By Kurt Johnson
Photos by Dave Argyle (DBA Photography) & John Nichols
It was Sept. 5, 2014 and the Bingham High football team was on the road in Las Vegas facing one of the nation’s top-ranked teams.
Trailing by three points, after giving up possession late in the fourth quarter, Bingham got one unexpected last chance. There was not time to drive for a game-winning touchdown, but fortunately for head coach Dave Peck, he turned to Chayden Johnston.
On the final play of regulation, the senior kicker drilled a 47-yard field goal to force overtime. On the road…in a hostile environment…against a top-of-the-line opponent. The night did not end as happily for the Miners, who lost the contest in overtime, but it was another memorable moment for Johnston.
“That kick at Bishop Gorman, in Vegas, it would have been good from 65,” Peck said. “From 47, it wasn’t even close. It was up high, down the middle, not even a question.”
The little kid in the soccer shin guards has come a long way in four years.
“I grew up playing soccer,” Johnston, who continued with soccer through last year, said. “I started kicking a football my freshman year.”
Once he discovered the American version of football, the young man turned his skills into a college scholarship, as he has committed to kick for The University of Utah after he finishes at Bingham. Not bad for someone who didn’t even like the game.
“I never cared for football,” Johnston said. “I went to my very first football game the first time Bingham played Herriman, my eighth grade year, and I was just out there messing around on the grass. I didn’t know what was going on. I was paying attention to the kicker kick kick-offs, and I was like, I could probably kick a ball further than that kid kicked the ball.”
At the time, Johnston was of the same mind as his teammates from club soccer. They were headed to play high school soccer at Copper Hills. But that school’s loss has been Bingham’s gain, and while he did stay with soccer through his junior year, football discovered a star that day.
“I went over to Copper Hills and started kicking some footballs,” Johnston said. “I hit a 50-yarder. I didn’t really know, but my dad said, ‘that’s really good.’ We starting looking into football and we knew that Bingham was really good, so my dad gave Coach Peck a call and told him that I could kick and Coach Peck just said ‘okay.'”
It was not the first time the coach had heard from the father of an incoming freshman about his son’s abilities. This was one of the times that the parent was spot on.
“I get calls all the time and I say, ‘Yea, I’ll bet you can.'” Peck said.
Putting On Pads
He didn’t look much like a football player, but once Johnston figured out how to dress for workouts, the Miner coaching staff quickly discovered that another placekicking star had arrived on campus.
“Freshman year, I came to tryouts and I was the smallest guy by far,” Johnston said. “I had no idea what was going on. I couldn’t figure out how to do my shoulder pads, chin strap, nothing. I was just wearing some shin guards. I just remember the first time, when the freshmen and sophomores are up at this other field, kicking the ball and the coach came over and asked ‘are you a sophomore?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m a freshman.’ They were really impressed and it just started from there.”
The Miners are used to having star kickers, so they don’t get overly excited when another young one comes along, but Peck knew early on that Johnston was special.
“We try to find those guys when they’re like eighth graders, coming up,” Peck said. “I watched Chayden kick a 47-yarder to win a game when he was a freshman. Barely even knew how to play football, and he made a 47-yarder to win a game for our sophomore team, and it was right at the end of the game.”
Tradition of Excellence
There are a few reasons for the great kicking tradition at Bingham High. Peck thinks it starts with the fact that the Miners have a coach focused on that area.
“We’re probably the only team in the state that has one coach that all he does is work with long snappers and kickers,” Peck said. “Scott Jorgensen is his name and his son was an all-state kicker for us who ended up kicking for Southern Utah. We’ve had Braeden Loveless, who was a first-team all-stater that kicked for Utah State. Obviously Justin Sorensen was one of our big-name guys. Jaron Maxfield, kicked for Snow a year ago. He was an all-state kicker before Chayden. Chayden would have kicked as a sophomore, except we had a good senior, in Jaron Maxfield.”
In addition to having a dedicated coach to work with him at practice and during the offseason, Johnston also benefits from his attendance at all kinds of events focused on the kicking game.
