By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Promoting the value – and values – of school-based sports.
No statement more completely, or succinctly, explains the mission of the Michigan High School Athletic Association.
Those words were sparked in the mind of John Johnson, and also might best describe his work for the MHSAA over more than three decades – which concluded with his retirement Dec. 18.
Johnson’s official title for most of his tenure was communications director, by which he designed and delivered the message of the MHSAA’s work. A more suitable title might have been “guardian” – Johnson in 1987 joined the then 62-year-old organization and became keeper and protector of all the MHSAA had been and was becoming under its recently-hired executive director, Jack Roberts.
More than 33 years later, “JJ” has stepped away as the pioneer in his field and having impacted multiple generations of Michigan high school and middle school athletes in ways that will continue. Whether as the coiner of memorable slogans, the voice explaining the nation’s first elaborate sportsmanship effort or detailing the MHSAA’s work for its schools during tougher times, or simply as the narrator passing on some of the good stories the bubble up from every season, Johnson daily worked to keep those who follow school sports in the know.
“Being the voice, and having to be the face a lot, is something that came with the territory – somebody had to be the storyteller. And while you can be prideful about that, the important thing is still the story,” Johnson said. “I’ve said it a lot: I was the lucky guy who got the job. Because the story was there to be told, the work was there to be done.”
Thousands upon thousands of times over the years, Johnson did that work with enthusiasm and grace. Most visibly, it came in front of a TV or radio microphone, or as quoted in your local newspaper and media nationwide. He has been the drive behind the MHSAA championship games watched annually on TV and online, and the messenger via various campaigns delivering the good news of why school sports are vital for kids and communities.
Serving as that storyteller, Johnson has never been one to tell much of his own. But there is no shortage of storytellers who have benefitted from Johnson’s wisdom and tutelage over the years – and we were enable to enlist a few to paint a more vivid picture as we recount at least a glance of what Johnson has meant to the MHSAA and its schools over these many years.
“The measure of all of us is what we leave behind. Those with whom we’ve been in contact. Those we’ve lifted up along the way. And by that measure, we are witnessing the end of a spectacular career. I’ll take away from all the exchanges, the ready smile, the encyclopedic knowledge that JJ possessed and the sense of calm within the frenzy. It was invaluable to those who popped into his world only a few times a year. John Johnson has left very large shoes in East Lansing.”
– John Keating, longtime FOX Sports Detroit anchor and host for many MHSAA Football and Basketball Finals
First and 1 of a Kind
Jack Roberts became the fourth full-time executive director of the MHSAA during the summer of 1986. He brought an emphasis on communication, and “communications director” became the first position he created in East Lansing.
Johnson in 1987 became that first communications specialist at the MHSAA, beginning a long last stop during a run in sports that Johnson began as a student at Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart, about an hour’s drive north of Lansing.
Johnson hadn’t played sports at Sacred Heart, but had taken part in just about every other way possible for a student. He was a team manager, statistician, student trainer, and picked up part-time sports writing work at the former Mt. Pleasant Daily Times. He wrote a series while still in high school on the creation of the MHSAA football playoffs, which were set to kick off in 1975, and that series was syndicated among the newspapers in the Daily Times’ chain. As a student, Johnson moved on to Michigan State University where he majored in journalism, and again he was published and syndicated by the Daily Times – this time for a series on how game officials were being trained by state associations, including the MHSAA.
That series foreshadowed the work he would take up a decade later – it closed with a piece on poor spectatorship toward officials. (Coincidentally, the collection of stories had been clipped and saved by the MHSAA executive director at the time, Vern Norris. The file found its way to Roberts, who eventually found out he had just hired the author.)
Also having served as a student assistant in the MSU sports information office, Johnson began his communications career at Albion College in 1978 as an assistant in the college relations office with responsibility for publicity for the college’s 17 athletic teams. (He didn’t graduate from MSU until 1979, but received two days off per week to get back to East Lansing for classes. He also served as a radio voice for Albion High games on the side.) Johnson moved on to brief stints in the news department with WITL Radio in Lansing and as an intern in the Office of Public Affairs at Ferris State University before landing with the Western Michigan University sports information department as an assistant director.
