battle with someone, he'd be my first choice."

To Johnson, only hours after the shooting, talk of heroism seemed irrelevant. Rollins was dead. Bartell, a freshman, was in critical condition with gunshot wound to the head.

He rejected a request for an interview from The Associated Press, but he said he wasn't heroic. "No," he said. "I wouldn't call it that. I was fortunate I got the gun away from him."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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