Valley Christian-San Jose brothers Kirk and Collin Johnson have the Warriors poised for a big year.
By DAVID KIEFER | Conrtibutor
La Grange, Texas, is about as far removed from San Jose as can be — in distance, lifestyle, privilege and tolerance.
The town lies between Houston and Austin, on Highway 71. It’s rural and mostly flat and holds a steady population of about 4,500.
But the influences of La Grange can be felt in San Jose, particularly in the lives of brothers Kirk and Collin Johnson, outstanding football players at Valley Christian High. There are certain principles that have been ingrained into their understanding, just as they were in their father before them.
Be a man of integrity. Be a man of your word. Treat women with respect. Be humble, but confident. Never forget where you came from or how you got here.
The Johnson brothers owe a lot to the leadership and love abiding in a modest wood-frame house outside La Grange, the one with a tin roof and no indoor plumbing. This was the home of Jessie Mae Johnson, Kirk and Collin’s grandmother.
Life was not easy for Jessie Mae. Her education ended at sixth grade. She lived in an era and part of the country where African-Americans had much to fear. She was a single mother of 11 who raised her family on welfare.
But Jessie Mae did not feel sorry for herself. In fact, she refused to let her children use circumstances as an excuse for failure. Her eighth child, Johnnie Johnson, not only became the first in the family to go to college, but he became an All-America safety at University of Texas, a first-round draft pick, and played 10 seasons in the NFL. A younger son, Bobby, also was a defensive back at Texas and played four years in the NFL.
“She only had a sixth-grade education, but she had a Ph.D. in being able to encourage and empower her children,” Johnnie said. “She raised her kids by using the Bible as her primary tool. She had the ability to inspire.”
When Johnnie was a nervous high school freshman approaching his first varsity game, Jessie Mae asked him this question: “If you did not show anyone you were a freshman, how would they know? … God gave you the same gifts as any senior.”
Her wisdom was vital as Johnnie broke the cycle of poverty. It also became the cornerstone in the maturation of Kirk and Collin. Johnnie and his wife Julie continue to raise their children, including Valley Christian sophomore Camille, a track and basketball standout, with the lessons learned from Jessie Mae.
Kirk, a senior, and Collin, a junior, have listened well. They treat others with respect and greet strangers with a firm handshake. This is a habit passed down like a valuable heirloom, with its origin from legendary Texas coach Darrell Royal, who once pulled a shy recruit aside and said:
“Johnnie, you are a gifted and talented young man. You have every reason to be proud. From now on, when you greet someone, no matter who they are, look them right in the eyes, extend your hand, shake theirs firmly, and say, ‘Hi, I’m Johnnie Johnson, pleased to meet you.’”
Kirk and Collin seek out their teachers and remain in the classroom at lunch to make sure they grasp every concept. At practice, they remain on hand to counsel and encourage teammates.
“I’ve never seen anyone work harder on and off the field,” said Warriors’ junior running back Morian Walker, himself a major-college prospect. “They’re always either going 110 percent or helping people. They’re role models — they’re role models to me, just in the way they carry themselves.”
Kirk and Collin each are on the cusp of a breakthrough season, a potentially lethal one for Valley Christian.
Kirk (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) has rushed for 2,697 yards with 32 touchdowns over the past two seasons, with a career average of 9.1 yards for each of his 297 carries. In 2013 alone, Kirk gained 1,228 yards despite being limited to only seven games because of knee, ankle, and shoulder injuries.
Valley Christian went 8-4 overall and 5-2 in the rugged West Catholic Athletic League, but Kirk was unavailable for each of those two WCAL losses and for the Central Coast Section Open Division semifinal, a 37-7 loss to Archbishop Mitty. In his mind, 2013 was a disappointing season.
Kirk has breakaway speed, but also the leg strength to break tackles. Now healthy, he figures to lead a formidable rushing attack and continue the great Warriors’ running back tradition. The past decade has featured the late J.R. Adams, 2005 CCS Player of the Year Dominique Hunsucker, current NFL running back Cameron Marshall, and little brother Byron Marshall, now a junior and resident speedster at Oregon.
Valley Christian traditionally has been a run-oriented team, but Collin has the talent to give the Warriors reason to open up the passing game.
Collin is 6-foor-5 (195 pounds) and still growing. During eighth grade and into his freshman year, Collin grew an astounding 13 inches in 12 months. Tall and strong and with great hands, it’s not difficult to project him as a big-time player. He’s rated as a four-star recruit by rivals.com, No. 6 among wide receivers and No. 39 overall among college prospects from the class of 2016.
His size and skills draw comparisons to his favorite player, Detroit Lions star Calvin Johnson.
“On Friday nights, I turn into Megatron,” Collin said.
As a sophomore, Collin had 10 catches for 99 yards and scored three touchdowns. He also proved himself a willing and effective blocker. But the best almost certainly is yet to come.
Texas should be proud. The brothers were raised on the Red River Rivalry, Texas’ annual game against Oklahoma — Johnnie’s fourth-and-one tackle of Sooners’ quarterback Thomas Lott for no gain at the 5-yard line preserved a Longhorns victory in 1977.
Perhaps, not surprisingly, the Johnson brothers committed to Texas in April. No doubt, as the sons of a Longhorn Hall of Famer, they will be scrutinized.
Still, “I wouldn’t go anywhere else,” Kirk said.
Johnnie said he purposefully stayed out of the recruiting process, but it was inevitable that Texas would receive a good look, and the personality of new coach Charlie Strong clinched it. The Johnsons felt they would play for a coach who cared about them as individuals as much as for their value as players.
The Johnsons got a head start in many respects. Johnnie, who coached the boys in San Jose’s Coyote Creek Pop Warner program, has insight into what makes great football players and tried to project that to his sons.
“When you look at the elite players at the collegiate level, they have to be fundamentally sound,” Johnnie said. “I stressed that you have to first learn the game mentally before you can play physically.”
The mental side, said Johnnie, encompasses patience, consistency, and perseverance. It also means developing a deep trust and confidence in oneself. At kickoff, in theory, it all comes together.
“You have to play every game as if you’re playing against the top defense in the country,” Johnnie said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re playing Oklahoma, or Mitty, or Riordan — Riordan has good players too. You always have to play as if you’re up against the very best.”
The Johnsons have been further helped along by former Valley Christian teacher Greg Marshall, a professional strength and conditioning coach, and Adam Tafralis, a former San Jose State quarterback who heads the Warriors’ strength program. Of course, veteran coach Mike Machado and his staff have been invaluable in the brothers’ development.
But you can’t quite take La Grange out of the Johnsons.
“My dad had nothing, but he worked hard and now he’s the father he never had, for us,” Collin said.
“We have the blessings of my dad’s hard work and I want to do everything to be my best, and show my dad that all his work paid off. After that, I want to raise my kids pretty much the same way my dad raised me. No father could really do better.”
Somewhere, Jessie Mae Johnson must be smiling. She passed away in 1997, but her life lessons continue to impact her family and, perhaps, the fortunes of Valley Christian’s football season.
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