That led to a three-year stint as an assistant sports information director at Indiana University, where his responsibilities included serving as SID for coach Bobby Knight’s men’s basketball program. Johnson also assisted with press operations at the 1984 U.S. Olympic Basketball Trials hosted by IU. Johnson then left Indiana in January 1986 for a promotions position at Michigan Farm Bureau.
Six months later, his eventual journey to the MHSAA accelerated.
Roberts was hired during the summer of 1986, and not long after he asked MSU sports information director Nick Vista who had been his best student assistant of the past decade. The answer: John Johnson.
Johnson and Roberts met multiple times over the next many months, and Roberts made his choice.
“From the first moment I sat down with Jack Roberts, I knew I wanted to be here,” Johnson said. “The way he talked so passionately about high school sports, and the values of high school sports. … I saw the opportunity to take Jack’s vision and run with it.”
The day before the announcement of Johnson’s hire was to be made, Roberts asked Johnson to come with him to Grand Rapids to watch South Christian basketball star Matt Steigenga (later of MSU and the NBA) – but Johnson couldn’t go because his wife Suzie had gone into labor with their first of two children.
But a little more than a month later, Johnson started at the MHSAA on April 1 – and that came with plenty of jokes on its own.
Yet while Johnson had to miss that trip to Grand Rapids, he and the executive director would get plenty of car time together – to the benefit of the MHSAA’s member schools. To introduce themselves to statewide media, Roberts and Johnson did a driving tour to visit all of them, touring their offices, talking to them about MHSAA initiatives and asking how Association staff could better assist the media in its work. Those drives also allowed them to dream up together “the kinds of things that were unveiled over time,” Roberts recalled.
“We talked so much those first 15 years, we could intuit each other’s thinking the last 15 years,” added Roberts, who retired from the MHSAA in 2018. “We didn’t spend nearly as much time together, but we didn’t need to.”
“John Johnson has positively influenced so many more people than he knows and more than anyone realizes. It starts with the thousands and thousands of people who have been able to watch high school sports on the web throughout Michigan. Live-streaming of games has really come to the forefront due to the pandemic, but he was on top of this innovation nearly a decade ago when it was just in the early idea stage. He has been the person who orchestrated and led the countless schools across the state who started streaming their games in the past several years.
“JJ has also impacted numerous student journalists who wanted to learn the craft by covering high school games. He has always been SO supportive of these aspiring broadcasters and writers and reporters, affording them the opportunities to cover high school championships on the biggest stages, and treating those students the same as their professional peers. The students got to be on the turf at Ford Field and in the postgame press rooms, even if their school's team wasn't involved in the game! All they had to do was ask for credentials, and he granted them time and time again.
“JJ's influence also touched those of us who work for the MHSAA in a freelance fashion at various championship events. He has helped so many of us become better communicators, announcers, statisticians, and more. He was always willing to provide feedback & opportunities to learn, and he served as our leader who was always accessible morning, noon, and night. He pushed us to be our best every game, just as the athletes were trying to be their best. It's been my pleasure to work for him as a PA announcer for several years now, and I tried to be perfect every single time because I knew he was listening and because I wanted to do well for him.”
– Roger Smith, advisor for Lake Orion High School’s nationally award-winning School Broadcast Program and public address announcer for MHSAA Finals
Telling the Story
In Roberts’ eyes, a few campaigns from his and Johnson’s time together stand out most.
• Promoting the Value – and Values of High School Sports. “I came in with “School Sports – the other half of education” but that wasn’t as good,” Roberts said. … (His words) caught our brand much better.”
