MARTINS FERRY — Justin Kropka’s memories of Martins Ferry football go as far back as 1979 when he was just 3-years old.
He was at Nelson Field that November and remembers Purple Rider Jimmy Johnson scoring a late touchdown to lift Ferry to a victory against its arch rival.
“Jimmy Johnson was my favorite guy in the world and I still have my ‘shred the Reds’ shirt from that game,” Kropka admitted.
As he got older, Martins Ferry football continued to play a large part of his life through his time as a manager, player and assistant coach.
“All I ever wanted to do with my life was play football and, specifically play for Martins Ferry, Ohio State and then the Cleveland Browns,” Kropka laughed. “I didn’t have any plans after that, but after I got into high school, I realized Martins Ferry was the best I was ever going to do (in terms of playing).”
Though he’s been removed from Martins Ferry football since he accepted the head coaching position at Harrison Central in 2004, Kropka proves that people can go home again.
During Tuesday’s special Martins Ferry City Schools Board of Education meeting, Kropka, who most recently was the head coach at John Marshall, was unanimously approved as the 31st head football coach in Martins Ferry history.
“It really seems surreal,” Kropka said. “From the little kid who grew up a Martins Ferry football fan with the jersey of his favorite players and then fast forward 40 years and now here I am in charge of (the program). I feel a strong responsibility to get this right because I feel like I owe so much to this place.”
Kropka takes over for Chas Yoder who stepped down in January when he was named the elementary school principal. Yoder held the position for four seasons and had the unenviable task of replacing legendary head coach Dave Bruney after his retirement following the 2017 season.
“When this job opened, I got a lot of calls from a lot of people about it and I started thinking about my life, where it’s gone and did some reflecting,” Kropka said. “Other than my immediate family, no place had had a great affect on my me than Martins Ferry. Whether it’s the school, football program, community or the people, everything has been positive. I feel like I owe it to Martins Ferry to come back and try to help turn this program back around. I feel like this is a way I can pay people back because there’s no chance without Martins Ferry City Schools and Martins Ferry, in general, I turn out the way I did.”
Though Martins Ferry is home, Kropka called delivering the news of his departure to his Monarch players one of the toughest things he’s ever done in coaching.
“That was an awful conversation to have,” Kropka admitted.
“I loved those kids and they had bought in. Frankly, we played above our talent level the entire season (in 2021). They never quit believing and we were having one of the best offseasons I’ve been a part of at any level. I’ll make sure I do anything I can to make the transition easier on the next (JM) coach, but I am still very sad that I won’t be able to finish the job with those guys that we started last season, but I have total confidence in those guys to get it done without me.”
As for what Kropka is inheriting at Martins Ferry, the Purple Riders limped through a 1-9 season and dressed just 26 players for the final game at Bellaire in late October. Of those players, 12 are seniors, so Kropka finds himself with some immediate work ahead.
“Building culture and programs is what I feel like I am best at,” Kropka said. “I know what it takes because I’ve done it before. It takes a lot of patience and probably baby steps. I don’t think the situation is any one person’s fault. It’s just been a lot of factors coming together to end up at this point.”
At just 27 years old, Kropka was charged with building the Harrison Central program. In 13 seasons at the helm, he was 73-57 and guided the Huskies to three playoff appearances. Along with that, Kropka was on the staff at Wheeling University for three seasons as it continued to build its foundation of the still extremely young program.
“We’re going back to square one (at Martins Ferry),” Kropka revealed. “We probably had more raw material at Harrison Central when I got there, but there wasn’t the tradition like there is at Martins Ferry. I am hoping to use that tradition to our advantage.”
Kropka hasn’t done enough studying of his returning roster to know exactly what his offensive and defensive approach is going to be, but he said to expect many of the intangible things that the Purple Riders have been known for such as playing with great effort and discipline.
“We can’t control how much talent we have, but we can control many of the little things that are involved,” Kropka said.
Increasing the roster size is one of the immediate tasks that Kropka plans to begin to address as soon as next week when his off-season program formally begins.
“We have to get more numbers out because you can’t get better if you can’t practice,” Kropka said. “We have to get kids back to wanting to play football for Martins Ferry. That’s how I was and how everyone who has played for Martins Ferry was.”
Kropka has already started the process of building his coaching staff and hopes to have it completed well before the end of the school year.
Justin and his wife, Trina, have two children — a daughter Campbell, who is a sophomore at Bridgeport; and a son, Colby, who is a seventh grader at Martins Ferry.
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