Ian Johnston

A Road Trip to Fight Substance Abuse

A college golfer with a passion for mental health advocacy dedicates his life to family he has lost

By Jordan Perez

A lot of college kids would probably prefer going solo with their summer plans, whether that’s with a vacation or an internship, exercising every bit of available independence. But Ian Johnston, a golfer at the University of South Dakota, is not your typical college kid.

After completing his junior this spring, he decided a cross-country trip with his dad, Jeff, and his brother Roman was in order. Instead of the amateur golf events that usually consume summer breaks, the Johnstons packed up a blue and yellow RV wrapped in the phrase Living Undeterred and hit the road. Their journey encompassed 95 days and featured stops across 45 states.

A family’s worst nightmare

The first thing that Jeff Johnston saw upon entering the seedy motel room was the yellow crime tape. It was Oct. 4, 2016. His son Seth lay dead in a chair, the victim of a heroin overdose that killed him in seconds. Seth’s belt was wrapped in a tourniquet, resting on the neatly made bed. Jeff took the accessory that contributed to his son’s death. He will never let it go. 

The father of three had intended to start off his day in an entirely different way. He awoke at 6 a.m. ready to drop off his middle son, Ian, a top high school golfer in Iowa, at his district tournament. A trip to the state qualifier was on the line. Before he could wish his son good luck, Jeff’s phone rang. Immediately, he felt a pit in his stomach.

That’s when he got the news about 23-year-old Seth, who had battled an opioid addiction for years. He had spent a month in a rehab facility right before his death.

For the first time in his life, Ian wouldn’t have the support of his biggest fan. Instead, Jeff rushed home to break the tragic news to his wife, Prudence. His dad’s absence from the golf course was Ian’s first clue something was amiss. It sat with him all round long; he bogeyed the final two holes and missed qualifying for state.

Devastated, Ian came home crying. His tears would soon be for something else.

“I knew that the next words out of my mouth were going to dictate the quality of the rest of our lives as a family,” Jeff says now.

His message was straightforward. “Boys, we have one or two roads to go down,” he remembers telling his two surviving sons. “One road of anger, despair and hatred, and we’ll become alcoholics and addicts ourselves. Or we have a road of inspiration and motivation. I’m on the second road. I ask you to join me.”

It was an enormous amount of perspective for a 13-year-old and a 15-year-old to soak in. Two teenagers who had just lost their big brother had to take the high road. Jeff himself would struggle with tremendous grief, battling alcoholism and a gambling habit. Despite fighting his own demons, he was determined to lead his family down the right path.

In only a few months, Ian became an inspiration. He began raising money for the Area Substance Abuse Council, accepting pledges for each birdie he made. Ever talented, he raised a lot of money. The following year, the Prairie High School golf team was back at the district tournament. Ian’s game had developed, thanks in part to a new putting routine. Before he lined up his putts, he would raise his club to the sky and dedicate the attempt to Seth: “This one’s for you.”

Jeff opted to stay home rather than attend the district event. He had fallen asleep on the couch and awoke to a text message of his son holding up a banner that read: 2017 Class 4A Golf State Qualifier. For the first time in school history, the Hawks were on their way to states.

“I believe Seth was with me that day,” Ian recalled a year later, delivering a speech after accepting the Jerry Cole Sportsmanship Award from the AJGA. Ian, who raised more than $25,000, was given a few minutes to address his peers. A poised high school senior stood at the podium and handed out thank yous, shared his story and gave the audience a moving piece of encouragement.

“Please remember that you have a tremendous opportunity to use golf to create great change in the world,” Ian said. “Trophies gather dust, but making an impact on lives will last forever.” He lived up to his word. Golf remained a priority, especially with a spot awaiting him on the University of South Dakota golf team, but Ian Johnston also had a purpose.

Ian Johnston

Living Undeterred

Living Undeterred
The team’s beloved RV, acquired just before the tour

“I liked that undeterred word since college,” Jeff says, “because no one else was using it.”

