There are 41 Division I schools whose mascot is a Tiger. There are seven schools that use a wildcat. But there is only one Jayhawk.
All that have attended the University of Kansas know that this symbol is not just a mascot, but a representation of the tradition instilled from the first day of orientation throughout the rest of one’s life. Jayhawks are not just students of a state university, but a family of people who share a bond unlike any other. Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk.
No one epitomizes this idea more than David Johnston, a former cross country and track runner and All-American. Johnston, who officially became a Jayhawk in 1990, still resides in Lawrence, where he and his wife, Sara, raise their three children: Sydney, Sophia and Austin. Currently working as vice president for the KU Alumni Association, he has dedicated his life to serving the Jayhawks of the past, present and future.
Born to a family loyal to the university, it was inevitable that one day Johnston would become a member of the Jayhawk family. One of the most memorable moments that drove him to become so passionate about KU happened when he was still in grade school in Pittsburg, Kansas. While all of the other kids raised their hands when asked if they were born in Kansas, Johnston was alone with his hand down as his parents drove over the border into Missouri so he could be delivered by a KU graduate. Then the teacher announced that Johnston was a “Missouri mule.”
“From that point on, I think I wanted to be a Jayhawk more than most,” Johnston said in What it Means to Be a Jayhawk.
A love for running was also cultivated through many experiences as a boy. His elementary school athletic escapades consisted of regularly competing against one of the best athletes in his class, Barry Coleman, who was raised by a family loyal to Mizzou. Although his neighborhood rival sometimes won by the skin of his teeth, Johnston was unable to beat him. It was the day that he was finally able to beat his arch nemesis in a mile race by one second that affirmed running was his sport. Ironically, the two ended up living together while attending KU.
Johnston continued his path to becoming a Jayhawk when his family moved to Lawrence when he was 11 years old. Intrigued by the atmosphere surrounding the pink and blue runners of KU, the Kansas Relays became an important experience on his journey. His father, Don Johnston, was head of the Student Relays Committees in 1956, which earned him a coveted Relays watch.
“I dreamed of one day winning my own,” Johnston said in What it Means to Be a Jayhawk, referring to the watch that winners of the Relays received.
He went on to win two, giving the second to his mother, a volunteer Relays official. Sections of media guides were cut out and taped to the walls of his room for admiration. In fact, the admiration was so great that, as just a child, Johnston was able to identify in the media guide that the name of a KU great was accompanied by a picture that was in fact not the right person.
The passion for running and KU continued to develop as Johnston attended school at Lawrence High, racking up six individual state titles and two team championships in track and cross country. While these accomplishments would seem to trump all, the most significant events for him took place at the Kansas Relays and at Rim Rock Farm, the home cross country course at KU.
“Winning there, I felt, would legitimize my hopes to run for KU one day,” Johnston explained in What it Means to Be a Jayhawk.
Soon enough this dream became reality. Approached by the Arkansas coach, a powerhouse in cross country, he was assured national championships.
“I’d rather win a title at KU,” Johnston replied without hesitation.
The KU coaches then came knocking on the door with an offer, and as a package deal with his twin brother, Peter, the dream was finally coming true.
On campus, Johnston quickly became a student ambassador, guiding KU prospects on campus tours, and even joined the Student Alumni Association and Advertising Club.
“I tried to volunteer in just about every office that promoted KU,” Johnston said in What it Means to Be a Jayhawk.
One of Johnston’s most special characteristics is the dedication he has to making sure all students and alumni experience what it means to be a Jayhawk. If this wasn’t enough, Johnston put even more on his plate by pledging Beta Theta Pi and living in the fraternity house where his room was decorated in the pictures of KU greats for inspiration. While this may keep the average person busy enough, Johnston was also a Division I student-athlete.
Now a past president of K Club, Johnston tells of the three most significant experiences at KU that he said, “Everybody has them. They unite us. As we like to say, they are moments that are uniquely shared.”
