By Justin Sampson (Ozarks Sports Zone)
WILLARD, Mo. — It’s been 30 years since Fred Johnson was dazzling fans in Martinsburg, Mo., a town northeast of Columbia with a population of less than 400 people.
In his four years at Wellsville-Middletown High School, the future Missouri State Bear scored 3,552 points, more than anyone before or since in the state. His post-college career would take him wherever he could pick up a basketball, like the Show-Me State Games, where he could rub and bump elbows with fellow collegiate players from the state.
That included Lamont Frazier, the former Mizzou captain who would become the head basketball coach at Willard High School in 2012.
“(Fred) was friends with some guys that came to Missouri before I got there, so he would drive from Springfield to Columbia on his days off and we would all play,” Frazier said.
Little did Frazier know, he would coach Johnson’s son decades later.
Houston Johnson, now a senior at Willard, comes from scoring lineage that is second to none, but he is still writing his own story on the court.
“(My dad) scored most of his points with elbow jumpers, where most of mine come from near the basket or by free throws,” he said. “I obviously didn’t get to see him play, but he’s told me I’m a lot smarter of a player than he was as a kid too.”
Johnson looks the part at first glance, a 6-foot-5 forward who commands the post. It’s a thick frame he has honed through his work on the AAU circuit.
At the varsity level, he is still a work in progress.
“If you count his freshman year, he’s probably at a sophomore level just based on his playing time at the high school level,” Frazier said.
That’s because Johnson’s varsity career at Willard has been whittled to fewer than 10 games in two seasons. His injury troubles began at Hartville, where he had already grown over six feet as an eighth grader. He won an O-Zone poll for a video where he jumped over a teammate for a one-handed dunk.
Johnson contributed to a team with a young core that included the likes of Dune Piper and Grant Dedmon, who would win a state championship two years later. Then a broken hand halted his progression.
Later that year, he transferred to Willard to be closer to his father’s work in Springfield. It was well-timed for the Tigers. Chris Hendrix had just graduated after leading the program to a quarterfinal berth in 2014, and post presence was in high demand.
“He reminded me a lot of myself coming out of high school,” Frazier said. “He’s a strong, athletic, smart kid. To know you’re getting a kid as a sophomore who had that kind of ability, it’s something worth building your team around.”
Early returns were promising, until the Tigers traveled to Marshfield for the sixth game of the season. Johnson came down on a teammate’s foot, injuring his ankle. There was pain, a lot of it, but he did not want to call it a night. He finished with 32 points and 12 rebounds to lead Willard to its first win.
For months, he was told it was a sprain, but he hurt too much in his daily life to buy into that. It wasn’t until the following October that he discovered he had torn the ligament off the bone, making his effort that night even more extraordinary.
“Last year at this time, I couldn’t walk,” Johnson said. “You take for granted the ability to walk because you do it all the time. When you can’t do it for a while, to get back out there and play the sport you love is crazy.”
For Frazier, that Marshfield game became the last real glimpse of the youngster’s potential.
“I remember it like it was yesterday. He rips the ligament off the bone and instead of saying he’s hurt, he tapes it up and continues playing,” he said. “It was one of the best nights he’s had since he’s been here.”
The timing of his injury revelation meant surgery right before the start of his junior season, which limited him to appearing in just two games late that year.
“I was devastated because something is being taken away from a kid that’s out of his control. You could see the drain of ‘here we go again.’ If a kid doesn’t have the tough will to see the other side of it, it destroys them. They may not do the things that he’s done.”
What Johnson has done since drew mountains of praise from Frazier. His rehab has been successful to the point where the senior says he feels little to no pain now. Through Willard’s 4-1 start, he’s averaged just shy of 20 points and 8 rebounds per night.
He has the talent to play at the next level, but his first priority is growing relationships with his teammates, which should reach new heights as he piles up minutes in game action.
“Right now, I’m really focusing on being successful for the team and Willard, but it’s a side goal for me to get my college scholarship so I can go somewhere and play,” he said.