Defying Death: The Johnson Family Story

Written by Chris Wolff, photo by Kelby Wingert


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Seanna Johnson still remembers when she first heard the news.

She was at practice, hanging around and cracking jokes with teammates when a typical day turned into a day she would never forget and her world was turned upside down.

Her mother, Tanisha Johnson, called:

“Your brother stopped breathing.”

Seanna was told to stay at practice. Amid the chaos, the family was still unsure what was happening. The severity of the situation was still unknown.

Her mother called again, this time with more panic and hysteria in her voice, almost screaming:

“Your brother, he might be gone," her mother said. “You got to get here now.”

Growing up, Seanna and Jarvis were two peas in a pod. Only 14 months apart, the duo did everything together.

“They’re like peanut butter and jelly, they’re like Bonnie and Clyde…Jordan and Pippen,” Tanisha said. “They’ve just been like that since day one.”

Many things united the siblings, but above all was basketball. Jarvis and Seanna’s older brother, Curtis “Ty” Moore, played college basketball at Gustavus Adolphus College, paving the way for his younger siblings.

Seanna and Jarvis loyally followed in his footsteps. Basketball became one of the family’s greatest passions.

Seanna became a two-time Minnesota Class 3A Player of the Year and won three consecutive state championships before heading south to Ames.

Her first year as a Cyclone brought immediate success, as she started every game and led the team in rebounding en route to earning Big 12 All-Freshman team honors.

Her success continued this season, when she received All-Big 12 honorable mention recognition and was the Big 12’s second leading rebounder, despite not even being 6 feet tall.

Her success in Ames and throughout her high school career is staggering, considering her basketball career almost ended when Jarvis collapsed.

Seanna arrived at the hospital and saw Jarvis lying on a stretcher fighting for his life.

Jarvis, just an eighth grader at the time, had collapsed at his basketball practice while doing a few routine drills.

The outlook was frightening: Jarvis had suffered a heart attack. He was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, but the prognosis was unfavorable.

Seanna and her family were left wondering and waiting. How could Jarvis, a teenager, have suffered a heart attack? How could this be happening?

“I think I was more confused than anything,” Seanna said.

The gravity of the situation hit Seanna when Jarvis was pronounced dead.

Twelve minutes had gone by without Jarvis’ heart beating.

And then it beat again.

The family calls his revival a miracle. Somehow, someway, Jarvis was “raised from the dead.”

Jarvis' life still hung in the balance. Finally, after a week filled with prayers, he came out of his coma.

The newly awakened Jarvis had just two thoughts on his mind.

Tanisha laughed while recounting the first thing he said: "Mom I’m starving."

His next concern was not with his health.

He asked his mom: “Where’s my basketball shoes?”

Seanna struggled to return to the court after Jarvis’ medical issues. Practices were almost impossible to get through. Her head was not in the game. Her heart wasn’t either. They were with Jarvis.

Meanwhile, Tanisha had to address her son’s future in the game. Doctors told Tanisha and her husband that Jarvis might never be able to play basketball again.

The constant running up and down the court might be too much for his heart to handle. The doctors suggested a slower paced sport. Perhaps golf.

For Seanna, the news that Jarvis might never play the sport he loves so much was devastating. She was already struggling to return to basketball after the incident, and learning Jarvis might never play again pushed her past the boiling point.

“She was going to quit,” Tanisha said. “She said, ‘If Jarvis couldn’t play basketball, she wouldn’t play either.’ And I told her he wouldn’t want her to do that. He would want her to keep playing for him.”

That would turn out to be a pivotal moment in Seanna’s basketball career. She was no longer playing for herself. She was going to play for Jarvis, too. Her game rose to a new level.

One of her first games after Jarvis' incident showcased her new level of play.

Tanisha remembers sitting in the hospital with Jarvis, when her phone began to go crazy. She was getting calls and texts from family and friends about Seanna's basketball games. She was playing the game of her life.

“She was always a good basketball player, but I think it made her become great,” Tanisha said.

The light bulb lit up and the connection was made in Seanna’s head. It was about more than just playing a basketball game. It was about Jarvis. It was about making the most of every opportunity. And Seanna would not let any opportunities pass her by.

“My love for the game grew,” Seanna said. “I knew I couldn’t take any moment for granted. I knew every time I played I have to give it my all. I never know when it could be my last time playing.”

Meanwhile, Tanisha and the rest of the family mulled over the possibility of Jarvis never playing basketball again.

It just did not seem right. It did not seem feasible.

The family refused to accept Jarvis’ living the rest of his life without basketball. Tanisha could not see Jarvis taking up golf. In the end, it was clear to the family that there was no other option. Jarvis would play basketball again.

“If Jarvis can be raised from the dead after 12 minutes, he can do anything,” Tanisha said.

Tanisha did not tell Jarvis that the doctors recommended he quit basketball until sometime later, partly because she couldn’t stomach delivering that news and partly because she knew he would not accept it.

Tanisha knew her son’s passion for the game.

“At 14, no one ever told me what I couldn’t do,” Tanisha said. “Nobody ever told me I couldn’t ride a bike, I couldn’t play basketball, I couldn’t do this. At 14, [basketball] is his whole life.”

So, the family made the decision not to tell Jarvis what he could and couldn’t do. They consulted with doctors, who said they would not recommend it, but he could still play.

Safety precautions were put in place, including a defibrillator in Jarvis’ chest, which gets tested once a month to ensure everything is working properly. Should a similar incidence ever reoccur, the device would shock his heart back into action.

When Jarvis eventually made his way back to the court, Tanisha held her breath for the first few games, praying another incident would never happen.

Fast-forward four years and Jarvis’ basketball resume is nearly as impressive as Seanna’s.

Jarvis fully recovered from his heart condition and helped his high school team claim three straight state championships. Now a senior, Jarvis aims to add a fourth title to his name later this month before joining the Minnesota Gophers next season.

Jarvis was a top-100 recruit for some time and received a bevy of division one offers, including one from Fred Hoiberg and the Cyclones. Despite Seanna’s recruiting effort, Jarvis decided to stay home and play for the Gophers.

When Seanna thinks back to that day, it still brings numerous emotions. She remembers the day, but she also thinks back on the effect it had on her.

“My world changed,” Seanna said. “I had to keep playing basketball for him, I had to keep doing things for him.”

Written by Chris Wolff, photo by Kelby Wingert