POPLARVILLE – Mark Johnson has finally had time to sit down, relax and think about his future, after a busy two years as a two-sport standout for Pearl River Community College.
“It was pretty tough, but I really enjoyed it,” said Johnson, who played the past two autumns in both football and soccer.
For the past two seasons, Johnson played nearly every game for the Wildcats as a defender on the soccer field and served as an all-purpose kicker for the football team, handling both punting, placekicking and kickoffs.
Not only that, but he had to balance the requirements of both sports with schoolwork and his responsibilities as new father.
Johnson and his longtime girlfriend Olivia Moger have a son, Grayson, who was born on Sept. 12.
Johnson didn’t initially plan on playing both sports for the Wildcats. He was signed by PRCC men’s soccer coach Drew Gallant in the spring of 2016 after a standout soccer career at Bay High.
“I really wasn’t planning on it, but the football team really wanted me my freshman year,” said Johnson. “They brought me and a couple of other kickers in the summer before (the 2016 season), and I guess they really liked what I could do.”
Johnson had a solid football career kicking for Bay High. During his two seasons handling the kicking chores for the Tigers, 2014 and 2015, he averaged 37.3 yards a kick on 51 punts, converted 42 of 45 point-after-touchdowns and was 12 of 16 on field goals, with a long of 46 yards.
Johnson was a legacy of sorts for Pearl River and Gallant. All three of his sisters played for Jack Byrd at PRCC, and a brother played for Gallant at Southwest Mississippi, before Gallant took over the Wildcat program in 2016.
Johnson had a solid freshman season in both sports. Johnson was only so-so on field goals in football, hitting just 3 of 7 attempts, but he converted 24 of 25 PATs and had a 47.7-yard punting average.
In soccer, he had 4 goals and 5 assists playing as a defensive midfielder, part of a rebuilding season. During the offseason, Johnson had moments where he thought about just sticking to soccer, his first love.
“I knew how tough it was going to be, and with everything else going on, it crossed my mind,” Johnson said.
However, Ted Egger, then newly-installed as interim head football coach, said he had no doubt that Johnson would continue to kick for football as well as soccer.
“He’s a young man who wanted to do both, and he could do it,” said Egger. “We were able to work out the details on practice, so he didn’t get worn down with both sports. He did a fine job for us.”
Johnson’s best game was at East Central, when he converted 8 of 8 PATs, a 39-yard field goal and averaged 40.3 yards on three punts. His effort earned him recognition as MACJC Special Teams Player of the Week.
Johnson’s double-duty got its most severe test on the weekend of Oct. 28-29, when he played two soccer matches and a football game in the space of a less than 30 hours.
Johnson did not have the year, statistically, that he had as a freshman on the pitch, scoring just one goal and assisting on two others.
But he was assigned a crucial position on the left backline that was a big part of the Wildcats’ success in winning a sixth MACJC/Region 23 State Tournament championship.
In the state tournament at Ridgeland, he played all but the last 10 minutes in a 3-0 win over East Central in the semifinals, then motored with his family down to Wesson to kick for the Wildcats against Copiah-Lincoln.
“That was probably the toughest weekend,” said Johnson. “(East Central) wasn’t an easy game. I did a lot of running and my leg kind of got banged up.
“On the way down (to Wesson), I tried to stretch my leg and work it out. Then when I got to the football game, I did a few practice kicks, and they were not the best kicks. I punted OK, but I never really found my groove, especially on kickoffs.”
Johnson missed his first PAT attempt and had another one blocked, plus his only field-goal attempt of the game was also blocked. However, he averaged 39.3 yards on three punts and had four successful PATs in the Wildcats’ season-ending 40-21 victory over the Wolves.
Johnson finished his sophomore season in football hitting 6 of 11 field goals, 33 of 38 PATs and he punted 40 times for a 37.5-yard average, landing 16 inside the opponents’ 20-yard-line.
But for Johnson, there was still the soccer state championship game against Mississippi Gulf Coast, which started at 1 p.m. the following day.
“My legs were really exhausted,” said Johnson. “I spent a lot of time before the game stretching them out and getting them loose again.”
The Wildcats and Bulldogs played through 90 minutes of regulation time and two 10-minute overtimes without a goal being scored, and by the time it came to the shootout to decide the winner, Johnson knew he had little left.
“I had a lot of adrenalin flowing and that kept me going through the game, but I was reluctant to do the shootout,” Johnson said. “Fortunately, we had guys step up who got the job done.”
Pearl River outscored Gulf Coast 4-1 in the shootout to win the state title. The Wildcats’ ended their season in a somewhat anticlimactic fashion, losing to Laredo, Texas 5-0 in the NJCAA South Region semifinals at Tyler, Texas.
“Mark Johnson was just phenomenal that whole weekend,” said Gallant of Johnson’s busy weekend.
“To play 80 minutes on Saturday, climb in a car and go kick for football. Then come back on Sunday and play nearly the whole game – they had order him of the field for treatment (of an injury) – is just unbelievable.”
With his playing career complete, Johnson is ready for the next step in his life. He has enlisted in the United States Air Force and will join the service once he graduates in December with his associates’ degree.
“It’s been fun, but now it’s time to move on,” Johnson said.
After just turning 20, Johnson – newly-married to Moger – will step into a bright future. He said he plans to complete college at some point in his life, but for now he has other obligations toward his family.
“He’s a great kid, a hard worker, someone who takes pride in everything he does,” said Egger. “We’ve been really lucky to have him, and we’re going to miss him.”
Hometown: Bay St. Louis
High School: Bay High (2016)
College: Pearl River (Dec. 2017)
Family: Parents – Richard and Peggy Johnson; Wife – Olivia; Son – Grayson (born Sept. 12); Siblings – 3 older sisters, 2 older brothers