Skip to main content

Coronavirus Pandemic Hits Too Close to Home for Ole Miss Lineman Eli Johnson

The parents of Ole Miss's 2019 starting center have both tested positive for COVID-19 and Eli Johnson thinks he probably has it, too.

Eli Johnson is living under the belief that he is infected with coronavirus. He’s got good reasons for that assumption.

His mother has coronavirus.

And his father has coronavirus too.

“I visited the team doctor. The working theory is I most likely have it,” says Johnson, a 6' 1", 300-pound fifth-year senior at Ole Miss who started at center last season. “We’ve been ordered into isolation.”

Like much of America, Johnson is in quarantine, but unlike many in this country, he’s in quarantine with a corona patient. Ashely Johnson, his mother, is battling a mild fever. Meanwhile, her husband, David, was admitted Sunday into a local hospital. While Eli believes his dad is in stable condition, David Johnson has one of the more severe cases, and doctors are assisting his breathing. “You follow the virus for three or four weeks and you never think you’d be in the statistics and then it’s like ‘Damn,’” Eli says Tuesday. “It’s important people know it can happen to anyone.”

Ole Miss football Eli Johnson

The coronavirus pandemic is altering every American’s life and has turned the college sports world upside down, but few college athletes are as impacted as Eli Johnson. He’s truly living the outbreak in the most significant way, speaking by phone to a hospitalized father and caring at home for an ill mother, while monitoring his 5-year-old sister, Tori Kate. The trio is isolated in their home in Taylor, Miss., a town of about 320 people just south of Ole Miss’s campus.

Johnson shared news of his parents’ diagnosis through Twitter. He’s received what he estimates to be more than 300 messages of support, and they’re coming from various sections of the country—current and former coaches, teammates and even those who he plays against. “I’ve heard from players on opposing teams, ‘Hey man, I’m praying for you,’” Johnson says.

This nightmare in which Johnson finds himself began late Thursday night. David Johnson, a 48-year-old sportswriter working for 247Sports, got sick enough that the family took him to the hospital Friday, where he was tested for both strep throat and the flu—each returned negative—before medics sent him through a coronavirus test. The family got the results Sunday, and Johnson was immediately admitted to Baptist Memorial Hospital in Oxford. His mother started running a fever Monday and was tested. Her results returned positive Tuesday morning.

The family isn’t sure how the virus infected the household. “Wish we did,” says Johnson, who also has a 20-year-old sister. “My biggest thing is to stay strong for my two sisters. It’s been tough on them, especially Tori Kate. She’s scared right now. I’m trying to man up to be there for them and be strong for my family. That’s how I’m trying to approach it. They need me right now. I’m going to be a stable presence for them.”

The parents and sisters of Ole Miss center Eli Johnson.

The parents and sisters of Ole Miss center Eli Johnson.

A few weeks ago, this is not where Johnson saw himself. Ole Miss began spring practice earlier this month. He was poised to defend his position as starting center in new coach Lane Kiffin’s offense. He was gearing up for his final season, one of the leaders of this club as a fifth-year senior, his eyes set on leading the Rebels to their first bowl trip in his tenure at the school. Days later, he’s relegated to training through indoor pushups and sit-ups, and his other activities revolve around X-Box Live.

Johnson’s love for football runs deep. Though he graduated last year with a degree in political science, his long-term goal is to coach football. It’s been hard, he says, to even think about the sport given his parents’ situation. After all, COVID-19 is responsible for the deaths of more than 18,600 people worldwide, per data by Johns Hopkins's Coronavirus Research Center. It has infected more than 52,000 in the US, killing more than 540, per the CDC.

The Johnson family isn’t allowed to visit his David for fear of infecting others. They speak to him by phone. Amid these trying times, Eli Johnson finds hope. “He’s hanging in there. He’s being a trooper,” Eli says. “I think he’s going to be just fine. We’re going to get through this.”