XC/Track and Field
His unwavering dedication to the University of Kansas was born, in part, through a deeply-rooted family heritage that was fueled in first grade and later sealed by the lessons learned from a competitive rivalry with his best friend in elementary school.
David Johnston will eagerly tell you that the blueprints for his journey from childhood to adulthood were embedded in his DNA at birth. Later experiences while growing up helped light his journey to Lawrence.
“It’s a pursuit I carried on my sleeve for a long time,” notes Johnston, a proud member of the fraternity of track and cross-country All-Americans produced by KU.
Johnston wrote the script for his place in the KU track and cross-country annals at the start of his senior year when he filled out a questionnaire supplied to all of the team members by the coaching staff.
Under a listing asking for individual goals he simply wrote, “All-American.”
Johnston had set his ambitious sights on that meaningful achievement from the moment he announced his intentions, along with twin brother, Peter, to be a Jayhawk following a successful cross-country and track career at Lawrence High School.
He embraced that goal each year he competed in the Jayhawk pink and blue singlet, but it was not until his final season that he felt his athletic maturity would allow the dream to become a reality.
In his apartment, located across the street from Memorial Stadium, he posted pictures of seven KU cross-country and track legends on the walls: Glenn Cunningham, Wes Santee, Billy Mills, Jim Ryun, Heb Semper, Al Frame and John Lawson. It served as a daily reminder of the proud tradition of KU track and cross-country and the footsteps he hoped to follow.
He would later note, when asked about days on Mount Oread, that it was a pursuit that served to define both his college experience and ascension into maturity at a critical stage of his life.
“For me, it was becoming All-American,” said Johnston. “Not so much the athletic distinction, it was more the idea of being an All-American…something that would define me.”
“What I learned later was that it wasn’t a single race that made me an All-American, even though I was fortunate to run the race of my life the last time I put on a Kansas uniform. I realized that I became an All-American long before that, supporting the idea that the journey is often more important than the destination.”
“Perhaps that’s what it means to be a Jayhawk. It’s about the way you conduct yourself and pursue your goals, with integrity, diligence and passion everyday. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my KU experience. I may not be able to articulate exactly what it means to be a Jayhawk, but I know how much it matters to me.”
My journey as a Jayhawk began the day I was born.
Growing up in Pittsburg, Kansas, I came from a loyal KU family. I remember one of the more defining moments early in my childhood that helped ignite my passion for being a Jayhawk occurred in the first grade at Lakeside Elementary.
My teacher was reading from a children’s book called “The Jayhawker Book” which offers information about the history of the state.
From the book, she read that people born in Kansas are called Jayhawkers and people who live in Kansas are called Kansans. At that point, she stopped and asked all of us to raise our hands if we were born in Kansas.
Every hand in the room shot up. The only child left not raising his hand was me. My mother and father, being such loyal KU people, had driven across the state line to Joplin, Mo. so I could be delivered by a KU Medical School graduate who was affiliated with the hospital there.
When my teacher asked about my birthplace ,I reported that I had been born just across the border in Missouri.
“That makes you a Missouri Mule,” was her response.
You can imagine how my classmates reacted to that. It was probably 10 seconds of snickers, but as far as I was concerned it was years of torture that probably inspired me to be more excessively pro-KU as I grew up. From that point on, I think I wanted to be a Jayhawk more than most.
I was also heavily influenced by a close childhood friend and neighbor named Barry Coleman. Barry came from a big Missouri family and, as it turned out, was a bit of rival in sports while I was growing up in Pittsburg. As fate would have it, he was the best athlete in our elementary school. It didn’t matter if he played tennis, football or any sport, I had to try and beat him. He was the best athlete and beating him rarely happened.
One Saturday morning I received a phone call from Barry at 6 a.m. I think I was 10 years old at the time. Barry and his mom were headed out on a 5K run that concluded in the Pitt State football stadium and I was invited to join them. Neither one of us had ever run that far in our lives, but I wanted to run and try to beat Barry, so I begged my parents to take me.
I showed up and ran the race with the Barry and his mom and had lots of fun right up until the end. We entered the stadium at the same time and had to race around the turn to the finish line. He beat me by one second.
That one narrow loss to a Missouri fan, no doubt, fueled my passion for running the rest of my life. Not long after, another race came along in the form of a 1-mile fun run in Joplin. That time, I was able to beat him by one second. It was the first time I had beaten Barry at anything, which told me running was my sport. Years later, Barry and I would be roommates at KU.
It was also about this time that my father first took us to watch the Kansas Relays at Memorial Stadium. We had been driving up to Lawrence for football and basketball games, so we were no strangers to KU, but the Relays were different. I was enamored with the pageantry, the colors- including KU’s pink and blue uniforms- and the prizes. Victors won a coveted Relays Watch. My dad, having served as a track manager and head of the student relays committee in 1956, proudly wore his Relays Watch each year, and I dreamed of one day winning my own.
I was 11-years-old when we moved from Pittsburg to Lawrence, and it already felt like home. As I matured, running quickly became my primary sport, and my passion for KU continued to grow. I poured over the KU media guides and idolized the Kansas All-Americans whose paintings adorned the walls in Allen Fieldhouse.
