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The eyes of the storm

The eyes of the storm

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Vision of the field is what separates Frenchtown running back Josh Johnson from his pursuers

Josh Johnson was angry.

Not because the Frenchtown Broncs weren't playing well - they were, in fact, steamrolling District 5-B foe Darby 41-0 in the third quarter on this particular evening. But Johnson, Frenchtown's star running back, had just been stripped of the football and the lost fumble was eating at his soul.

"He came to the sideline, seething at himself," recalled Frenchtown coach Tim Racicot. "I took him aside and said something like, 'You need to put it behind you. Hey, it's the first one this year.'

"Josh says: 'It's one too many.' "

Racicot chuckles at the memory.

"He's one of those remarkable, rare competitors," Racicot said. "He just has an unyielding will to win."

That inner fire helps explain why the 5-foot-6, 160-pound Johnson, invariably the smallest player on the field, is having the most productive rushing season in the history of Frenchtown - a school that has won 83 percent of its games and four state Class B championships in Racicot's 29 seasons.

Johnson set school records for yards in a game and yards in a season while leading the Broncs to an 8-0 regular-season record and their fifth consecutive league title. Six times, he surpassed 200 yards, including the record 335 against Seeley-Swan and 247 in last Friday's title-clinching win over Florence.

Heading into Saturday's opening-round state Class B playoff game against Thompson Falls, Johnson has carried 187 times for 1,861 yards, a 10.0 average, and scored 24 touchdowns. The former school record of 1,447 yards was set by Kenley Graves 18 years ago.

Johnson doesn't chuckle about that fumble against Darby, still his only one all year. Yes, he confirms, he set a goal not to fumble once during his senior season.

"I was pretty disappointed," said Johnson, who lost only a couple of fumbles as a junior when he rushed for 1,220 yards and 17 TDs. "I thought I could go a full season without coughing it up. To me, that was a realistic goal."

Racicot has coached perhaps a dozen all-state running backs during his career. If you lined them up in a foot race, Johnson might not finish last, but he knows he wouldn't finish first.

"Yeah, I've been caught from behind," Johnson said.

But what he may lack in pure speed, Johnson more than makes up for in quickness, balance and strength.

"I try to hit the hole as fast as I can, then find a lane and take it from there," Johnson said. "I try to keep my legs moving. Hopefully, it'll take two or three guys to bring me down."

"He's extremely tough, mentally and physically," Racicot said. "You're talking about a kid who benches (lifts) 275 pounds, and squats well over 300. He's rock-hard. I don't remember him ever missing a minute of practice, much less a game."

But the secret, Racicot says, is Johnson's vision.

"That's genetic, you can't coach it," Racicot said. "He seems to know where everyone is, and he reads his blocks so well. When you combine that with his quickness and determination, it's something special."

Johnson grew up almost literally in Racicot's yard. The Johnsons and Racicots were neighbors, and Josh's older sisters were good friends of the Racicot girls.

"We've always contended that Josh is so tough because he had to grow up dealing with our girls and his sisters," Racicot said with a grin.

Josh also absorbed - and dished out - some backyard football knocks with his older brother Justin, a fine fullback for Frenchtown who now plays at Montana Tech.

Although Josh started his Frenchtown career at quarterback, he made his mark when Racicot switched him to running back as a junior. Some players might sulk, having to give up football's glamour position, but Johnson just shrugs his shoulders. The team comes first. The same goes for his rushing records. He deflects praise, and instead talks about the blocking of teammates such as standout tackle Craig Brown.

"They deserve as much credit as I do," Johnson said.

Frenchtown advanced to the state playoff semifinals last year before losing to eventual champion Malta. If the Broncs fall short this time around, they'll still have enjoyed an excellent season. A season with just one loss.

You already can predict what Johnson's reaction would be: "It's one too many."

Rial Cummings can be reached at 523-5255 or by e-mail at rcummings@missoulian.com.

Josh's jaunts

Game-by-game performances for Frenchtown halfback Josh Johnson in his record-breaking season:

Date Opponent Car Yds TD*
9-31 at St. Ignatius 21 242 5
9-7 Thompson Falls 20 209 2
9-14 at Eureka 22 258 1
9-21 Missoula Loyola 25 177 3
9-28 at Deer Lodge 21 182 2
10-6 at Seeley-Swan 30 335 5
10-12 Darby 18 211 3
10-19 Florence 30 247 3
Totals 187 1,861 24

* Includes three TDs on returns

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