• Good Sports are Winners. The MHSAA launched a sportsmanship initiative a few years into their tenures that was “unparalleled” nationally, per Roberts’ description. “Before sportsmanship was an 'in thing' to talk about, John and I were talking about it.” Johnson created all of the print and broadcast materials designed to promote improving sportsmanship, and his work helped make Michigan not just the leader but a voice nationally on the topic.
• Safer Than Ever. The campaign, stretching over much of the last decade, explained that high school football – for a variety of reasons – is safer than it has ever been. Johnson worked with the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association to build the messages and promote them at a time when injury fears were regularly headlining media coverage.
“John made our ideas visible and practical. People would put them together at the league level and school district level,” Roberts said.
“To narrow (his work) down to three is unfair to him because he did a thousand things.”
And in a number of roles. Johnson started as communications director, picking up along the way responsibilities in information technology, marketing, merchandising and more. Everything from daily media questions to maintaining the MHSAA record book (and serving on the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) national record book committee) fell onto Johnson’s desk, and just about any message read at any game by a public address announcer was his work. His final years were as “all things broadcasting” as Johnson served as the MHSAA’s first director of broadcast properties – an all-encompassing title that included all-encompassing responsibilities.
The MHSAA provides video broadcasts of nearly all of its MHSAA Finals – including football and basketball with FOX Sports Detroit – and Johnson has navigated the growth of those opportunities. Same with the MHSAA Network’s audio offerings during championship events, and his voice has been heard weekly during “This Week in High School Sports” which is aired as part of programming by more than 100 radio stations statewide.
The most significant advance under his guidance over the last two decades has been the School Broadcast Program, begun for MHSAA schools during the 2008-09 school year. The MHSAA relied on that knowledge in playing a leading role last decade in the formation of the NFHS Network – the nationwide digital home for live and on-demand high school events – and it’s not unusual for Michigan SBP schools to broadcast upwards of 500 events per week via the network.
“What people don’t necessarily know is John is the pioneer in this field,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “The way he shaped this job over the last 30 years has been extraordinary – and has become the model for the 49 other states.”
“I’m sure that with me, JJ had to do things he never had done with anyone else – I was pregnant three straight schools years. The accommodations for me, even as just a female, it was kinda crazy especially in the 1980s. But when I was pregnant, I couldn’t walk up stairs, and he always would make special concessions for me, (like to) try to find bathrooms for me. There were so many media, and there always had to be exceptions, but he always had to take special care for me, and I’m so thankful for what he did. We laugh about that stuff all the time.
“I remember too, I had a tragedy in my family one year, and I know he was busy at the Finals, but he took me (aside), sat there and cried with me and talked with me. He took time out of his way. He treated me professionally, like everyone else. But as a person, he has such a gift to connect with people.”
– Jane Bos, longtime prep sports editor for the Grand Rapids Press and 2008 recipient of MHSAA Women In Sports Leadership Award
More than Scratching the Surface
The work Johnson pioneered at the MHSAA goes on. Formerly a staff of one (with help from valuable volunteers including long-time postseason assistant Walter Dell) now includes a team of employees to handle the media relations, publications, broadcasting, marketing and other messaging needs.
While making the rules for school sports remains the top priority for the MHSAA, telling the story of their importance in students’ lives comes in a close second – and Johnson has written at least the first chapters of the book.
“It needed to be done; the Association had to take bigger steps into the communications world. And thanks to Jack Roberts, it did. I was the lucky guy who landed in the chair,” Johnson said.
But again, that is simply scratching the surface. We’ll end with longtime Detroit Free Press sportswriter Mick McCabe taking a last deep dive.
I first met John Johnson in the late fall of 1977.
He was a student at Michigan State and worked in the sports information office. I was a sports writer for the Detroit Free Press, covering MSU basketball, featuring JJ’s brother, Earvin.
Well, maybe Earvin and JJ weren’t exactly blood relatives, but they were both fun to be around and each had a profound effect on my life.
When watching the Spartans back then you knew you were watching someone special, which is why they called him Magic.
