By Joseph Garcia
When Liberty Hill fans see No. 35 running with the football, they are cheering for more than just a first down or a score – they are rooting for Senior tailback Jonathan “Johnny” Johnston.
Johnston’s life changed about a year and a half ago when he and his family, along with the Liberty Hill community, mourned the loss of his older brother E.J., who died from injuries suffered in a vehicle accident in March 2010.
Johnston, then a sophomore, is now in his senior year at Liberty Hill High School, and is having a stellar year playing tailback in his final season as a Panther.
“He picked up right where he left off last year,” said Liberty Hill Head Coach Jerry Vance. “He’s got some speed and quickness and he’s really evolved as a team leader for us. He’s done great.”
Before senior fullback Brandan Corn went down with a hand injury, he was poised to lead the team in rushing and touchdowns. However, since his departure in the first quarter of the Salado game, Johnston has seemingly shouldered the load for the Panthers as far as carries are concerned.
For the season, Johnston has accrued 1,192 yards and eight touchdowns on 139 carries, leading the team in each category. He also averages 8.6 yards per carry.
“It was a huge thing for me,” said Johnston of hitting 1,000 yards. “Coming into the Llano game, that was my 1,000-yard game and I always look back at the previous running backs and see where I am now compared to where they were. Reaching the 1,000-yard mark makes me feel like I’m up to par with the past running back.”
His highest output for a game came in the 41-14 win over Taylor when he rushed for 234 yards, including an 81-yard run, and a touchdown on only 12 carries.
Perhaps the most impressive stat for Johnston is that he has hit 100-yard total for rushing yards in eight of the nine games played thus far this season, which doesn’t surprise Coach Vance.
“That’s a position that we expect production out of,” Vance said. “He’s keeping in line with what we’ve done in the past from that tailback position and he’s a tough runner. There’s no doubt about that.”
As for the life-altering incident, Johnston said it really molded him into the young man he is today.
“That was a big changing point in my life,” Johnston offered. “Losing my brother made me figure out who I was as a man. It definitely put me on the forward path of trying to be the best I can.”
Johnston said E.J. continues to motivate him on the field as well.
“That’s why I have his name on the back of my helmet,” Johnston said. “Every day I set out to make my brother proud of me. Even though I can’t physically see if he is or not, I just have to go out there and do my best to honor him however I can.”
From Coach Vance’s perspective, he and the rest of the coaching family have set out to do anything and everything possible to guide Johnston along since his brother’s passing.
“You can let (a tragedy) build character or you can use it as an excuse to go in a different direction,” Vance said. “And Johnny, much to the credit to his parents (Jon and Tess Johnston), has overcome that tragedy.”
Vance said he is hopeful that being around the game of football has helped the healing process for Johnston.
“It’s by no means any less painful now than it was before,” Vance said. “But, he’s done a great job of coping with it and football sometimes gives a guy a chance to vent a lot of frustration in a positive manner. Hopefully that’s what we’ve done with Johnny. Maybe we’ve helped him do that and get through this and grow. He’s been a mature kid all along, but he’s really grown into a fine young man.”
Football “definitely has helped,” he said. “Being on a football team, all my teammates are pretty much brothers to me. Whenever I had a hard time they took me in and comforted me. They were there for me.”
The Liberty Hill coaching staff was no exception.
“It was the same thing,” Johnston said. “They are like parents to me basically…like another dad.”
As for Johnston’s future plans once graduated from Liberty Hill High School, well, it is still up in the air, but he would like to gait along the path that his older brother had already set for himself.
“I plan on going to a good college and somewhat following in my brother’s footsteps really,” he said. “I am looking into the military and after that, med school with thoughts of becoming a surgeon in the future.”
With the future still ahead of him, Johnston looks to the present and the challenges afoot, including playoffs and beating rival Burnet this week on senior night.
“I got my mind set on finishing the season and hopefully winning state,” Johnston said. “That’s everything we’ve been working for since the off-season. But beating the Bulldogs means everything to us. They are our biggest rivalry, they are the town right next to us and we have to go out with a bang. (Senior night) means a lot to me because it’s the last home game and it’s kind of to the point where you have to give it our all and don’t leave anything behind.”
One thing Johnston certainly never leaves behind is the everlasting memory of his older brother E.J. as he continues to honor him in such a way his family, teammates, coaches and the Liberty Hill community cherishes and appreciates.
Jonathan Johnston lunges into the end zone to give the Panthers a 17-14 lead over Lampasas with 2:36 left to play in last Friday’s nail-biter against the Badgers. (www.ThunderstruckPhotos.com)