Jarvis Johnson, a senior at DeLaSalle, is a well-known name in the boys basketball world. He hopes to lead the Islanders to a fourth consecutive Class 3A state championship this season before continuing his career at the University of Minnesota.
That’s pretty good for a kid who died four years ago.
It was December 2010. He collapsed at basketball practice as an eighth-grader and was clinically dead for between seven and 12 minutes. The story of how he came back to life is amazing, and the fact that he is one of the top athletes in Minnesota – with a surgically inserted defibrilattor keeping watch on his heart -- adds another incredible layer to the story of a young man who is a walking miracle.
I visited Jarvis during his lunch break at school, and he told me the story of what he said was just a regular day…
“I went to practice, stretched out a little bit, I was getting loose going up and down the court and I just collapsed,” he said. He began foaming from the mouth. There was no pulse. Doctors later confirmed it was a heart attack; what 14-year-old kid gets taken down by a heart attack?
Calls were made to 911 and Jarvis’ parents. When his father arrived, paramedics were working on Jarvis but they were not optimistic. Just recently, Jarvis’ dad told his son what took place.
“The ambulance people were saying, ‘Sir, he’s been dead for so long he’s not going to make it,’ ” Jarvis said. “My dad told them he wanted to speak with me for one more minute, and he started talking to me. Then they said I had a pulse. They asked him to keep talking to me.”
Johnson was transported to North Memorial Medical Center, where he was placed into a medically induced coma. He regained consciousness four or five days later and remained hospitalized for two weeks.
“The process was tough,” he said. “That doesn’t happen very often to a 14-year-old.”
The fact that Johnson is a top basketball player is just part of his story today. DeLaSalle coach Dave Thorson said Jarvis has become a team leader as well as an inspiration to those who around him.
“What I appreciate most about Jarvis is his attitude and his love of the game,” Thorson said. “I also have a lot of respect for the maturing that’s happened. He’s really been a leader for us in terms of his effort, not only in basketball but in all the other areas that go into being a student-athlete. I can’t tell you proud I am of him and how proud I am of the development that’s taken place.
“He is coming into that role of being a senior leader in a way that I’m just thrilled about. Whether it’s how he communicates in practice, what sort of role modeling he does as a student, how he carries himself. It means something to be an Islander, and he understands that.”
Johnson’s final list of colleges was Minnesota, Wisconsin, Baylor, Nevada-Las Vegas and Wichita State. He said the decision to become a Gopher was an easy one after he made his official visit to the campus that’s only about two miles from DeLaSalle.
“I got a chance to interact with some of the players, went to a class. As soon as I left I felt that the was place for me to be. Just getting to know coach (Richard) Pitino since he’s been here, that’s been excellent. He’s been totally honest throughout the whole recruitment.”
Thorson (pictured with Johnson) and the college coaches who recruited Johnson are well aware of his heart history. Jarvis knows that if he feels tired he needs to take himself out of the game; but that hasn’t happened much in recent years.
He also was recruited by Iowa State. The NBA career of Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg was ended by a heart ailment, and Hoiberg has a pacemaker implanted in his chest.
“He and I did have conversations about it,” Johnson said. “It was kind of an interesting topic between me and coach Hoiberg.”
In the immediate aftermath of Johnson’s heart attack, doctors told him he would probably never play basketball again. That was crushing.
“That was probably the most devastating news a kid can hear at 14 years old,” he said. “After that we prayed, I took things slowly, and a few months later we went back for another checkup. The doctor asked me if I really wanted to play again. He said I could play but be cautious, take my time and ask to come out when I felt tired. By the end of the year I almost felt back to being myself.”
Before Johnson was cleared by his doctors, one of them suggested that he take up golf or ping-pong. That didn’t sit too well.
“I was pretty upset after that,” he said, smiling. “I’m not good at either one.”
The 6-foot-1 guard is quick, strong and athletic. He has helped the Islanders win those three state titles and they are ranked No. 1 in Class 3A this season. DeLaSalle has produced a long list of college players; Reid Travis graduated last spring and is now in the starting lineup at Stanford. Johnson is the next in that storied line from the Catholic school that sits on Nicollet Island in the middle of the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis.
“Jarvis is one of those high school athletes who younger kids look to,” Thorson said. “With all the notoriety that happens now with recruiting, and with his decisions, some of that you don’ really ask for, you get it whether you want it or not. But Jarvis does a marvelous job of that, in terms of interacting with those young people.”
Johnson doesn’t mind talking about his health history and doesn’t shy away from questions. He doesn’t think about it all the time, but when he’s falling asleep he sometimes feels the defibrillator.
“I really don’t notice it much, it’s the kind of thing you kind of forget about,” he said. “The only time I really can feel it is sometimes when I’m going to sleep, when everything’s quiet.
“I think about it a lot of times when I’m going to sleep. It’s just like, ‘What if I didn’t have a heart attack, would I be the same person I am today?’ I think about that pretty often.
“I think it would be different. It would definitely be different.”
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 215
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 5,202