Living like it’s your last: Seanna Johnson uses brother as motivation in basketball, life

Junior guard Seanna Johnson poses at women’s basketball media day on Thursday, Oct. 8.

Luke Manderfeld

Seanna Johnson sat in her room, preparing for summer workouts heading into her junior season with the ISU women’s basketball team when she got a phone call. 

It was her brother, Jarvis. 

She knew her younger brother had a meeting that day, but she didn’t know what it was about.

Seanna answered and heard Jarvis sobbing.

“What’s going on?” Seanna asked.

“It’s over,” Jarvis said.

Jarvis’ meeting was with the Minnestoa Gophers’ coaches, who told Jarvis that his heart ailment would prevent him from playing basketball at Minnesota because he couldn’t get medical clearance. 

Seanna struggled to understand her brother, who had just graduated high school. 

So Jarvis kept repeating it, the words cloaked in tears.

“It’s over.”

Then it hit her. Jarvis’ basketball career was in jeopardy. 

Her world ceased to turn for the length of that phone call. 

The room she was in dissolved in the background, all of the walls turning bleach white. It was just her and Jarvis across the phone.

She found it hard to reply. She wanted to comfort him. She wanted to help him. But the feeling of heart-throbbing emotional pain was met with an overwhelming sense of guilt.

“Why couldn’t it have been me? Why does it have to be him?” Seanna, the older sister by 14 months, thought to herself. 

Her thoughts were distorted by the two words that continued to bounce around in her head. 

“It’s over.”


It wasn’t the first time the Johnson family dealt with medical disruption.

In the eighth grade, Jarvis took the court during a normal practice routine, his heart gave out. He went into full cardiac arrest.

The doctors called it hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a heart disease that thickens heart muscles and disrupts the heart’s beat pattern. It’s the leading cause of sudden cardiac arrest in young athletes. 

The doctors worked to save him but weren’t optimistic as Jarvis’ life was slipping from their grasp.

After eight to 12 minutes of lifelessness, his heart drummed once. Then twice. And finally, he came fluttering back to life.

The family describes his revival from the dead as a miracle.

After two days in a coma, Jarvis awoke to see his family by his side. He wasn’t thinking about what happened. He was thinking about basketball.

That was expected from Jarvis, who watched or played basketball from sunrise to sunset. He loved it even more than Seanna.

But while her brother nearly died, Seanna contemplated giving up the game that was central to the Johnson family. 

“She was like, ‘If he can’t play, I’m not going to play either,’” said Tanisha, Seanna’s mother. “We told her that wasn’t the right thing to do. We told her to play for him.”

Seanna took her mother’s words to heart. While Jarvis lay in the hospital bed, she had one of her best games at DeLaSelle High School in Minneapolis.

Seanna netted more than 30 points and dropped a buzzer-beater to send the game to overtime.

Tanisha’s phone filled with calls and texts from family and friends, commending Seanna for her effort.

It meant a lot for the family, but it meant so much more to Jarvis.

“She was like a hero,” Jarvis said.


Seanna and Jarvis remained on the phone, tears flowing down each of their faces.

She summoned the courage to respond. It started with comforting words, which she needed for herself, too. 

“Do what you got to do,” Seanna said. “It’s only one thing in your life. God has other plans for you.”

But her gut reaction was the same one she had five years before: She wanted to give up basketball. If Jarvis couldn’t play, why should she?

“I think in the moment, it was a reaction from him just saying that,” Seanna said.

But Jarvis wasn’t going to let that happen — not to his hero. Not to the person who continued to play through the mountains of adversity stacked against her while Jarvis clung to life in a hospital bed. 

So he repeated another phrase again and again.

“Play for me.”

If he couldn’t play, that shouldn’t stop Seanna from playing. That should make her want to play more, so Jarvis could be proud of his older sister.

“Do whatever you can,” Jarvis said. “At that point, I didn’t know if I was going to play basketball no more. That’s what was going through my head.”

Seanna knew that was what she needed to do. She felt guilty for wanting to quit. She had to keep going on to make Jarvis proud — to be strong for him.

She got off the phone with Jarvis and quickly called her mother.

By then, Seanna was crying hysterically. Tanisha had to calm her only daughter so she could even speak.

“I told her, ‘You have to play. You have to dedicate this to your brother,’’ Tanisha said. “You have to just believe in God.”

Seanna ended the second call, not knowing what her next step was. She packed up her things and made her way to the Sukup Basketball Practice Complex.