Few people quit their day jobs and reach into their own pockets to spread the word about substance abuse and mental health issues, but Jeff has never looked back. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says. “I’m doing this till my last breath. I’m willing to go bankrupt.”

Before this summer, Jeff had never stepped foot in an RV. But after doing a little research and making a trip to the nearest Camping World, Jeff had his very own oversized vehicle. And he wasted no time hitting the road.

A day in the Johnston family vacation went something like this: In each city the RV visited, Living Undeterred partnered with a local nonprofit to organize the speaking engagement. Those organizations would promote their own work and participate in a concluding panel. The main event on the bill was Jeff’s 45-minute talk, in which he aimed to share his family’s grim story in an empowering way. The Johnstons wanted the audience to feel moved by “a guy from Iowa and his sons.”

“I don’t spend a lot of time on fear-mongering,” Jeff says. “I don’t want to come in with statistics on death and all this morbid stuff and all the sinister, gripping effects of addiction. It can be so destructive.”

But the statistics are a big reason why the Johnston family is on this crusade. Since 1999, the number of people who have died from a drug-involved overdose has steadily increased, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In 2020, the number of deaths spiked to 92,000.

The destigmatization of mental health pitfalls is also a point of the conversation. Jeff naturally creates that awareness, but he’s also out to challenge preconceived notions. He believes there are two myths about mental health: that time heals all wounds, and that everything happens for a reason. To cure both, he says, people must adapt and evolve.

Golf as a healing instrument

Another debilitating loss would test the Johnston family. In mid-2021, Prudence lost her battle with alcoholism. Her bright light shone through the entire family, there for every tournament and every special moment with her children.

Her death emboldened Jeff to embrace sobriety. It gave even more purpose to Ian’s putter raises, and weeks later he claimed top-five finishes at the Iowa Amateur and the Waterloo Open. Jeff is always in attendance these days. Ian says he can count on one hand how many times his dad has missed a tournament in his life. The steps he takes beside his son are the same ones he makes in pursuit of his own healing.

Ian Johnston
One big stop on the tour was a trip to Winged Foot, where Ian made a 30-foot putt

But on the day he brought home plastic clubs for 4-year-old Ian, Jeff never imagined the game would be anything more than a hobby. “Golf saved my life because it gave me a distraction from having to deal with the death of my son, the crumbling of my marriage and then ultimately the death of my wife,” Jeff says. “It gave me that solace of four hours or six hours where I could walk and talk to other parents.”

Ian’s passions expanded outside of golf. Capitalizing on the booming shoe resale industry, the finance major operates his own streetwear business: Victory City Streetwear. Jeff urged Ian to brainstorm a way to stand out in the crowd. Ian honors the memory of his mother and brother by donating a percentage of his revenue to his family’s nonprofit. 

Not long after he began his business, Ian was scammed out of $2,000 of inventory. Panicked, he nearly gave it all up. Two years later, his “small” business has grown, and it has raised thousands of dollars to address substance abuse and mental health.

Twins Kris and Keegan Murray, standout Iowa basketball duo, pose with Ian Johnston’s vast inventory

“My motto is inspiring hope one step at a time,” Ian says. Most sales have come through Instagram, but he recently launched a digital storefront and hopes to expand it in the next year.

In the meantime, the memories made have binded the father and son more than ever before. After his junior season at South Dakota, Ian struggled with his own mental health. “I was counting down the days until the tour, but I was struggling a bit,” he says. “I wasn’t in a great mindset.”

The two months spent on the road with family, relating and connecting to others across the country, became cathartic. From watching best friend Keegan Murray get taken with the fourth pick in the NBA Draft to days spent addressing broken appliances in the RV, Ian Johnston’s summer, spent combating the nation’s substance abuse crisis, is one he’ll never forget.

It was, indeed, for Mom and Seth.

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