Varsity Football

Out of the shadows: Breece Hall and Roy Johnson next up at Northwest

Northwest running backs Breece Hall, left, and Roy Johnson are having big seasons in their first year on varsity. Both are also trying to make a name for themselves in a family with past running back greats in the City League. (Sept. 13, 2017)
Northwest running backs Breece Hall, left, and Roy Johnson are having big seasons in their first year on varsity. Both are also trying to make a name for themselves in a family with past running back greats in the City League. (Sept. 13, 2017) The Wichita Eagle

They are living in an age of instant gratification, but Breece Hall and Roy Johnson didn’t mind waiting.

In their first two starts for Northwest’s football team, Hall has rushed for 402 yards on a 9.8-yard average with four touchdowns, and Johnson is running for more than 11 yards every carry and more than 28 yards every kick return. Their coach, Steve Martin, says Northwest’s offense this year is the most dynamic he’s ever had — this coming from a program that has set the state record for average yards per game the last two seasons.

But before the pair of juniors could dazzle on Friday nights, they had to watch when they wanted to play. They had to listen when they wanted to talk. And they had to learn when they thought they were ready.

They each did this while carrying the drive (and the pressure that accompanies it) of being the next great running back in their family.

Every Friday night is precious to Hall and Johnson, and when Northwest travels to Great Bend Friday night, they see it as another chance to catch the dreams they’ve waited so long to chase.

“I think that’s why they both play with that chip on their shoulder,” Martin said. “I don’t think they’re in anybody’s shadow. They’re making a name for themselves now.”

Living up to the name

Many people don’t realize the family heritage of Hall and Johnson because of their last names.

Hall’s stepfather is Jeff Smith, who was an all-state running back at Southeast from 1976-79 and later played at Nebraska and in the NFL for the Chiefs and Buccaneers. Johnson’s older brother is Demarcus Robinson, a standout running back at Northwest from 2006-09 who played at Kansas State.

“Of course I wanted to follow in my brother’s footsteps,” Johnson said. “Everyone (at Northwest) knows who he is and I knew that pressure was going to be on me to be just as good as he was.”

“When I found out that (Smith) played in the NFL, I was really excited,” Hall said. “I wanted to be just like him some day and he’s really helped me and helped push me. I think he’s pushing me even harder than what he was pushed when he was in high school.”

When Hall was young, his mother actually encouraged him to play basketball — she disliked watching her son be the object the entire defense was trying to tackle — but Hall couldn’t stifle his love for football and his desire to be like Smith.

Smith has worked with Hall in his development as a running back.

“It’s a work-in-progress with him, but I’m just happy he’s playing the sport that I love and I think he loves too,” Smith said. “I knew he had the ability at the early age. He’s been scoring touchdowns for a long time now. I’ve been able to work with him and teach him a few other things and give him some secrets that help running backs develop a little faster.”

It makes sense that Johnson (listed at 5-foot-5) would try to emulate his older brother Robinson (who was 5-7 when he was a junior).

“You can try to be like someone else as much as you want, but at the end of the day I think it’s going to throw you off and mess up your game,” Johnson said. “I just try to be the best that I can be and just be myself. I know a lot of people don’t think I can play because I’m small, but being small doesn’t faze me. I still go out there and play like I’m the same size as everybody else.”

Robinson is able to relate to Johnson because they both played and see the game the same way.

It means a lot to Robinson to see his little brother excel at the game their family loves. For them, football isn’t just a game — it’s a way out.

“Football has always been something to keep us out of trouble and keep our mind on better things,” Robinson said. “It gives you a chance to make your life better and a chance to go to college and actually achieve something, instead of hanging around the neighborhood with a bunch of knuckleheads. That’s why I’m so proud of him to see him going down the right path.”

The waiting game

Hall and Johnson have been a dominant duo since their middle school days.

It didn’t take long for them to make an impression on Northwest coach Steve Martin when they arrived as freshmen.

“You could just tell they were going to be pretty special at running back,” Martin said. “Just the way they could put their foot down in the ground and accelerate in their first two steps. They were gone.”

They might have played varsity as freshmen in other programs, and certainly as sophomores, but Martin didn’t feel like he could play them. Northwest has been a running back factory in the last decade, producing a string of 1,000-yard backs in Robinson, Deron Thompson, KeShaun McGaugh, Tony Joyner, and Jahlyl Rounds.

“You want the kids to feel like it’s something special to put on the Northwest helmet and play on a Friday night,” Martin said. “Both of these guys had to wait in the wings and I’m so proud of them. You could never tell they were frustrated. They put their trust in us and believed in the program. Now it’s their time and they’re ready to prove themselves on the big stage.”

Hall and Johnson studied the way players like Joyner and Rounds worked and picked their minds. They took pride in waiting and capitalized on the opportunity to prepare themselves for when it was their turn.

“Not a lot of kids want to do that, but that’s something that separates a football player from a selfish football player,” Johnson said. “We both realized we had to wait our turn and I think we both have a closer bond now. We are really close friends and we both just really like playing with each other now.”

Now they use the time they stood on the sideline as motivation.

“Now I feel like I have a lot of people counting on me,” Hall said. “I want to play good and I want to push myself to perform better for my team, so I’m going to go the extra mile to break that tackle and get those extra yards for my team.”

Showtime

Hall, at 6 feet and 195 pounds, is the prototypical running back.

He has the size to withstand a full work load, the vision to identify openings and the knack for seeing things before they develop. When he runs, it looks like he’s gliding effortlessly as he races past linebackers and safeties.

“Sometimes he gets in trouble because he tries to create something and doesn’t hit the hole,” Martin said. “We kind of harp on that with him, but you try not to limit guys like that. Those type of kids are special for a reason.”

Johnson might be the smallest player in the City League. He could also be the most dangerous.

“We feel like we have two backs that can score a touchdown from any distance every time they touch the ball,” Martin said. “And we haven’t even used Roy in the passing game yet. He makes cut where you just shake your head. You think the play is dead, then he pops it off for a touchdown. I’m just glad that I’m on their side and I’m not trying to stop them.”

There is no jealousy between the two backs, no stat-checking to see who had more carries, yards, or touchdowns.

“We love being that 1-2 punch,” Hall said. “We know we can do so much damage on the field together.”

They’ve waited to make this kind of impact, but they insists they haven’t been waiting for individual acclaim. They want something more this season.

“We’re a team and that’s all we really care about,” Johnson said. “This isn’t about Roy Johnson or Breece Hall, this is about the Northwest High football team and how we play as a team and be successful as a team.”

Taylor Eldridge: 316-268-6270, @vkeldridge

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