The moment Bentley Johnson walked through the doors of Shriners Hospital for Children — Salt Lake City, history came swirling back. He recognized the dulled blue and pink tiles on the floor and the natural sunlight shining into the open entrance. When he gazed through the windows at the Salt Lake Valley just beyond, he just as well have been staring at the past.
He’d been to this hospital before. Many times.
Two of Johnson’s younger brothers went through Shriners after being born with rare muscular disorders. Neither of them will be watching their older brother play in Saturday’s 2019 Shrine Bowl from the Cheney Alumni Field stands, though.
Landry Johnson was born with trouble breathing due to his weakened chest muscles. He died at just 23 days old on April 21, 2010. Owen Johnson, born with a similar condition, was just 2 when his younger brother passed. Owen spent far more days and nights at the Shriners Hospital, some for his specialized wheelchair, before passing away on July 10, 2015. He was 7.
Bentley was just about to start high school at the time of Owen’s death. Having endured the heartache of losing two younger brothers, he started at quarterback for Cokeville as a freshman with a goal in mind.
“It’s always been a goal to play at the Shrine Bowl,” he said. “I knew that if I just played my best that I could get there so I could come support these kids.
“It means a lot to be able to go out and support the Shriners. I had two little brothers that went through Shriners so it’s got a pretty big meaning to me and I’m glad that I’m able to give back to that.”
On Monday he and the rest of the Shrine Bowl participants arrived at the Shriners Hospital for the annual tour and to visit the children residing there. When Johnson walked into the building and saw those familiar sights, the whole experience finally hit him.
“They’ve done a lot for me and I want to do a lot for them,” Johnson said of the hospital, “so I’m glad I can be here for this.”
All four years playing for head coach Todd Dayton led him to achieving one of his many goals. The Panthers went 32-9 during Johnson’s four seasons, including two state semifinals and a runner-up finish this past season. He was never much of an aerial threat at quarterback but his determination couldn’t be denied. He finished his senior season as a member of the Star-Tribune Super 25 team and awaited his phone call.
When that phone call came, he ran straight into his parents’ bathroom. Part of that may have been nervous energy, but he attributes most of it to his displeasure and anxiety talking on the phone.
“So I ran off to be by myself,” he explained. It was a dream come true — a way to repay the hospital he had so much familiarity with.
After returning from Salt Lake City, Johnson has enjoyed some light-hearted moments. He’s joked with his teammates on the field as well as at movie night. He credited Mark Lenhardt, the former Torrington head coach now at Rock Springs who is representing the South as an assistant coach, with tweaks to his throwing motion. Johnson can already notice the difference.
As for the game itself, the outcome is secondary. Johnson said that the North is big, strong and talented, and that this year’s all-star game should be a battle.
Johnson also wrestled and ran track throughout his career at Cokeville. And yet, no moment of his high school career will hold the same place in his heart or his family’s quite like getting to play on Saturday.
“This week is for the Shriners and for my teammates,” he said, “and whatever else happens, happens.”