Part 5: Runner's college marathon leads to Virginia

"I had days when I was leaning toward Kentucky, and I had days when I was leaning toward Virginia," says Brett Johnson, shown competing Jan. 30 in the Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden. He finished second in the mile race.
"I had days when I was leaning toward Kentucky, and I had days when I was leaning toward Virginia," says Brett Johnson, shown competing Jan. 30 in the Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden. He finished second in the mile race.
Posted: February 08, 2009

One of the nation's fastest high school milers was a whirl of motion.

Brett Johnson of Ocean City High School slapped his thighs, lifted one foot and then the other, shook his arms, wiggled his hands, jumped up and down, and ran from one end of the practice area to the other.

The 18-year-old, who dreams of running in the Olympics, was about to take the track at Madison Square Garden last month to compete in the prestigious Millrose Games.

Warming up beside him was Monmouth County's Robby Andrews, one of his biggest competitors on the track as well as in their race to college.

Brett, who last year was the fastest junior in the country, running the outdoor mile in 4 minutes, 8 seconds, wanted to win. He always wanted to win. But this race could be tough. Although Robby's personal best was several seconds slower, unlike Brett he had run on this tight, 11-lap track.

Before a crowd of 11,500 and a national television audience, the two lined up with six other runners.

Boom! They were off.

Brett's longer race - the marathon that would determine where he went to college - started two years ago, when coaches and scouts from some of the nation's best schools began e-mailing him and tnen showing up at his meets.

The senior is among more than 126,000 high school athletes annually who parlay their sports prowess to land more than $1 billion in full or partial athletic scholarships, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Sometimes, it gets them into schools otherwise closed to them. About 78 percent graduate.

Recruiters, who must abide by a long list of NCAA rules, anxiously await July 1, the date when they can begin talking to athletes such as Brett.

First, they call.

Then, they make house calls.

And then, to their preferred candidates, they offer all-expenses-paid campus visits, complete with steak dinners, exclusive tours, and meetings with coaches and athletes.

So as hundreds of thousands of students nervously await their college acceptance letters, Brett and his elite counterparts relish the catbird seat.

For them, the offers are many and sweet.

The dilemma is choosing the sweetest.

The calls begin

On July 1, Brett's phone started ringing: Kentucky, Penn State, Oklahoma State, Georgetown.

Over the next few weeks, he would hear from 40 to 50 others: Virginia, East Carolina, Kansas, Villanova, Providence, Iowa, Notre Dame, Syracuse . . .

Even the Ivies, including Penn, Princeton and Harvard, were pitching despite Brett's SAT score for reading and math - a modest 1,110.

Brett is the only star athlete among seven seniors The Inquirer is following through the admissions process this year. Unlike Brett, most of the others sweated their SATs and took them more than once.

Brett said one Ivy League coach had told him not to worry if he wasn't at the top of his class. If he had "decent" grades and SAT scores and was no "slouch," the coach said, he could get him in. Ivy League schools don't offer athletic scholarships but can provide significant financial aid based on need.

While he maintains a 3.7 grade point average, Brett was concerned that keeping up his grades at an Ivy would detract from his running.

He was intent on landing a hefty scholarship at the school best equipped to help him make the 2012 Olympics.

Academics, however, were high on his parents' list.

"He's worried about the running part. We're worried about when the running stops," said his father, Don, an appliance and bedding business owner. "You've got to have a degree to survive in the world."

Brett has been catching the eye of coaches since he was 5, running in a summer league.

He also loves basketball. Brett started high school dreaming of playing point guard for Duke University.

Soon he realized his bigger talent was running. That belief was sealed when he won several New Jersey championships last year at venues where he also became friends with his rival, Robby.

Bill Moreland, Brett's coach at Ocean City, describes him as the best he has worked with in 30 years; his protege even calls Moreland on Saturdays for training directions. Brett runs three to 10 miles a day, taking some Sundays off.

Brett and his family were in for an education on the NCAA's quirky recruiting rules, put in place to keep the process fair.

Each coach is allowed one call per week to an athlete, although athletes can call back as often as they like.

When the University of Kentucky's coach visited Brett's home, Brett's mother invited him to bring his wife along for dinner. That's a no-no, the coach explained. Only official athletic staff may participate.

Later, the Johnsons learned that colleges couldn't give Brett a school T-shirt, but could pay his expenses for a 48-hour trip to campus. He could accept free visits from up to five schools.

"This is overwhelming," Kathy Johnson, an elementary school teacher, said in August. "All these coaches are interested in your son. It just makes you appreciate what he's been able to do."

The debate

In early November, Brett returned from Kentucky's campus. After visiting three schools, he'd had enough, he said during an interview at his home.

It came down to Kentucky and the University of Virginia.

He had enjoyed the football game and tailgate during his visit to Pennsylvania State University, and admired the indoor track and coaches, but the school was no longer in the running.

At Virginia, Brett was impressed by head coach Jason Vigilante, a former associate head coach of the highly regarded University of Texas running team.