“We do a Kohl’s national kicking camp and all of our kickers get to go free,” Peck said. “And our kickers go out and do the circuit. I’ll bet Chayden’s been to probably five or six national competitions, and gone out and learned from the best.”
Some of that starts right at home, as the great ones help build the tradition of great kickers in the Miner program. Johnston has benefited from his association with past players and he is already working to pass it on the next group of specialists.
“Justin Sorensen probably started this tradition,” Johnston said. “I always knew that I probably would never be able to kick it as far as Justin, but I knew that I could be more consistent than Justin and that’s always been the goal. I’ve kicked with Justin before. He’s an awesome guy. He’s very caring for how you do and he’s probably helped me out the most.”
There is a certain reputation that comes with being a kicker, but even though he came from soccer and did not grow up as a football player, Johnston is not a fan of that negative stereotype. He just wants to be like everyone else on the team.
“I didn’t know about the reputation of being a kicker until I was a kicker,” he said. “I said, ‘Man I hate this. This is stupid.’ So I just decided that my goal throughout my whole time here at Bingham was to try to change that reputation about how we think about kickers, the ones that are sitting over on the sidelines eating popsicles at practice. That’s the reputation you get.
“I like to go work out with the DBs. I started that a lot my junior year when the snappers go with the other position groups. This year, our kicking coach hasn’t been able to make it to as many practices because of his work. We’ve been doing a lot of kicking, so we condition with the defense and it shows that we’re part of the team.”
Peck believes that attitude helps immensely in making Johnston the success story he has become. This is a kicker who thrives in the most difficult circumstances, as evidenced by his performance in that September game in Las Vegas.
“It’s much easier (to kick) in a pressure situation,” Johnston said. “I feel like I’m more focused, more in tune than if we’re up by like 35 and the JV doesn’t get into the end zone and I have to go out there and kick a field goal real quick. If we’re in a pressure situation, I just feel like I’m much more prepared.”
“I just don’t think that he lets pressure get to him,” Peck said. “The No. 1 thing? I think he’s become one of the guys, Yes, he’s a kicker, but he conditions with our defense. He’ll do drills with the DBs. Yesterday, one of my coaches had to come late, and Chayden said ‘I’ve got it coach, I’ll run it.’ We do a circuit tackling drill. He ran it and everything was good.”
Outside of the Bishop Gorman game, there haven’t been a lot of chances for Johnston to kick in tight situations the past couple of seasons, but with his accuracy and length, Peck is extremely confident in his kicker even in teeing up a long one. His career long is 52 yards, and Johnston feels like his range goes out to about 60.
“Just depends on the conditions,” Peck said. “A lot of times if you get a huge wind in their face or a wind behind them, it makes a big difference. I would have no problem at all, anything 55 and under, I would feel good about. I would feel like he’s going to drill it. We watch him hit them from 60 in practice all the time. The state record’s 62. If he had the wind behind him, he could definitely do it. There’s no way there’s a better kicker/punter combination. Chayden’s been really good as a punter this year. I just can’t say enough about him. I just know Chayden’s amazing.”
Timing is a big part of everything in football, and with onrushing defenders looking to turn around every kick before it clears the line of scrimmage, it is of particular importance in the kicking game. Johnston credits much of his success to the timing that comes from having a great long snapper, sophomore Brigham Tuatagaloa, who Peck describes as the best Bingham has had in his years on campus.
“We easily have the best snapper I’ve seen in this entire country and I’ve seen a lot of snappers at a lot of camps and he’s an awesome snapper,” Johnston said. “As soon as the ball’s snapped between his legs, I know that I’m supposed to be coming forward. If I time it right, then no one can touch the ball.”
Johnston’s come a long way since those days as a small soccer-playing eighth grader. His transition to kicking an American football came quickly as the game seems to fit him perfectly.
“Kicking a soccer ball, the whole ball is a sweet spot,” Johnston said. “On the football, there’s one spot that is the sweet spot. My foot’s really small so it’s easy to pick it up.”
Thank goodness for small feet.