Keenen Johnson thought everything was fine when the phone call ended.
His younger brother had called to tell Johnson about a tornado that had just swept through his hometown of Alto, Texas, in April. Everything around them was still standing, but another storm was on its way.
When Johnson started asking questions, the call dropped. Almost 350 miles away in Tulsa, Johnson thought everything was fine when that conversation ended. He was content enough that he fell asleep for a midday nap.
“It was like the most random thing ever to me, because I got off the phone thinking everything was all right,” Johnson recalled at a University of Tulsa press conference three months later.
When Johnson woke up, his phone was lit up with notifications because of missed calls from his brother.
“He called us back and was like, ‘Yeah, we just lost everything,’” Johnson said.
The family’s home, and everything inside it, was destroyed. It was the house that Johnson had lived in since the fourth grade until he moved to Tulsa to start his college football career. It was still the house he stayed at on the rare occasions he was able to go home between practices and class.
“It was just panic,” Johnson said. “Like, even though I can’t do anything about it, I just felt like I needed to help, felt like I needed to leave. That was one of the things I had to talk myself out of at that moment because I’ve still got workouts and class and stuff I had to take care of. That’s the main thing my people was worried about: me leaving. They know I take this seriously, and they were just telling me to stay and finish school and they’ll see me on a break.”
Johnson started at receiver in every game last season as a junior. He recorded 34 receptions, 438 receiving yards and four touchdowns. He was now in the homestretch of the spring semester, the last before he officially became a senior.
“Last spring was a tough semester for me,” Johnson said. “I’m definitely figuring out a lot. My family lost everything. It hit me deep. I just really wanted to go right then. I wanted to go down and help clean up everything, and just make sure my family was OK.”
Johnson finished the semester and traveled to Alto when summer break started. By the time he got there, Johnson said most of the cleanup was finished. But he still didn’t have a place to stay, forcing him to crash at his older brother’s place in Houston, about 150 miles from Alto.
“That was hard,” Johnson said. “But when I left they were all right. Now they’re getting back on their feet slowly.
“They was hurt. It was tough. I always call and check on them, but they know it’s just materialistic. We’re gonna get back to it. We’re gonna get everything back.”
When Johnson recalled the experience of losing his childhood home at TU’s first press conference July 24, he was about to visit again that upcoming weekend. This time, he’d have a place to stay: his mom’s new house.
“Alto’s a small place so I’ve probably seen it before,” Johnson said then.
Little did Johnson know, he had lived in the house before. His mom’s new home was the same house they moved out of when he was about six years old.
“When I’m in it now, I was like, ‘Man, I didn’t remember it being like this,’” Johnson said. “But it was pretty cool though to have a roof over our heads.
“I knew everywhere I was going, man. It was just different seeing it at the size I am now.”
The National Weather Service confirmed that an EF-2 and EF-3 tornado touched down in Alto on April 14. The EF-3 tornado was what destroyed Johnson’s family’s home. Although the small town suffered damage and several people were injured, no one in the community died.
“The main thing to me that was important was that we didn’t lose any lives in our town,” Johnson said. “We just all lost materialistic things. Those things you can get back. No matter how hard they are to get back, materialistic things can be rebuilt, but someone’s life can’t. I’m just glad my people are still alive and still healthy and still able to fight.”