During Vigilante's tenure, Texas produced six NCAA individual champions, 37 all-Americans, 17 Big Twelve Conference champions, three Big Twelve relay champions, six Penn Relays champions, and one Olympian.

Virginia also offers a special dining facility for athletes, where dietitians craft menus.

On the other hand, at Kentucky, Brett had a strong connection: former Ocean City track star John Richardson, who graduated from Kentucky in May and was staying on for graduate work. He had told everyone about Brett.

A Kentucky coach, John Mortimer, had spent three hours at Brett's house in the summer. Then the family had toured the campus.

Brett felt right at home. "It was a lot easier to fit in there because they know me," he said.

His parents were impressed by the academic support center, where athletes must take eight hours of tutoring a week.

Brett, however, was more interested in the next stop on their itinerary - dinner with the coaches.

"I was kind of thinking about that steak dinner," he said.

In the midst of the interview, Brett's phone vibrated, and he debated whether to answer it.

"Sorry. It's Vigilante," Brett said.

The coach from Virginia was calling again.

The race

At the Millrose Games, Brett stuck to his plan early in the race: Run in the middle of the pack. Don't lead it. Save energy for the end.

But now he was boxed in by other runners.

"Work out of there, Brett," Moreland, Brett's coach, yelled in Lap 6.

Brett describes himself as an "airhead" when racing: He hears the gun boom, then the cheers on the backstretch. Nothing in between.

His intensity has carried him through injuries. A stress fracture in his foot ended his sophomore track season. In September, a hamstring pull sidelined him for a few weeks.

Then he hurt ligaments in his foot, which hindered him in the National Cross Country Championships in San Diego in December.

He finished last, pushing on even though Moreland had caught him halfway and suggested he stop. Brett wouldn't.

"He has an old-time kind of competitiveness," said Mike Givens, a plumber in Dennis Township, N.J., who oversaw a summer program that Brett ran in as a child. "We're still looking for another Brett Johnson."

Givens was among 15 of Brett's former coaches, friends and teachers at Madison Square Garden that evening. Many others watched on ESPN2 from home.

"3:19," Moreland yelled as Brett passed the three-quarter mark.

It was time to make his move: Brett worked his way out of the box, but Robby, too, poured it on.

Like a slingshot, Robby propelled himself around the final turn and pulled in front.

Could Brett catch up?

The decision

Brett woke up New Year's Day and announced his decision to his parents.

A few weeks earlier, he had learned that Robby - who was considering Columbia, Penn, Georgetown, Arizona and Virginia - had decided to go to Virginia. But Brett said that wasn't a factor.

He also had talked with Leonel Manzano, an Olympian from Texas who had been coached by Vigilante last year, but that wasn't the scale tipper.

"I had days when I was leaning toward Kentucky, and I had days when I was leaning toward Virginia," Brett said.

In the end, it was a "gut feeling," he said. "I had more Virginia than Kentucky days." He signed the letter of intent on Wednesday.

Vigilante was thrilled with his decision.

"Brett has the ability to not only run fast but to do so with a devastating finish," the coach said. "Brett has the intangibles that make exceptional athletes. Work ethic, competitive nature and commitment are all good descriptors."

Neither the Johnsons nor Virginia officials would reveal details of Brett's package. The family would say only that there were differences between Kentucky's and Virginia's.

If Brett got a full ride as an out-of-state student, the tuition, room, board, books and other expenses would be worth about $40,000 a year.

Virginia officials said they offered the equivalent of 12.6 full scholarships a year to men's track athletes.

The Johnsons emphasized that the financial offers from the schools were not a factor. They told Brett that they would make up the difference.

They also insisted he start out with tutoring no matter which school he attended.

The finish

Brett couldn't catch Robby in the homestretch.

Robby broke the tape and flung his arms in the air.

Brett finished second, about two seconds behind.

"Darn it," the words exploded in Brett's head as he limped off the track.

The only person Brett wanted to talk to was Robby.

They embraced.

"If I had to lose to somebody, I'm glad it was Robby," Brett said.

Brett gave his postrace interviews like a champion who understands that defeat sometimes is inevitable.

"My parents did a great job raising me. I make no excuses," he said. "As soon as I go to sleep tonight, this race is over."

His pursuit of the Olympic dream continues.

At Virginia, he'll room with Robby.

How to Get Recruited

Tips for getting into college through athletic skills:

Be proactive. Don't wait for the recruiters to come to you. Get your name, e-mail address and profile out to all schools that fit your interest. Talk to coaches.

Maintain good grades and test scores. Your academic record may give you an edge.

Keep a respectable Facebook and online profile. Schools look for athletes who will represent them well.

Talk to college athletes. They may give a good assessment of life at their universities.

SOURCE: Stewart Brown, "The Student Athlete's Guide to Getting Recruited"


Video of Brett Johnson and previous articles in the series at http://

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or

Next: Paying the bill

How will the students handle the cost of college?

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