Those three experiences he recalls so clearly are: Putting the uniform on for the first time and sporting the bold “KANSAS” letters across the chest.
“I felt that awesome responsibility of being a Jayhawk,” Johnston said about the first time wearing the uniform.
The second most significant experience was the day that Johnston received his letter jacket.
“The day I got my letter jacket it was about 75 degrees outside. Being the big man on campus I thought I was, I put it on and walked all the way across campus to where I lived. I was sweating the whole way but couldn’t have been more proud,” Johnston said.
The final experience was the receipt of his K ring upon graduation that he still wears today.
“It was very meaningful for me to have a K ring because that was the same ring my heroes before me had earned,” Johnston said.
Along with his heroes that he now shared a special bond with, Johnston shared this experience with every athlete before him and that is what makes being a Jayhawk special.
“After college, I attended a professional event where Gale Sayers was signing autographs. So I stood in line waiting for my chance to meet him,” Johnston explained. “I get to the front of the line and stick my hand out and he turns it over and sees my K ring. He turns his hand over to reveal his K ring and simply said, ‘what sport?’ Which was really cool because no other words were exchanged, but there was that common bond we shared as Jayhawks and we both knew what it meant.”
While at KU, Johnston was asked to fill out an information sheet for one of his cross country coaches. While most sections were filled out in detail, he simply put “ALL-AMERICAN” in big letters under “personal goals.” In his senior year, Johnston would give it his last shot by attempting to qualify for the national race. With just a short time left, he and teammate Michael Cox had just one person to pass, Kansas State’s best runner. When it came time, they passed on both sides and then closed the gap in the middle, qualifying for the national race. Johnston then ran the race of his life at Nationals, finishing 26th overall and achieving All-American status.
“My ability to become an All-American was inspired by the Jayhawks who came before me, the people I admired,” Johnston said.
While it is obvious from his days at KU that he is a man which bleeds Crimson and Blue, Johnston has continued his dedication to the University even after graduation. He served as K Club President from 2010-12, which under his direction was one of the most active times the organization has been around Homecoming. He was also named the university’s first director of marketing.
“My ambition from the time I was a boy was to make a career out of going to KU and then telling people what a cool place KU was,” Johnston said of his career aspiration of giving back to his alma mater.
As the head of campus marketing, he was presented with the daunting task of getting all logos used by the university in sync to create stronger brand awareness. It was then that the Trajan KU letters were born, making Johnston a part of an enormous contribution and legacy to KU. Johnston humbly tells of when he got to sit down with the icon, Hal Sandy, who originally drew the Jayhawk and placed the Trajan letters in the middle.
What Johnston did not realize at the time was that the original artist of the Jayhawk wasn’t the only individual leaving a lasting contribution on the Kansas campus, as those branding initiatives and tactics Johnston administered helped strengthen the Jayhawk mark into one of the most-recognizable logos in all of sports.
“I wasn’t sure how it was going to go, but he loved it and was all for it. I actually got to sit down with him and place the letters on the Jayhawk,” Johnston said about this significant experience.
While only student-athletes receive a letter jacket, the pride of being a Jayhawk is supported to all different facets. Whether you are an athlete, a band member, member of a club, or dedicated student, it is the tradition and responsibility of carrying on the legacy of those before that make all Jayhawks one.
It is an experience unlike any other, and it can honestly be understood by those who are Jayhawks.
“It’s about the way you conduct yourself and pursue your goals, with integrity, diligence, and passion, every day,” Johnston said in What it Means to be a Jayhawk.
As a student-athlete and to this day, Johnston exemplifies this lifestyle, as all Jayhawks do. These are the values and traditions that make someone a Jayhawk and is the reason why Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk.
This original piece was published in 2016 by KU Athletics and K Club at alwaysajayhawk.com. The interview below was part of a promotional campaign for the Kansas Relays in 2015.