Once a feared high school tandem, UND's Johannesson and NDSU's Brooks bringing success to Division I level

James Johannesson, left, and Ty Brooks of Fargo South watch their team play Fargo North on Friday, Sept. 19, 2014, at North. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

In 2013, Bismarck High School head football coach Mark Gibson had a strong defense led by future North Dakota State starting defensive lineman Stanley Jones and Dickinson State product Jay Liggins, who spent time with the Philadelphia Eagles' training camp this year.

Still, Gibson was realistic about his expectations to stop the dominant 1-2 punch of Fargo South running backs James Johannesson and Ty Brooks.

"I'll be honest, I knew there was no way we can stop them," said Gibson, who's in his 21st season as head coach of the Demons. "Our gameplan was to try to keep them off the field and take control of time of possession. The problem was we would score so fast, then they would score so fast and that's just not the way we wanted to play."

If Gibson's state championship-contending teams couldn't stop Johannesson and Brooks, imagine how the rest of the state felt.

If it's any solace for North Dakota's prep football coaches in that era, NCAA Division I coaches have had their hands full in recent years, too.


UND's Johannesson and NDSU's Brooks -- both seniors -- will be the starting running backs Saturday when the teams meet at 2:30 p.m. in the Fargodome.

"For a coach in high school football, that's pretty special," said former South coach Troy Mattern, whose now the head coach at Fargo Shanley. "That's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It'll be fun to see them both compete. It's great for North Dakota football -- to let young kids know that they could also get a chance to showcase their skills like that at the Division I level."

Johannesson and Brooks remain close friends and text each other "good luck" before games.

"This week, we might not be talking but we'll be friends on Sunday," Johannesson said. "He's a great competitor."

The opportunity for Johannesson and Brooks to be on the same field again didn't appear likely out of high school when Johannesson initially went to the University of Minnesota before transferring to Grand Forks in January of 2017.

"He's my best friend," Brooks said. "We talked throughout camp. I'm a different person once it's gametime. We'll talk after."

Brooks' sixth-grade teacher was Mattern, who knew early that the Bruins were going to get a special talent.

"I couldn't beat him in a race at recess and he was in sixth grade," Mattern said. "Coming up through junior high, (Johannesson and Brooks) continued to get better and grow. They put in the time to be at that level. They pushed their teammates. That's why they had success ... because it takes more than just two to win a state championship. They elevated the whole program."


As teammates, Johannesson and Brooks fueled each other's success, Mattern said.

"They were ultra competitive," Mattern said. "They were constantly going at it. Ty's a talker, and he'd get under James' skin, but it was always friendly banter. They always brought out the best in each other."

Johannesson, who's now 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, was the first player in North Dakota history to be named the two-time Gatorade Player of the Year.

As a senior, he ran for 2,072 yards on 216 carries and scored a school-record 34 touchdowns. As a junior, he ran for a school-record 2,671 yards on 266 carries and scored 30 touchdowns.

Brooks, who's now 5-9 and 180 pounds, rushed for 967 yards and 17 touchdowns, while also racking up 499 receiving yards and five touchdowns as a senior.

Brooks finished second in Bruins history with 1,026 receiving yards and was fifth in school history with 2,352 combined rushing and receiving yards.

"James was more of a power runner and Ty was more of an athlete in high school," Mattern said. "That's what I'm most proud of with Ty. He's become a true football player. In high school, he was an athlete who could outrun people. Now, he's truly coming into his own as a running back."

Brooks and Johannesson came through South at an important time in its history, Mattern said. Fargo South split enrollment with the opening of Fargo Davies, with the Davies athletic programs starting in 2009.


"I think the biggest thing that stands out is those two really helped us continue the tradition of Fargo South football," Mattern said. "They were great leaders and had a great work ethic, which is why they're at the level they're at today."

Johannesson and Brooks, who lost to Fargo Davies in the state semifinals as seniors, teamed together to win a memorable state championship as juniors.

The 2013 Dakota Bowl went down to the wire, with South beating Bismarck High 42-34. The winning score came on a Brooks 59-yard game-winning touchdown reception. He ended with four catches for 128 yards. Johannesson carried the ball 36 times for 237 yards.

"That era was unbelievable football," Gibson said. "It was a great matchup between them and us. I think that group of athletes ... I don't recall if there's ever been a year I've been a part of with that much talent on the field.

"Both Johannesson and Brooks were very explosive and skilled. James was a power back but he could outrun anyone. He was just as strong as he was fast. Brooks was shifty. You could tell they were going on to bigger and better things."

Brooks has run for more than 1,547 career yards at NDSU. He had 10 carries for 93 yards and a touchdown last Saturday against Butler.

Johannesson has run for 938 career yards at UND. He ran for 213 yards and two touchdowns in his first career start last October at Sacramento State. In a 47-7 win over Drake last Saturday, Johannesson had eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown.

Johannesson and Brooks still get together at Mattern's house in the offseason.


"They've been good mentors to my two sons," Mattern said. "It's a friendship for a lifetime. It doesn't just go away when you leave high school. They left a big impression on me, and I hope they can say the same about me."

Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019 and 2022.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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