During Helena High’s quarterfinals win over Billings West two weeks ago, junior defensive back Alex Johnson was involved in two plays that might define his role on the Bengals’ team. Both as an intense, skillful competitor, as well as a comedic personality that helps the group stay loose.
The first episode took place late in the second quarter, with Helena holding an 18-0 lead in game being played with temperatures in the low 20 degrees. The Bears were driving, when Johnson stepped in front of quarterback Alex Bruns’ pass at midfield, and an open field in front of him.
But when he slipped and was tackled by a West player, he slid awkwardly across the icy turf of Vigilante Stadium and went sprawling for an ungraceful landing.
“Alex does everything by the book, he’s a natural talent and he listens to the coaches,” related senior HHS linebacker Conner Nash. “If he doesn’t get it right the first time he hones in on it. His strengths are getting into position to make interceptions and turnovers, which is what he does best.
“The pick against West was probably the best play I’ve seen him make, but it was really funny the way he went down."
'Help I've fallen..."
The second aspect of Johnson’s wares occurred in the fourth quarter on a kickoff after the Bengals were up 34-7. Johnson was pulled down in the middle of the field, and as he lay there a frustrated Billings player stood over him and started pounding away with his fists.
“The guy planted him and was railing on, but Alex just took it – he’s not the kind of kid to get in fights,” senior defensive end Caeden Suero. “In fact he even made a joke out of it, yelling ‘Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”
When Nash saw his teammate being attacked, he and others came running to the rescue.
“He’s kind of a little brother to us seniors, but he made it out to be this ‘Life Alert’ thing. So it became the joke of the week, Play No. 48 or something for the films, watching Alex take about six repeated punches,” Nash recounted.
On Friday, No. 3 Helena (9-2) heads for Billings to take on undefeated and defending State champion Senior (12-0) in the AA title game. And all of the Bengals plan on utilizing – in part – that combination of intensity and having fun, to halt the Broncs’ 25-game win streak and bring back a championship to the halls of HHS.
For the season, the lanky 6-foot-2, 170-pound Johnson ranks in the top-three in defensive points on the red-and-white. Nash sits atop the leader-board with 359 points, followed by Suero’s 283, while Johnson has 212.
Johnson leads the team with six interceptions and nine deflected passes, is tied for the lead with two caused fumbles, stands No. 3 with 42 solo tackles and is fourth at 83 total tackles.
Nash paces the team with a school-record 169 total tackles - breaking Kendall Johnson’s (Alex’s brother) record of 167 - 81 solo tackles, 63 assisted tackles, four recovered fumbles and two blocked kicks. Suero is No. 1 with 23 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and 28 hurries.
Next on the list are linebacker Keanan Horne (41 solo tackles) at 190 points, lineman Jack Kanta’s (13 hurries) 169, 165 for 'backer Sam Shephard (12 TFL), and DB Zach Spiroff (eight deflected pass) with 149 points.
Small Fry titles, Big bro’s footsteps
Johnson started out following in the footsteps of brother Kendall, in the Helena Small Fry Football Leagues. He played for Universal Athletics Services in Grades 5-6 under coach Tom Dwyer. In Grades 7-8, his LaCasa Fiesta teams captured the city championships both years, coached by Steve Ereth and John Mannix.
Alex cracked the HHS Bengals' varsity last year mid-way through his sophomore season, and drew the attention of Suero in the 28-21 quarterfinals upset playoff win over the Hawks.
“Alex made a pick in the red zone and sent the ball the other way, and that was a pretty special play for a soph to make in Bozeman in the quarterfinals,” Suero said. “He’s a great, smart, young player. His skills have really progressed, and he’s very athletic.
“Alex is going to be a D-1 athlete someday, I think.”
Johnson credits his record-setting older brother - who is currently enrolled at the U.S. Naval Academy - as being one of the chief influences on his career.
“Oh man, I learned so much from Kendall, mostly just like effort can’t be something you (can just) turn on sometimes,” he said. “I still forget that, but I have to give my all every practice if I want to get better. And that no matter how tired you think you are, there’s always more to give, for the team.”
Pink golf balls, Better Nate than lever
Even when Johnson makes the great plays – like the interception against West two weeks ago – Nash says they won’t miss a chance to stick the needle in.
“Hey, anytime we get a chance to tease, him we hop on it,” he related, in this case the icy slip that Johnson took. “We always run over to the bench and give him a bunch of crap to keep him humble, but he’s humble anyway.”
One thing that Johnson is noted for is telling what Suero and Nash refer to as “stupid jokes” that he thinks are "hilarious."
Suero spoke about his long, drawn-out “pink golf ball joke, that wastes your time for no reason,” and Nash mentioned Johnson’s proclivity for puns, including the “Better Nate than lever” story.
“Everybody’s heard them, but he thinks they’re the best thing in the world,” Nash recounted. “I’ll tell him, ‘You’ve just wasted 10 minutes of my life that I can never get back.’ But he does it on purpose.”
Know where Sulser is at
All joking aside, underdog Helena will need to be at their best to beat the Broncs on Friday. It has been said that defense win championships, and HHS has a good one, their forte being their quickness, according to coach Tony Arntson.
The Bengals have allowed an average of 17.4 points a game, and gave up just 14 points in their two playoff wins, over West and Capital High.
But Senior has a great “D” as well, permitting only 13.3 points a game, while its’ offense puts up 37 per contest – slightly more than the Bengals’ 36-point average. And the Broncs handed Helena its worst loss of the season in week three, 43-19.
“They have a ton of weapons on offense so we’re going to have to play as a team, and that includes the way we tackle,” Johnson said. “We’re not going out there looking to beat them with one guy; it’s all about helping each other out and doing what we’re good at.
“Also, knowing where (receiver/running back Gabe) Sulser is at will help.”