No one ever used the word magic in describing JJ, but he was young and enthusiastic and sociable while he learned the tricks of the trade under the watchful eyes of Fred Stabley Sr. and Nick Vista, the absolute best sports information directors in the country.
That is why I knew JJ would be such a good fit at Albion College, which just so happened to be looking for an SID when JJ was graduating from MSU.
JJ was exactly what Albion needed and did an excellent job and soon JJ’s career was off and running.
Somewhere along the way JJ landed at Indiana University where Bob Knight learned to tolerate JJ. If you’ve ever met Knight and understand his relationship with other human beings, you know that is like saying JJ and Knight were besties.
That was reinforced in the spring of 1984 when I spent almost two weeks in Bloomington covering the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball trials and interacted with JJ on a daily basis.
In the spring of 1987 JJ accepted a job with the Michigan High School Athletic Association. It was a job that hadn’t existed before JJ came riding into town.
Jack Roberts was in his first year as the MHSAA’s executive director and JJ was one of his first hires. He was also one of his best.
JJ was hired as the MHSAA’s first communications director. Before JJ arrived the words “communication” and “MHSAA” had never been used together in the same sentence.
If a member of the media had a question for the MHSAA chances are good it would never be answered.
That changed the minute JJ was hired. If he didn’t know the answer, he got the answer for you. And if you needed to speak with someone about a particular question, JJ got you to that person.
It wasn’t JJ’s job to do our job for us, but the thing we didn’t want was for him or someone else from the MHSAA to get in the way of us doing our job.
Not only didn’t JJ get out of the way for us, he helped us and made our jobs easier with the way he ran communications for the MHSAA.
A few weeks ago, with JJ’s imminent retirement growing closer, someone asked me to describe the worst phone call I received from JJ, one in which he was irate with something negative I had written about the MHSAA.
Certainly, he assumed, over 34 years there had to be many such phone calls.
He was genuinely surprised to learn it never happened. Not even once.
JJ knew that the media has a job to do and his job didn’t require him to complain when something negative about the MHSAA was written. I’m certain it was a lesson he learned from Stabley and Vista, who operated the same way.
As far as I know, the only times JJ ever called a member of the media after a negative story was when the reporter had the facts wrong. His call just pointed out the errors and he left out the tongue lashing.
JJ was the consummate professional in doing his job and he did it better than anyone else.
There is no way I am going to describe JJ’s job performance at the MHSAA as magical, like Earvin’s, but it was pretty darn close.
PHOTOS: (Top) MHSAA Communications Director John Johnson kneels at midcourt at The Palace of Auburn Hills in 1990 having designed the floor for that year's Basketball Finals. (2) Johnson, middle, wears the headset during a playoff production. (3) Johnson, right, coordinated media, announcing and stat-keeping among other areas during MHSAA events at the Breslin Center. (4) Johnson, far left, stands with (from left) MHSAA public address announcers Roger Smith, Erik O. Furseth, Tony Coggins and Steve Miller during a Baseball/Softball Finals weekend. (5) Johnson walks the turf at Ford Field during a Football Finals. (Photos from MHSAA archives.)
The 120 finalists for the Michigan High School Athletic Association's Scholar-Athlete Awards for the 2022-23 school year, presented by Farm Bureau Insurance, have been announced.
The program, in its 34th year, has recognized student-athletes since the 1989-90 school year and again this winter will honor 32 individuals from MHSAA member schools who participate in at least one sport in which the Association sponsors a postseason tournament.
Farm Bureau Insurance underwrites the Scholar-Athlete Awards and will present a $2,000 scholarship to each recipient. Since the beginning of the program, 896 scholarships have been awarded.
Scholarships will be presented proportionately by school classification, with 12 scholarships to be awarded to Class A student-athletes, six female and six male; eight scholarships will be awarded to Class B student-athletes, four female and four male; six scholarships will be awarded to Class C student-athletes, three female and three male; and four scholarships will be awarded to Class D student-athletes, two female and two male. In addition, two scholarships will be awarded at-large to minority recipients, regardless of school size.