It doesn’t surprise Tanisha that Seanna was the first person Jarvis called. They were only 14 months apart and as close as any two siblings could be.

“I always call them like peanut butter and jelly or Kobe and Shaq,” Tanisha said. “Everything they’ve always done, they’ve always done together.”

But even in the Johnson family, where basketball flowed through its veins, Seanna wasn’t originally interested in the game.

“At first, I think it was sort of forced on me,” Seanna said

As time went on and as Seanna played more and more, she fell in love with basketball. She couldn’t help it since it was so central to her family.

Her disinterest gave way to dedication.

She became one of best female players in the state — the only female player in Minnesota high school basketball history to have five all-tournament honors at the state tournament.

She also headed a team that notched three straight state championships from her sophomore to senior seasons.

The sport in which Seanna found so much success also bonded her with Jarvis.

Growing up, she and Jarvis would take on Ty, their older brother, on the basketball court. Although Ty, who eventually competed at Gustavus Aldophus College in Minnesota, would win most of the time, it didn’t matter to the other two.

Ty led the way for the Johnson trio in basketball, but Jarvis also turned to his older sister in the game and in life.

“She was always someone I could look up to,” Jarvis said. “Whenever I needed something, she’d be there.”

And when Jarvis had his heart attack, he once again looked up to his sister, the same he had done for most of his life. The game that Seanna was originally forced to play was now her way of giving Jarvis what he needed most — hope.

“When my brother went through what he went through, I fell in love with the game,” Seanna said.


Seanna walked through the wide, glass doors of the Sukup building, trying to hold her emotions together.

She walked up the stairs and down the hallway to assistant coach Billy Fennelly’s office.

Fennelly was the first person she thought to talk to. Although Fennelly didn’t have the same heart condition as Jarvis, he had been forced to give up basketball when he was in eighth grade because of a different heart problem — something that drew him and Seanna together.

“He understands,” Seanna said. “He understands that it’s going to be hard. He understands that there are going to be tough days or rough days. He understands that it’s not the end, but it’s the beginning of new opportunities.”

Seanna walked through Fennelly’s door, carrying the burdon of her brother’s troubles, and sat in the padded seat in front of his desk. She paused until she couldn’t hold in the emotions any longer.

She cried. 

She cried for her own emotional turmoil. She cried for her family. But most of all, she cried for Jarvis.

Before she told him the news, Fennelly stared back at Seanna’s shiny face, coated with fresh tears, with a confused look.

“I was thinking the absolute worst,” Fennelly said.

Seanna told him everything. She told him that she could hardly bear the pain anymore. She vented all of her emotions to Fennelly. 

He stood up and hugged Seanna. 

At that moment, Fennelly didn’t know that Seanna had thoughts about giving up basketball.

Just like Tanisha and Jarvis, Fennelly tried to direct her grief into something that she could use — something for the better.

“I was told that [I couldn’t play anymore at a young age], just like he was,” Fennelly said. “There is nothing more that I could want for my sister than to be everything that she should be.”

Fennelly doesn’t believe he did much to sway Seanna, giving the credit to the Johnson family and the rest of the coaching staff.

Seanna felt otherwise. 

Without him, she may have made a rash decision with lifelong consequences. 

“Without [Fennelly], I wouldn’t be in certain situations I am in or be sitting where I am at the moment,” Seanna said. “I wouldn’t be still playing basketball.”


The last time that Seanna faced Jarvis’ medical hardships in high school, Seanna’s mother said she played some of the best basketball of her career.

Now, as her brother faces the possibility of never playing basketball competitively again, she is planning to use that as motivation in the upcoming season. 

“I’m going to each game with a chip on my shoulder and realizing that [I’m] not playing for me,” Seanna said. “It’s for the people around me.”

Seanna has already needed that chip on her shoulder. She and her Big 12-leading 9.4 rebounds per game have been left off the All-Big 12 preseason team, voted on by the league’s coaches. 

ISU players and coaches alike have called it “ridiculous,” but to Seanna, it’s another log on the fire that will fuel her competitive drive this season.

“Everything is a motivation — from the Big 12 to my brother,” Seanna said. “But I feel like I have a support system to be able to go out there and not worry about that — just realize during a game that I have a chip on my shoulder so after the game, I can say I did everything I could in the moment.”

She is confident that this will be her best season and plans to plant reminders of Jarvis in her locker before every game.

“Just do it like every game is my last game to play,” Seanna said. “Although I have another year, I feel like this season I have something to prove — not only to myself, but everyone.”