The Spartan QB family tree grows
Superior High School senior Gunner Johnson has the luxury of having multiple quarterback coaches he can turn to for advice.
Superior’s coaching staff includes three former Spartan quarterbacks, including head coach Bob DeMeyer, who handles the varsity quarterbacks, and Steve Hendry, a JV assistant coach.
The third just happens to be Gunner’s dad, Chad Johnson, who led Superior to the 1988 WIAA state championship game, which it lost to Racine Park, 34-14.
“Racine had a nice squad and had a player named Brent Moss, who eventually went on to play at Wisconsin and in the NFL,” said Chad Johnson. “It was really special just to be able to take the field and play where the Wisconsin Badgers play. At that age, as a senior, it was definitely a dream come true.”
Chad Johnson went on to play two years each at UW-River Falls and UW-Superior and is currently the running backs coach with the Spartans.
For the past 21 years, Johnson has worked at Diamond Match in Cloquet, where he is currently a plant controller. During that time he has also coached a number of Gunner’s youth teams.
“It’s really fun to have been able to coach Gunner, as well as kids like Zach Tharge and Blake Graskey, since they were in the second grade,” Chad Johnson said. “It’s been fun to watch them grow up and great to watch Gunner develop as a quarterback and grow into his own this year — running and passing the ball. It’s been a real treat to see him be able to do what he does.”
One thing Gunner does, that Chad didn’t, is throw the ball with his left hand.
“Nobody on my side of the family is a lefty,” Chad Johnson said. “The only lefty we know of is my wife’s (Danelle) nephew, Quentin Longrie, who pitches at the University of Southern California and played for the Duluth Huskies this summer.”
Another difference between the two is that Chad was in charge of a wishbone offense, and the current Spartans run a more spread out offense and aren’t afraid to throw the ball.
“I actually enjoyed the wishbone,” Chad Johnson said. “I liked the contact every play, and back in high school I didn’t throw the ball too well. It definitely suited me better to run the wishbone.
“Gunner’s heads and shoulders above my throwing ability, but I always give him a bit of a hard time that he’s not necessarily running as good as the old man did back in the day.”
Gunner has always heard that his dad was a pretty good football player and a strong leader on the field.
“He has old tapes that we watch every once in a while, and every so often he brags a bit, but he never compares my game to his,” Gunner Johnson said. “One of the things I like the most is all of the stories his friends tell about how much of a leader he was. That’s something I’ve tried to transition to my game as well.”
Not only does Gunner appreciate his dad’s help with becoming a high school quarterback, but he also cherishes the extra time they get to spend together.
“It’s become second nature having him around, and that has helped a lot,” Gunner Johnson said. “Growing up he always showed me different things at practice and told me things I should work on.
“He’s been my role model so it’s really nice to have a figure like him around me and my friends.”
DeMeyer, who was a couple of years ahead of Chad Johnson with the Spartans and Yellowjackets, also appreciates having Chad around.
“Chad’s value is immeasurable,” DeMeyer said. “The passion and energy he brings every day in directing our scout team, his knowledge of the game and input from his experience as a player and coach and his ability to reach kids.
“He expects nothing but the best effort from everyone and the players know that if they’re not giving that, he’ll get after them. They also know that he’ll be the first one to commend them very enthusiastically for a job well done. Plain and simple, he wears his heart on his sleeve. Our players love him, and he’s a tremendous asset to our program.”
Chad Johnson wore jersey No. 10 years ago, and now Gunner is following in his steps.
“Because of my dad’s influence, I’ve always had No. 10 growing up,” said Gunner Johnson, who had to wait until Beau Girard graduated last year before it became available.
“Gunner has many qualities that No. 10 had back in 1988,” DeMeyer said. “He is also very competitive, he has a very high football IQ and plays the game with a lot of passion. He simply loves playing football and really every sport he plays.
“I also know that he’s put the time in to get better at each of them, in the gym, on the baseball field, and on the football field. He also knows how important it is to take his schoolwork seriously, and we’ve never had to worry about what he’s doing off the field; he makes good choices. Where I believe he has shown the most growth is in the manner in which he carries himself, his confidence level and how he leads. It shows in his decisiveness and production on the field and in how his teammates respect him. I’m very proud of how he’s responded to the challenges and the tremendous young man he is.”
Gunner Johnson has had success throwing and running the ball this season.
He has completed 46-of-82 passes for 944 yards and seven touchdowns. He is also second in rushing with 368 yards and two TDs.
Johnson’s highlights this season include rushing for 100 yards against Merrill; throwing for 306 yards and two TDs against Eau Claire Memorial; and throwing for 249 yards and two TDs against Hudson.
The elder Johnson hopes his son’s high school career has a similar ending to his.
“It’d be great for all of these kids if we could put it all together in our final three games and get into the playoffs,” Chad Johnson said. “Once you get in, you never know what happens after that point.”
The Spartans (4-2 overall, 2-2 Big Rivers Conference) host the River Falls Wildcats in their annual homecoming game at 7 p.m. today at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex.
With just three games remaining, Superior needs to win two of them to qualify for the playoffs.
“These games are very important,” Gunner Johnson said. “We’ve been working hard in practice and getting our game fine-tuned. They’re going to be fast and physical, we’re just going to have to work hard.”
River Falls comes to town with records of 1-5 and 0-4.
“They are much better than their record indicates,” DeMeyer said. “They have a wide-open offense that can score a lot of points and a defense with a bunch of athletic kids. Every year we have a battle with them and we expect the same this year.
“We know the urgency of this game and the playoff implications it brings. Once again, we’ve had a great week of preparation, now it has to translate to the game and for four quarters.”
River Falls quarterback Logan Graetz is 76-of-119 passing for 821 yards and seven TDs. He’s also rushed for 198 yards and two TDs.
Bailey Ronnestrand leads the Wildcats with 313 yards and three TDs rushing; Mason Graetz has 33 receptions for 458 yards and four TDs; and Matthew Wachtler has 24 catches for 407 yards and four TDs.
SPARTAN SPIN: Hendry graduated from SHS in 1980 and went on to play at UWS. … Chad Johnson was a senior at UWS when the football program folded. “That was pretty tough,” Chad Johnson said. “You already knew it was going to be your last season, but then it ended earlier than it was supposed to.” … Superior advanced to the 1988 title game with wins over Wisconsin Rapids, 28-26; Stevens Point, 23-20; and Neenah, 26-0. … Moss, who went on to lead Wisconsin to a 21-16 victory over UCLA in the 1993 Rose Bowl, rushed for 202 yards and scored three touchdowns in the win over Superior.
Big Rivers Conference
Menomonie (5-1)............................................................ 4-0
Rice Lake (5-1)................................................................ 3-1
Chippewa Falls (4-2)..................................................... 3-1
Hudson (4-2)................................................................... 2-2
Superior (4-2)................................................................. 2-2
Eau Claire Memorial (4-2)............................................. 2-2
River Falls (1-5).............................................................. 0-4
Eau Claire North (0-6)................................................... 0-4
Friday, Sept. 30
All Games at 7 p.m.
Chippewa Falls at Eau Claire North
Eau Claire Memorial at Hudson
Rice Lake at Menomonie
River Falls at Superior