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Dennis Johnson and the good ol’ days of multi-sport athletes

November 17, 2016 FieldsColumn

As a senior at Harrodsburg, Dennis Johnson wasn't sure if he wanted to play college football or basketball ... or both. (Herald-Leader photo)

As a senior at Harrodsburg, Dennis Johnson wasn’t sure if he wanted to play college football or basketball … or both. (Herald-Leader)

BY MIKE FIELDS

In this day of specialization among high school athletes, who are prodded by their parents and coaches to devote all their time and energy to one sport lest a college scholarship (or possibly a pro contract) eludes them, let us remember Dennis Johnson.

Johnson excelled in football, basketball and track & field at Harrodsburg High School from 1994-98 because, first and foremost, he was an exceptional talent. He had size, strength, a surplus of God-given abilities and a never-quit work ethic. (He also showed lots of promise as a hard-throwing pitcher, but he gave up baseball to concentrate on track & field.)

But just as important, he had a father/coach who believed it was beneficial for kids to play more than one sport.

“Absolutely,” says Alvis Johnson, who coached his sons Dennis and Derrick in football and track & field at Harrodsburg. “At that age, kids should play every sport they can because they really don’t know what they’re going to develop in. I’m definitely in favor of kids playing multiple sports in high school. If I’m athletic director, I’d fire a coach who told a kid he couldn’t play this or shouldn’t play that.”

Alvis Johnson said the fact that Harrodsburg was a Class A school and had a much smaller pool of athletes than a Class 6A school didn’t factor into his philosophy.

“I wouldn’t care if it was a 9A school. I’m not in favor of pigeon-holing kids at that age, limiting them to just one sport. Most of the people who think they’re basketball players are not. They’d probably be better football players. And some of the ones who think they’re football players would probably be better in track or baseball. But they’ll never know because they never get a chance in today’s world.

“It starts at a very young age now. Most youth coaches think they’ve got to coach their discipline 12 months a year. Everybody thinks they’ve got to practice their 7- and 8-year-olds like it’s Alabama football. That doesn’t make sense to me.”

Dennis Johnson is now football coach at Woodford County.

Dennis Johnson is now football coach at Woodford County.

Dennis Johnson, who went on to play football at the University of Kentucky and in the NFL, is thankful he didn’t restrict himself to one sport when he was a kid.

“If I had I think it would’ve hurt me in the long run,” he said. “Playing different sports works different muscles and you have different body movements. The naturality of it made me better in all three sports.

“And I never got burned out. After football, I’d go to basketball, then after basketball I’d go to track. I learned to compete, too. Whether it was in weightlifting or in a game situation under the bright lights, your heart is racing and you know you have to perform.”

Johnson, listed at 6-foot-7, 250 pounds in high school, performed at a high level in all kinds of competition. Consider what he accomplished in 1996:

  • That winter he led Harrodsburg to its first Sweet Sixteen basketball tournament in 36 years. In two games in Rupp Arena, he totaled 32 points, 21 rebounds and 7 blocked shots, and was named to the all-tournament team.
  • That spring he won state titles in the shot put and discus at the Class A track and field championships.
  • That fall he led Harrodsburg to the first of back-to-back Class A football finals where it lost a heartbreaker, 21-14 in overtime, to Beechwood.

“It was like a dream,” Johnson said of those glory days 20 years ago.

His career accomplishments at Harrodsburg are the stuff of legend:

  • In basketball he had 2,306 points, 1,347 rebounds, 335 blocked shots, 315 assists and 161 steals. He was all-state his senior year.
  • In track and field, he won 8 individual state titles (4 in shot put, 3 in discus, 1 in triple jump).
  • In football he was first-team all-state four years in a row. As a senior he was Kentucky’s Mr. Football, USA Today’s national defensive player of the year, and a Parade Magazine All-American.

Johnson went on to play football at UK, although he planned to also play basketball for the Wildcats.

“The reason he selected Kentucky was because they told him he could play both sports,” Alvis said. “But after (Dennis’ freshman) football season, Hal (Mumme) told a different story. Tubby (Smith) was very disappointed they wouldn’t let him play basketball. He needed some bangers inside and he thought Dennis could be one of those guys.”

Dennis Johnson, shown announcing his commitment to UK as his father, Alvis, looks on. (Herald-Leader photo by Frank Anderson)

Dennis Johnson, shown announcing his commitment to UK in 1998 as his father, Alvis, looks on. (Herald-Leader photo by Frank Anderson)

Bill Keightley, then UK basketball’s equipment manager, gave Johnson the basketball jersey (No. 30) intended for him, along with a UK basketball travel bag embossed with his name. They are reminders of what might have been. (Johnson wasn’t the only high school star who had visions of playing football and basketball at UK. The next year Highlands star Derek Smith met the same resistance when Mumme nixed his hopes of doubling up in football and basketball. )

Dennis Johnson never got a chance to wear his UK basketball jersey.

Dennis Johnson never got a chance to wear his UK basketball jersey.

“I know it’d be tough,” Alvis Johnson said. “But you could have some great multi-sport athletes in college. I was disappointed Dennis didn’t get the chance.”

Flash ahead almost 20 years and Dennis Johnson is the father of three sons, trying to guide them in their athletic pursuits in a world very different from when he was a kid.

Dennis, like his dad, doesn’t believe in specialization.

“I think kids need to play at least two sports,” he said. “Extraordinary kids might be able to do a third. But in today’s society, that’s harder to do. A lot more time is involved in each sport. And coaches are fighting over kids a lot more than they used to. I think that’s bad.”

Dennis’ oldest son Domynik (whom he and his wife adopted a few years ago) just finished his senior season of football at Woodford County. He also runs track.

Skyelar, 14, plays baseball and football, and Jasper, 10, plays basketball and football.

Jasper, nicknamed “Bruh Bruh,” is a budding hoops star, which has opened his dad’s eyes to the modern demands of youth sports. Jasper plays on various basketball travel teams, including one out of Indiana that competed in a national tournament in Las Vegas this summer.  

“It’s crazy,” Dennis said, showing photos of the swag (uniforms, shoes, etc) the kids received. 

Alvis, who made the trip to Vegas to watch his grandson play, isn’t keen on the grand production that has become youth sports.

“I know some of the younger guys, like Jasper’s daddy, think they’ve got to do it. But I don’t think you have to spend thousands of dollars to go to Vegas to play in a tournament. I think if you can play, they’ll find you wherever you are.”

Dennis Johnson said he’s trying to not overload his sons’ sports calendars, and to teach them that games are called games for a reason.

“It seems like everybody puts so much pressure on kids these days. I tell them they should take pride in working hard to get better in whatever they’re doing, and to have fun doing it.”

Alvis Johnson, meanwhile, isn’t optimistic that things will go back to the way they were, even though studies show that specializing in one sport leads to injury and/or burnout.

“I think it’s going to get worse,” he said. “You still see a few multi-sport athletes now, but I don’t know if you’ll see any in the future.”