The gesture is simple and understated, something Jerry Johnson would have appreciated as it would have fell in line with the way he approached life.

"My dad was a well-mannered, respectful and classy man," Dillan Johnson said.

So when the National Anthem finishes each Friday night before Mountain Pointe's football game the junior running back points to the sky in honor of his father.

Jerry Johnson died of a heart attack eight years ago at the age of 42. He was ironing in the kitchen when he fell to the ground. Dillan was the first to reach him. He stayed on a respirator for four days before dying. In that time a message book was created.

Dillan, then 8 years old, wrote: "Dad, sorry you are going through this. I had eight wonderful years with you."

It's quite a bit of perspective for a third-grader.

"He has always been wise beyond his years," his mother, Kimb Johnson-Fouhy said. "I think it was because he had three older brothers. He kind of stood back and watched all of the activity. It's why he was able to write what he did."

His brothers, Adam, 22 and twins, Blake and Chad, 20, were good Pop Warner football players but left the game soon after their father's death. Dillan signed up for the first time the same year Jerry died.

"They quit and lost a little of their zest for life," Johnson-Fouhy said. "I don't know if he learned from that, but he did the complete opposite."

It might have something to do with the fact that defenders are finding it hard to tackle Johnson. He is running for someone who will never be there at the end of the game to congratulate him.

"I think of him all of the time and try to remember how he did things," Johnson said, fighting back tears before a recent team meeting. "He never saw me play football so I play as hard as if he was there so I could make him proud."

No problems there.

Johnson, whose family lives in Gilbert and chose Mountain Pointe through open enrollment before freshman season, is starting to become the team's featured back in Mountain Pointe's vaunted running game. And if that isn't enough, the 5-foot-8, 165-pounder has a knack for returning kicks as he showed last week against Mesa Skyline when he returned both a punt and kickoff for a touchdown.

"He has a feel for it, he's fast and he can break that first tackle," Mountain Pointe coach Norris Vaughan said. "He ran for 1,200 yards in eight games on JV. Then we called him up at the end of the season as a returner and he had a huge punt return against Marcos (de Niza) to help us win that (regional deciding) game and was our returner in the postseason."

After a slow start in the backfield, Johnson has been tearing up defenses over the last three games - 112.7 per game - and has 464 yards on 55 carries with four touchdowns on the season.

"He is coming on and stats are skewed because we have had some blowout wins," Vaughan said. "He hasn't played in the second half in a lot of games."

Johnson said it took him a bit to adjust to the speed of the varsity game.

"I played a little last season so that helped, but there was still time where I'd see a hole, hesitate and then it was gone," he said. "Now I am seeing the hole and hitting it."

The Pride, who have this week off, have been getting stronger in the running game with each passing week and Johnson is finding his way into the end zone more often.

And that is quickly becoming his happy zone.

"I always think of him when I score," Johnson said.

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