Miller and Johnson: a Winning Tandem at Channel Islands : Backfield Partners Lead Interference Against Each Other’s Personal Struggles

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

On the fieldJ. Miller is Mr. Inside and John Johnson is Mr. Outside.

Off the field, E. J. is Mr. Extrovert and J. J. is Mr. Introvert.

E. J. and J. J. line up side by side in the Channel Islands High backfield. And when one carries the load, the other leads interference--on and off the field.

Miller sorely needed the comfort of a friend last month when his stepfather, who had raised E. J. since he was 4, died in a motorcycle accident. Johnson was quickly by Miller’s side, comforting his more outgoing pal with softly spoken words.

Said Miller: “My family moved the next week and Johnny was here until three, four in the morning helping out.”

Said Johnson: “I wanted to be there for him. That brought us even closer together.”

Johnson struggles with the legacy left by three older brothers, all of whom had standout athletic careers at Channel Islands. Hilria, the second oldest, rushed for a Ventura County-record 3,709 yards at Channel Islands from 1977-79.


“When I had problems, E. J. was there for me,” Johnson said. “My brothers are quite a bit older than me, so E. J has been like a brother to me.”

Said Miller: “Johnny is a good athlete like his brothers. But I tell him he’s not trying to prove he’s as good as his brothers. He’s his own person.”

Although each has missed a game, Miller and Johnson have been impressive in leading the Raiders to a 3-1 record.

Miller, a senior fullback, has 254 yards, 3 touchdowns and an average of 7.5 yards a carry. Johnson, a junior halfback, has 235 yards, 6 touchdowns and an average of 7.1 yards a carry. They perform out of the Raiders’ wing-T formation as if it was designed especially for them.

“The wing-T allows us to feature more than one running back,” Coach Joel Gershon said. “And E. J. and John are perfectly suited for their positions.”

Miller (5-8, 175) is built low to the ground and pops through the middle on quick openers like a bowling ball gone berserk.


Johnson (5-10, 185), elusive as a dog scampering across a baseball diamond, is a threat to break loose on any end sweep. Last season he averaged 10.2 yards a carry, gaining 642 yards on 63 attempts.

And, naturally, E. J. and J. J. lend one another a helping hand.

Johnson followed a block by Miller to score the first touchdown on a five-yard run in last week’s 46-14 win over Simi Valley. The favor was soon reciprocated.

“A couple times, I got the ball on a dive and the middle linebacker was chasing John, thinking he was running a sweep,” Miller said.

Said Johnson: “We talk about carrying out our fakes as best we can to help each other out.”

After the game Johnson spent the night at Miller’s house.

“We have the same values in life,” said Miller, who is of French, Irish and American-Indian descent. “Lots of guys are into drugs, and we stay away from that stuff. We’re just trying to keep our act together.”

Those are pleasing words to Gershon, whose coaching style is as tranquil as the Raiders’ powder blue uniforms.


“He’s not just worried what happens Friday night,” said Miller, who is playing his third varsity season. “Coach Gershon worries about your family, your grades. Any problems you have, he’s there.

“My first year on varsity I resented him getting so personal. ‘It’s my life,’ I thought. By now, I can see he really cares. When you get a coach like that, you give full effort.”

Said Gershon, who is in his 14th season at Channel Islands: “Our staff tries to be teachers. Kids know when they make a mistake. They need support more than being told they’re not doing well.”

The soft touch works particularly well with the soft-spoken Johnson. Gershon, 46, sounds as much like a counselor as a coach when he talks about his halfback.

“John doesn’t want to be thought of as special,” Gershon said. “He wants to be known as a real person. He’s quiet and sensitive. His body language on campus doesn’t suggest that he’s a star athlete.”

Although Johnson quietly admits that eclipsing Hilria’s county rushing record is a goal, he probably won’t carry the ball enough to do it. Hilria played quarterback when Channel Islands ran a wishbone and was able to call his own number. The halfback in a wing-T attack might average 10 carries a game.


With or without the record, J. J. is contributing to the Johnson legacy.

“He tells me sometimes it’s because of his brothers that he’s getting publicity,” said John Sunia, a senior defensive back. “I tell him he has his own ability. He’s still keeping that Johnson name proud.”

Hilria and Steve Johnson both went on to college careers, Hilria at Utah and Steve at San Jose State. They watch John with as much pride as he used to have watching them.

“We have a good old time when John plays,” Hilria said. “Guys we played against are sitting around us and we tell them, ‘We beat you up back then and we’re still beating up on you.’ ”

Gershon, who has a record of 93-50-3 at Channel Islands, is careful not to give Johnson special favors. Because Johnson missed a morning practice, he was held out of the season opener against Rio Mesa. The fact that Johnson was up until 3 a.m. helping the Miller family move made no difference.

“It’s a team rule,” Gershon said. “You miss a practice, you sit out a game. Seven other players missed practices. I couldn’t hold seven out and let John play.”

Said Johnson: “I think that because of the circumstances, I should have played. But I understand that Coach Gershon was in a bad spot. It would have looked pretty bad if I got to play and the others didn’t.”

Miller, whose name is Everett John, compensated for the loss of Johnson, rushing for 187 yards in a 17-14 victory on what would have been his stepfather’s birthday.


“Johnny kind of resented standing on the sidelines,” Miller said. “But I told him, ‘What can you do? You can’t cry about it.’ ”

Johnson chose to fly rather than cry, rushing for 196 yards and four touchdowns the next two weeks, including a 71-yard scoring jaunt in a 31-3 win over Oxnard.

“E. J. picked me up when I was down the way I would do for him,” Johnson said.

What are friends for?