In advance of Mississippi’s season opener, women’s soccer coach Matt Mott told Ella Johnson she would be starting for the Rebels “next to your sister.” When the Hawaii basketball schedule was published, forward Gibson Johnson texted his brother: “Go check who you play on December 17th.”
The pairings of the Johnson sisters as the Ole Miss center backs and the Johnson brothers as opponents in last Sunday’s Hawaii-Utah Valley game are part of a bigger story. This could be an all-time record: four siblings from Centerville competing in Division I college athletics during one school year.
The Rogers family of Highland has stocked five Utah schools with a football player and four volleyball players, spread over parts of two decades. Lance Reynolds’ four sons played on BYU’s offensive line in this century, but only two at a time. Two sons (football) and a daughter (volleyball) of the Barton family of Sandy now play for Utah.
Four at once, though? That’s almost mathematically impossible without multiple births or unusual circumstances. The Johnsons do include twins, but one of that pair (Lewis) is not among the current foursome of athletes while serving a church mission.
The Johnsons’ convergence in college is explained by Gibson’s late enrollment at Salt Lake Community College. He’ll turn 26 in February, when the twins become 19.
One or more Johnsons attended Viewmont High School for 10 years in a row, ending when twins Grace and Lewis graduated in 2017. The five siblings earned 28 varsity letters in various sports, as opposed to specializing. “I think we did a good job of not falling into that trap,” said Matt Johnson, their father.
The siblings made a good impression at Viewmont, where principal Jason Smith remembers them as “all good people ... on top of everything else.”
The family culture of friendly teasing and healthy competition — “We were never mad at each other for long periods of time,” Mckay said — stemmed from the younger siblings following Gibson’s example as “the self-appointed leader,” Ella said. Gibson hoped to earn an athletic scholarship in the tradition of their father, a University of Utah golf star in the 1980s. Their grandfather, the late Bill Johnson, played for Utah’s 1947 NIT championship basketball team.
The parents coached some of their children’s teams at early stages and managed their schedules of practices and games. “We probably needed four or five mothers,” Gibson said, “but we had a superhuman mom.”
Raising collegiate athletes never was the goal of Matt and Brooke Johnson, herself a former Viewmont athlete. “I don’t want to say she was against it,” Gibson said, “but she was much more worried about us being good in school.”
Even so, she liked how competing in sports made the children learn to deal with adult coaches and meet other challenges. “Even the bad stuff” she said, “is good.”
The good stuff is a lot of fun. Ella scored the winning goal in Viewmont’s 1-0 victory over Alta for the Class 5A state soccer championship after losing in two previous title games. Gibson and Mckay played together during Salt Lake Community College’s improbable run to the 2016 national championship.
The brothers’ teams met on the court last Sunday in Honolulu, where Gibson scored 15 points in Hawaii’s 70-69 victory. Mckay was not among the nine Wolverines who played.
Their parents and sisters attended the game in a family reunion that took less effort than usual. During a memorable weekend in November, the parents attended UVU’s season opener at Kentucky while streaming Ole Miss’ NCAA Tournament loss at Florida State. They started driving toward North Carolina, stopping at a hotel for the midnight EST telecast of Hawaii’s game vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff, watching Gibson score 19 points. The next night, they watched Mckay make his Division I debut in a loss at Duke.
Grace was recruited to Mississippi, while Ella played two years at BYU, went on a mission to Nebraska and redshirted upon returning in 2016. Her mother idly suggested, “Wouldn’t it be fun to play with your sister?”
So she obtained a release from BYU and joined the Rebels as a junior in eligibility. Each sister scored a goal in a loss to Tennessee; Grace tied for third on the team with three goals and ranked No. 3 in minutes played as a freshman. Having never played on the same team growing up, Grace would glance over during games and think, “That’s really my sister.”
The brothers enjoyed a similar experience at SLCC, although Gibson was a more prominent player as a sophomore in 2016. Mckay’s role included being a calming influence for his brother. “They’re quite a bit different,” Bruins coach Todd Phillips said. “It was a good dynamic.”
Gibson and Ella will have completed their eligibility when Lewis returns from Brazil in the summer of 2019, when Mckay will be a UVU senior and Grace will be an Ole Miss junior. Lewis, who averaged 15 points as a Viewmont senior, likely will play college basketball somewhere. Like his oldest sibling, Lewis would complete the family’s cycle, as another late bloomer. As Smith said, “They weren’t even close to their physical potential when they left our school.”
MEET THE JOHNSONS
Gibson • Age 25, 6 foot 8, averaged 12.0 points as Salt Lake Community College sophomore for national title team, now Hawaii’s No. 2 scorer (10.7)
Ella • Age 23, 5-10, played two seasons of BYU soccer, transferred to Ole Miss. Played in three Class 5A soccer state title games, beat Alta 1-0 in 2012 with a header off a corner kick.
Mckay • Age 21, 6-4, joined Gibson at SLCC, then went to Utah Valley University, now a redshirt sophomore.
Grace • Age 18, 5-10, recruited to Ole Miss for soccer, played for Viewmont in the Class 5A state championship basketball game.
Lewis • Age 18, 6-4, expected to play college basketball when he returns from an LDS Church mission in summer of 2019. He once posted 22 points, eight rebounds and six assists for Viewmont vs. Layton.