COLUMBIA FALLS – Much is made about quarterbacks having close relationships with their receivers. You hear clichés about being “on the same page” and needing “good chemistry.” Perhaps these are clichés, but they’re true.
For Austin Barth, one of the best high school quarterbacks in Montana, and Kaleb Johnson, one of the state’s finest receivers, good chemistry is second nature. They spend their lives on the same page. That’s how it is with close friends.
“There’s definitely a chemistry between us,” Barth, a junior at Columbia Falls High School, said. “If there’s a problem, it’s pretty easy to talk about it.”
Johnson, a Columbia Falls senior, added: “And it’s still pretty fun to yell at him.”
While true friendship doesn’t end, football careers do. For most, they end at high school graduation. But for Barth and Johnson, their careers will continue on – together – at Montana State University.
Last week, Barth verbally committed to accept a scholarship to play football for the Bobcats. Barth informed MSU head coach Rob Ash, who was in town to visit with both Barth and Johnson.
During his visit, Ash reiterated his desire for Johnson to walk on to the team as a receiver. Johnson is recovering from surgery after he tore the meniscus and ACL in his right knee in early March at the Class A state basketball tournament.
“The coaches were checking up to see if I was still interested,” Johnson said. “I was more worried about them still being interested.”
Johnson chose MSU over offers to smaller schools such as Rocky Mountain College and Minot State University. An all-state receiver his senior year, Johnson is a gifted athlete at 6-4 and 175 pounds. He said he’s lost weight since his knee injury but plans to get up over 200 for college.
“Kaleb is just a tremendous athlete and he has excellent football skills,” Columbia Falls head coach Bill Coleman said. “He’s a big kid for that position and he can go over the middle and make those tough catches.”
Barth, at 6-6 and 215 pounds, is a similarly impressive athlete. He was named second team all-conference at quarterback this fall and first team all-state at outside linebacker. Barth, who was casually throwing the ball 70 yards at a recent workout, received interest from Ivy League schools, Michigan and Oregon State. Colleges have also been looking at him for basketball.
“He’s in kind of a special category, as far as I’m concerned,” Coleman said. “His talents, his physical stature, arm strength, leadership characteristics, his mental toughness, and he’s smart.”
Though Barth still has another year of high school left, online MSU sports forums are lighting up with speculation about Barth’s role on the Bobcats. DeNarius McGhee is coming off a tremendous season at quarterback for the Bobcats as a redshirt freshman. By the time Barth arrives, McGhee will be a junior.
People are wondering whether Barth will play another position other than quarterback, as his frame could support quite a few more pounds. But based on Barth’s conversations with MSU coaches, including the quarterback coach, he said he is being recruited as a signal caller.
“That’s what the plan is,” he said. “But I’ll do anything – d-end, tight end. I just want to play football.”
Barth’s family has a rich athletic tradition. His father Doug played defensive end for Montana Western from 1981-1984 and his mother Susie played volleyball at Western. His brother Tanner plays basketball at Dawson Community College.
Barth’s great-uncle on his mother’s side is Jim Sweeney, the legendary football coach who guided Flathead High School before moving on to coach the Bobcats and spending time in the NFL.
“He’s one of the great ones,” Barth said of Sweeney with obvious reverence.
Doug Barth said a factor in his son’s decision to play for the Bobcats was the coaches’ willingness to encourage his academic ambitions. Barth maintains a 3.5 grade-point average and wants to study engineering, possibly biochemical engineering.
“The coaching staff was just real personable and they went above and beyond to look at his academic interest and academic direction,” Doug said. “That’s what swayed him is their interest in his academic goals.”
“We’re thrilled,” the proud father added.
Johnson will be the first person in his family to go to college, besides his mother Jenny’s brief stint at FVCC. Both Jenny and Kaleb’s father Jeffrey graduated from Columbia Falls High School.
Jenny said Jeffrey saw young Kaleb’s athleticism at a young age. Given the family’s collective love of football, it was only natural that the boy’s athleticism would manifest itself in gridiron talent. Jenny says the family has a photo of Kaleb holding a football when he was 2 years old. The photo is “cute,” she says, but also prophetic.
“It’s very exciting,” Jenny said of Kaleb going to college. “We love the Barths. Susie and Doug and Austin are great friends. It’s super exciting that I’ll have a familiar face to see in the stands. We did a lot of sitting together with high school sports.”
Jenny recognizes how rare it is for close friends to be able to continue playing together after high school.
“It’s kind of overwhelming,” she said. “Kids don’t often get a chance after high school to do this.”
Johnson’s injury has been painful in more ways than one. It hurt to sit on the sidelines and watch his team win the state basketball title without him, and he still gets anxious because of his mobility limitations.
But he is rehabilitating diligently and expects to be 100 percent by this fall, when he begins his redshirt freshman season. He has his buddy Barth there for support.
“(The injury) gets to me sometimes if I think about it, but my friends help me out,” Johnson said. “We go out to movies. We do things. I’ve got my friends; I’ve got Austin. They’ve made it not so bad.”
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