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NDSU is the home away from home for the Johnson family

FARGO--It's about a three-and-a-half-hour drive from the Ron and Amy Johnson home in the Twin Cities to the North Dakota State campus, and by the time both of their sons are done with their NDSU careers, they may know every mile of Interstate 94.

FARGO-It's about a three-and-a-half-hour drive from the Ron and Amy Johnson home in the Twin Cities to the North Dakota State campus, and by the time both of their sons are done with their NDSU careers, they may know every mile of Interstate 94.

Certainly, Charlie's Cafe in Freeport, Minn., a customary stop for breakfast, stands to benefit.

The Johnsons are on their fourth year watching their son, Zack, a senior offensive lineman with the Bison football team. New to the mix this year is their freshman son, Riley, a pitcher on the NDSU baseball team.

"We know the drive in the fall, we know it when it goes brown, and we'll know it when it greens up again," Ron said. "We're pretty fortunate. I'm glad to call them my sons. I'm excited for both of them. I never pushed it on them. I don't think I was that type of father, and my wife wasn't that way either. We just helped them along."

They're along for a wild ride, that much is certain.

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Zack played as a true freshman in 2012, was a third-team all-Missouri Valley Football Conference pick as a sophomore in 2013, redshirted in 2014 after offseason knee surgery and was a first-team all-conference pick and a third-team all-American last year. He's off to another all-American type start this season, helping lead NDSU to a 3-0 record heading into the league opener Saturday, Oct. 1, against Illinois State at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.

Zack was named the conference's offensive lineman of the week after the season-opening win against Charleston Southern, grading out at 99 percent in film evaluation. The Bison ran for 230 yards and are averaging 250 after three games. That puts the Bison 13th in the FCS national statistics in a non-conference schedule that included two top-10 FCS teams and an FBS team, Iowa, that was ranked 11th at the time.

There also appeared to be some personal satisfaction in the win for Zack, who referenced beating a Big Ten Conference team. He grew up in the backyard of the University of Minnesota.

"He's playing at a high level," Bison head coach Chris Klieman said. "He's dominating the line of scrimmage."

Both boys always played at high levels at Eastview High School in Apple Valley, Minn., a childhood that benefited Riley since he was the kid that tried hanging with Zack and his friends.

"They were always bigger and better, and I would have to toughen up trying to be one of the big guys for the day," Riley said.

He excelled at both baseball and football, where he was the quarterback for Eastview. But baseball won out and he took NDSU with the biggest competition from South Dakota State and Bradley University (Ill.).

All involved in the family say there was no pressure for Riley to follow Zack to NDSU. The parents stayed out of that topic, Ron said. Zack said it was 100 percent Riley's decision.

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"I didn't want to influence him," Zack said. "I wanted him to go where he felt he could be most successful and have the most fun. It had to be his decision like it was my decision to come here."

Riley has the size for a pitcher at 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds. Zack has the size for an offensive lineman at 6-4 and 331. It's always been that way.

"He was definitely always the biggest kid," Ron said. "We had a weight limit in youth football, and he was always over the weight limit on who could carry the ball. But it worked out for him as you can tell. When he puts on that helmet, he's a different animal. On the field, he just gets in his arena. He's just a different kid on the field."

In the bigger picture for Ron and Amy, it's the first time both of their sons are playing for the same school at the same time. Riley was in his last year in junior high when Zack was in his senior year at Eastview.

Riley was in elementary school when Zack was in his final year of junior high.

"I'm glad they get to play together for one year," Ron said. "I think they're pretty tight and close, and what we've noticed is I think Zack has taken him under his wing up there."

Related Topics: CHRIS KLIEMAN
Jeff would like to dispel the notion he was around when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, but he is on his third decade of reporting with Forum Communications. The son of a reporter and an English teacher, and the brother of a reporter, Jeff has worked at the Jamestown Sun, Bismarck Tribune and since 1990 The Forum, where he's covered North Dakota State athletics since 1995.
Jeff has covered all nine of NDSU's Division I FCS national football titles and has written three books: "Horns Up," "North Dakota Tough" and "Covid Kids." He is the radio host of "The Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack" April through August.
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