Every MHSAA member high school could submit as many applications as there are scholarships available in its classification and could have more than one finalist. Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood has four finalists and Kalamazoo Loy Norrix and Midland Dow have three finalists this year. Twelve schools have two finalists: Ada Forest Hills Eastern, Cass City, Fenton, Hillsdale Academy, Holland, Holland Christian, Milford, Negaunee, Northville, Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary, South Lyon East, and Tecumseh.
Multiple-sport participation remains the norm among applicants. The average sport participation rate of the finalists is 2.88. There are 74 three-plus sport participants in the finalists field, and all but two of the 28 sports in which the MHSAA sponsors postseason tournaments are represented.
Of 421 schools which submitted applicants, 25 submitted the maximum allowed. This year, 1,440 applications were received. All applicants will be presented with certificates commemorating their achievement. Additional Scholar-Athlete information, including a complete list of scholarship nominees, can be found on the Scholar-Athlete page.
The applications were judged by a 65-member committee of school coaches, counselors, faculty members, administrators and board members from MHSAA member schools. Selection of the 32 scholarship recipients will take place in early February. Class C and D scholarship recipients will be announced Feb. 7, Class B scholarship recipients will be announced Feb. 14 and Class A scholarship recipients will be announced Feb. 21. All announcements will be made on the MHSAA Website.
To be eligible for the award, students must have a cumulative grade-point average of 3.50 (on a 4.0 scale) and previously have won a varsity letter in at least one sport in which the MHSAA sponsors a postseason tournament. Students also were asked to respond to a series of short essay questions, submit two letters of recommendation and a 500-word essay on the importance of sportsmanship in educational athletics.
Farm Bureau Insurance of Michigan was founded in 1949 by Michigan farmers who wanted an insurance company that worked as hard as they did. Those values still guide the company today and are a big reason why it is known as Michigan’s Insurance Company, dedicated to protecting the farms, families, and businesses of this great state. Farm Bureau Insurance agents across Michigan provide a full range of insurance services—life, home, auto, farm, business, retirement, Lake Estate®, and more—protecting nearly 500,000 Michigan policyholders.
The MHSAA is a private, not-for-profit corporation of voluntary membership by more than 1,500 public and private senior high schools and junior high/middle schools which exists to develop common rules for athletic eligibility and competition. No government funds or tax dollars support the MHSAA, which was the first such association nationally to not accept membership dues or tournament entry fees from schools. Member schools which enforce these rules are permitted to participate in MHSAA tournaments, which attract more than 1.3 million spectators each year.
2022-23 Scholar-Athlete Award Finalists
GIRLS CLASS A
Daria Igonin, Belleville
Ella Blank, Birmingham Groves
Ella Thomas, Brownstown Woodhaven
Keira Tolmie, Clarkston
Nora Chamas, Dearborn
Miryam El-Saghir, Dearborn Edsel Ford
Abigail Frushour, DeWitt
Rachel Williamson, East Grand Rapids
Naomi Sowa, East Lansing
Adrienne Staib, Fenton
Abigail Cumings, Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central
Ella Eitniear, Grand Rapids Kenowa Hills
Sophia Borowski, Grosse Pointe North
Eva Whiteman, Holland