Then at Lawrence High School, I started having some success in track and cross country, earning 6 individual state titles and being a part of 2 state championship teams. But perhaps my fondest memories were of the high school competitions that took place at KU, at the Kansas Relays and at Rim Rock Farm, KU’s home cross country course. Winning there, I felt, would legitimize my hopes to run for KU one day.
My twin brother Peter and I enjoyed the recruiting process, positioning our selves as a package deal. Peter was an All-State runner in his own right. Although it was flattering when schools contacted us, we had made up our minds long before to attend KU. So when the KU coaches visited our home to make their pitch, it seemed a formality. When they said “We’d like you to come to KU”, we immediately answered “Yes,” then we stipulated one condition, asking if we could we sign our letters of intent in front of the big Jayhawk banner used as a backdrop for all of KU’s major press conferences. We did it the week of the Kansas Relays to draw attention to the meet. And although it was not a big media story, Peter and I were proud to have an experience usually reserved for the most high profile KU athletes.
Although I felt destined to go to KU, I visited several other schools, including an official recruiting visit to Arkansas, a national powerhouse in track. I took the trip to Fayetteville and distinctly remember that I never saw the inside of an academic building. The coach, John McDonnell, set me down at the conclusion of the trip and said, and I’m paraphrasing: “Look, we’re going to win national championships the next four years. You can either choose to be a part of that or not.”
I responded back that I’d rather try to win a national championship at the University of Kansas because it would be much more meaningful to me. I also wanted to study Journalism, and KU’s J-school was one of the best in the country.
Once on campus at the University of Kansas, it was one thrill after another. I signed up to be a campus tour guide, called “Student Ambassadors” and joined the Student Alumni Association and the Advertising Club. I tried to volunteer in just about every office that promoted KU.
Putting on the uniform for the first time was overwhelming. I was both proud and humbled to wear KANSAS across my chest. I can’t remember anything about that first race, other than how it felt to wear the pink and blue. After that, I always kept the uniform neatly folded when I wasn’t wearing it.
It was a similar thrill for me to receive my letter jacket from the equipment room in Allen Fieldhouse. I wore it proudly as I walked all the way across campus from Allen Fieldhouse to the Beta house on Tennessee Street, even though the temperature was in the 70’s.
I was a freshman and had a lot to learn. After watching so many contests between hated rivals k-state and Mizzou, I was pumped for my first race against them. Finally I could control the outcome, rather than just cheering in the stands. So as a freshman I went out with the leaders in the Big 8 cross country championships, vowing not to let any rival team member ahead of me. In retrospect, this probably wasn’t the best strategy, as I faded fast.
Eventually, I matured and had a breakthrough race my junior year. KU Sport Psychologist David Cook showed us how to visualize success by scripting a race plan. I followed my plan exactly and had my highest finish ever among some of the best runners in the nation, including several All-Americans. That’s when it hit home that I could do this and achieve my goals.
To become an All-American you have to finish among the top 25 Americans at the national championship. Plus, you first have to qualify to make it into nationals. They take the top teams and the top three individuals not on those teams. That meant to assure a position at nationals, I had to be one of those top three individuals.
My best friend and teammate, Michael Cox, and I found our selves running side-by-side all the way through the two-mile mark at the district qualifier. I turned to him and told him to “take it if you’ve got it.” I was running my race and was exactly where I wanted to be at that stage. Michael looked over and said, “I’m running my plan. I’m where I need to be.”
Our plans, as it turned out, were identical. We counted heads. We knew exactly where we stood and who we had to beat to place among the top three individuals. We were in sync. With a mile to go in the race we set our sights on the one person we both needed to beat, and it turned out to be the No. 1 runner from Kansas State.
We closed the gap and passed him on either side, finishing among the top three and qualifying for nationals. I can’t describe how good it felt. And to top it off, the national championship would be run at Arkansas, the only other school that really recruited me.
Call it confidence, good preparation, or being in “the zone”, but I was very calm that day, despite the pressure of it being my last race in a KU uniform. I had an acute sense of awareness and can still recall exactly what I was thinking throughout the entire race. I knew exactly what I had to do, and I just did it.
Mike and I both finished the race as All-Americans, the first pair of KU teammates to accomplish the feat in 30 years, since Billy Mills and Brian Travis did it in 1964. Now I had something in common with Billy Mills.
College was a life-changing experience, and my journey to becoming an All-American defined it for me. I’ve had a lot of goals in my life: to wear a KU uniform, to become an All-American, run a 4 minute mile and be a team leader, but also to build a rewarding career promoting KU and finally, to be a good father. I’ve accomplished all but one of those, settling for a 4:07 mile p.r. while hanging onto the shorts of Michael Cox, who went on to break the magic barrier. I even won two Relays watches, giving my second to my mom. Then, in 2004 I became KU’s first-ever Director of Marketing, managing one of the most beloved college symbols in the world- the Jayhawk.
I have enjoyed my journey as a Jayhawk and look forward to watching my children begin theirs. I married my KU sweetheart, Sara, and we now have two little girls, Sydney and Sophia (editor’s update: a boy, Austin, was added in 2009). Both girls love going to KU games, watching the cheerleaders and hugging Baby Jay. And of course, they run. Who knows if they will have a similar journey, but I can tell you this much; they were born in Kansas, so they’ll always be Jayhawks!
The following excerpt was republished with the Author’s permission from What it Means to be a Jayhawk, first published in 2008.