Jeremiah Johnson is a humbler, quieter version of Tim Tebow.
A triple threat — athlete, Christian and humanitarian — Johnson can rush for 228 yards in a single game on the gridiron and play stingy, lock-down defense on the basketball court.
He can take the halfback pitch 30 yards to the house and nail the mid-range jumper.
Most importantly, after his 10-day mission trip to eastern Asia, Johnson now understands that there is more to life than sports.
Johnson, one of the best athletes at Veritas Christian School, according to head basketball and football coach Doug Bennett, spent the beginning of the second semester volunteering his time at an independent orphanage in Beijing. In doing so, the Eagles guard elected to miss two basketball games in the middle of his senior season.
“I wasn’t so mad about missing school,” Johnson joked. “But I was kind of mad about missing a couple games. But I wasn’t too bummed because I didn’t miss any league games.”
Bennett said he understood his quiet leader’s decision.
“The basketball coach in me said ‘no way,’” Bennett said. “But being a Christian man, I knew what an impact a trip like this could make on his life. A chance to serve in another country — I fully supported his decision.”
Johnson said the trip was coordinated through a close family friend who had visited China. He was accompanied on the trip by his stepbrother, Grant Catloth, a junior at KU, and two other volunteers from Colorado and Virginia. His father, Roger Johnson, previously had vacationed in China and was the one who encouraged his son to travel.
“My mom was worried about it,” said Johnson smiling. “My dad wasn’t.”
Fortunately for Johnson and a handful of others, he listened to his father. He said he had always known that he was fortunate, but that this trip reaffirmed the notion.
“I really liked the orphanage because it was cool to see how kids who have literally nothing are way happier than the majority of the people here,” he said. “It made me realize how privileged I am.”
After a 13-hour plane ride to Beijing, which he described as far and away the worst part of the 10 days, Johnson said initially he was unnerved about not knowing the language and being the only Caucasian in sight.
“It was kind of awkward at first,” he said. “By the end we got used to it. We were the only non-Asian people I ever saw except at tourist attractions like the Great Wall.”
When it came to developing relationships at the orphanage, however, all cultural barriers were dismantled. The orphans and volunteers became instant friends through activities, games and common feelings of gratitude for one another.
That’s not to say the language barrier never posed any problems. Johnson and Catloth were talking to one of the Discipleship Training School students — a program designed to develop Christians’ faith — when a conversation surfaced that caused some confusion. And perhaps some emasculation, too.
“She asked my brother his age, and he said ‘20,’” Johnson remembered. “Then she said something that sounded like ‘gender?’ So he said, ‘Uh, male?’ She didn’t understand and kept saying, ‘Gender?’ We looked at each other for a while; it was really weird. We thought she thought he was a female, but as it turns out, ‘gender’ just means ‘really.’ So he kept telling her he was a guy. It was pretty awkward.”
The few uncomfortable moments paled in comparison to the overall experience. In addition to their visit to the orphanage, Johnson’s group also was afforded the opportunity to dine with a friend of the Discipleship Training School in Mongolia. During the two-day stint, the group attended a country church service and was educated in the local customs and traditions.
“The student we were visiting was from a very poor family,” Johnson said. “And they never invite people over because pride, or family honor, is a big deal in China. So it was a big honor to have him invite us over to his house for a meal.”
Johnson’s journey to the Far East was topped off with trips to the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, and a little shopping at the local markets. In all, Johnson said he left China with no regrets.
“It was a very humbling experience,” he said. “I would definitely go back.”
Now that his plate has been cleared of rice and dumplings —which he consumed at every meal — all that remains for Johnson is class and what’s left of the Veritas basketball season. The Eagles are 2-6 overall but 2-1 since Johnson’s return.
“I think it’s one of several things that have have helped since our team’s developed,” Bennett said of the impact of Johnson’s return to the starting lineup. “He is our lock-down defender and our top rebounder. It makes a big difference; he rarely comes off the court.”
Veritas will travel today to Olathe Christian.