At Bellevue West High School, Keagan Johnson’s name comes with an expectation. He’s supposed to be good — if not great— at football. He’s lived under the watchful eye of fans, coaches and casual observers since at least junior high.
It’s a microscope under which several high school football players in Omaha are currently living. Their fathers are legends, heroes of past triumphs for the state’s only D-I football team. They are the sons of 1990s Huskers.
“Since a young age, this is all I’ve known,” Johnson said. “It’s been in my blood since, you could say, since the day I was born. Football has just been my life.”
Johnson’s father, Clester Sr., played wingback on two national championship teams at the University of Nebraska, contributing significantly in 1994 and starting full time in 1995. Clester Sr. also attended Bellevue West, where his standout career as a quarterback earned him the Gatorade Player of the Year award in 1991 and a spot on the SuperPrep Magazine All-America team.
It would be plenty of pressure for anyone to follow in that shadow. But Johnson had more yet to live up to. His two older brothers, C.J. and Cade, played wide receiver for Huffman’s Thunderbirds. “I’ve been hearing since he was 10 years old that he’s the best of the group,” Bellevue West head coach Mike Huffman said of the youngest Johnson.
But the shoes to fill were enormous, nonetheless.
C.J. broke state records for career receptions and receiving touchdowns while also garnering a Gatorade Player of the Year award in 2014. C.J. went on to a productive, but injury-shortened, career at the University of Wyoming.
Cade, meanwhile, had a successful high school career, but took himself to new heights at South Dakota State. He established himself in the Jackrabbit record books in 2018 with 17 touchdown receptions, the most in the program’s history. He’s also been named an FCS All-American as a freshman, sophomore (second team), and junior (first team).
So far, Johnson hasn’t faltered in carrying the family legacy. After starting at defensive back as a sophomore in 2018, he broke out at wide receiver as a junior in 2019, helping lead the Thunderbirds to a state title. Johnson scored twice in the state final, a 35-0 win over Omaha Westside.
“This year, I truly believe he’s the best player in the state,” Huffman said. “He’s 192 pounds of all muscle. He’s built like Clester, but has the height of C.J. and Cade.”
Naturally, scholarship offers came rolling in. He had options to follow either of his brothers to Wyoming or South Dakota State. His father’s alma mater, Nebraska, asked for his signature. Iowa State, Kansas State, and Northern Illinois made offers as well. Huffman says Notre Dame was also in the mix, but didn’t immediately offer a scholarship.
Johnson ultimately chose the offer from the University of Iowa. Relationships and fit seem to be his primary reason for choosing the Hawkeyes. And a relationship with his family, especially his older brothers, helped guide his decision.
“I could lean on them a lot,” Johnson said. “If I had any questions, I could go to them. They would tell me things to look for in a program and a coach.”
He found those things in Kelton Copeland, wide receivers coach at Iowa. Johnson feels a trust and comfort with Copeland, as well as a belief that Copeland will help him further his career. Johnson wants to play in the NFL.
There’s certainly a lot of growing to be done, both physically and in skill, before Johnson can make the leap to professional football. His mantra, the best piece of advice he got from his father, is “You’re never too good to learn.” Huffman sees Johnson living it every day.
“This kid loves working out. He understands the value of practice,” Huffman said. “He saw what happened to his older brothers. They both should have been recruited much higher than they were.”
Johnson has lived his life in the shadow of his father and siblings. The shadows they’ve cast are long and filled with accolades. When all is said and done, Johnson might well step from behind the three who came before him and embody the “best of the bunch” label.
In the meantime, Johnson has one more season with Bellevue West. He already has a college commitment and a state title in hand. Currently, there’s only one expectation he’s worried about.
“I expect us to do what we did last year,” Johnson said. “That’s it.”
GameTime showcases Bellevue West at Millard South this Friday at 7:00 pm CT. Free on YurView Omaha (Cox Ch. 13) or the Cox Contour App.