Ana Dunfee, Kalamazoo Loy Norrix
Wendy Miedema, Kalamazoo Loy Norrix
Colleen Blackwood, Linden
Kathleen Doneth, Mason
Caroline Colt, Milford
Leah Merriam, Milford
Sophia Hekkema, Muskegon Reeths-Puffer
Jane Barnett, Royal Oak
Kate Mazur, South Lyon East
Amyla Eberhart, South Lyon East
BOYS CLASS A
Henry Jackson, Bloomfield Hills
Connor Anderson, Cadillac
Isaac David Clark, Caledonia
Braylen Himmelein, Davison
Nathan Katic, Fenton
Isaac Postema, Grand Haven
Ryan Lee, Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern
Brayden Ryan LaCroix, Grandville
Brendan Downey, Grosse Pointe South
James R. Baer, Holland
Treyton William Carr, Hudsonville
James Rocco, Kalamazoo Loy Norrix
James Patterson Jr., Lake Orion
Shubhan Nagarkar, Midland Dow
Danny Safadi, Midland Dow
Jack Bakus, Midland Dow
Gavyn Stout, Muskegon Mona Shores
Abhinav Attaluri, Northville
David Whitaker, Northville
Samuel Gibson, Plainwell
Harsimmer Sohi, Portage Central
Shane Pitcher, Saline
Ian Robertson, Traverse City West
Trevor Wallar, Zeeland West
GIRLS CLASS B
Devin Johnston, Almont
Rylie Haist, Big Rapids
Jordan Richie, Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood
Anna Smith, Clawson
Carney Salo, Escanaba
Ella Wagner, Essexville Garber
Lauren Harrold, Flint Powers Catholic
Tiffany Keller, Frankenmuth
Ainsley VandenBrink, Holland Christian
Claire Filpus, Houghton
Elaina Bortolini, Kingsford
Matelyn Midkiff, Midland Bullock Creek
Rachel Niskanen, Negaunee
Molly McNitt, Paw Paw
Chesney Wilke, Tecumseh
Allison Tate, Whitehall
BOYS CLASS B
Sreejay Ramakrishnan, Ada Forest Hills Eastern
Jacob Pallo, Ada Forest Hills Eastern
Aiden Eric Smith, Adrian
Evan Jose Evans, Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood
John Kersh, Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood
Nathan Hooker, Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood
Jacob Fenbert, Dundee
Michael App, Grand Rapids Catholic Central
James Oosterhouse, Holland Christian
Matthew Bowman, Milan
Philip Nelson, Negaunee
Grant H. Harkness, Newaygo
Nicholas Liparoto, Pontiac Notre Dame Prep
Isaiah Pelc, Portland
Aldo Barba, Tecumseh
Camden Johnecheck, Williamston
GIRLS CLASS C
Tailor Onstott, Beal City
Saylar Cuthrell, Cass City
Kylie McGrath, Cass City
Claire Scholten, Charlevoix
Ruby Sierer, Clinton
Quinn Watts, Fowler
Danni Swihart, Hanover-Horton
Aziza Burgoon, Iron Mountain
Abigail Meyer, Marlette
Alaina Andrews, Ottawa Lake Whiteford
Laina Harger, St. Charles
Samantha Dietz, Watervliet
BOYS CLASS C
Logan Pflug, Cassopolis
Seth Vanderwest, Kent City
Ethan Green, Kingston
Andrew Mleczko, Madison Heights Bishop Foley
Grant Mason, Manistique
Blake O'Connor, Maple City Glen Lake
Brock Murphy, Menominee
Riley DeSarbo, Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central
Ty Kohlmann, New Lothrop
Noah Etnyre, Plymouth Christian Academy
Brennan Cannaday, Royal Oak Shrine Catholic
Dirk Rierson, Unionville-Sebewaing
GIRLS CLASS D
Kylie Quist, Athens
Kasandra Lynn Waldi, Chesterfield Austin Catholic
Megan Roberts, Hillsdale Academy
Emma Case, Kinde North Huron
Monique Brisson, Munising
Makennah Uotila, Ontonagon
Gabriella Wenzel, Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary
Macey Springer, Three Oaks River Valley
BOYS CLASS D
Ryan McDonell, Bay City All Saints
Luke Walker, Clarkston Everest Collegiate
Amos Norland, Dollar Bay
Brody Appelgren, Hillman
Caleb Diener, Hillsdale Academy
Matthew Zammit, Marine City Cardinal Mooney
James Blackburn, Martin
Caleb Munson, Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary
PHOTO A group including 27 of last season's 32 MHSAA-Farm Bureau Insurance Scholar-Athlete Award winners take a photo together during the banquet at Breslin Center.