Texas Connect


UT’s campus safety expert competes in Firefighter Challenge races with his son

Jimmy Johnson lifts up a dummy in the Firefighter Challenge
Jimmy Johnson, 60, was recognized as the 2021 Rookie of the Year at the close of the Firefighter Challenge season.

Nine-time World Firefighter Challenge champion Jared Johnson lost a third-place title by one-thousandth of a second in 2019. 

When the Austin firefighter vowed never to place fourth again, his father, Jimmy Johnson, a retired firefighter and UT’s assistant vice president for campus safety, committed to training with him for the next Firefighter Challenge — a series of strenuous scenarios in which firefighters and retirees compete to simulate a firefighter’s experience in an emergency.

“I wanted to do something to make myself healthier and in turn do something where I could be an ambassador for the health and wellness of firefighters, both active members and retirees,” says Johnson, who worked at the North Las Vegas Fire Department in Nevada for 17 years. “Plus, it gives me an opportunity to share that special time with my boy.” 

To meet the athletic requirements for competing in tandem with his son, Johnson, who goes by “Pops” as both a father and firefighter, launched “Project Pops” in December 2020. The former assistant fire chief, who has worked at the UT Office of Campus Safety since 2008, has participated in six Firefighter Challenge regional events, as well as the national finals, since January 2021. 

“Let’s go out there and see what we can do with a 60-year-old body,” Johnson says. “(The challenges) have been life-changing in so many ways.” 

Firefighter Challenge events are held acrossthe country and in Canada. Courses include such tasks as lugging a 42-pound hose pack up a five-story metal tower, hoisting a 42-pound roll of hose up and over the top of a 41-foot-tall platform, and dragging a 175-pound mannequin to the finish line 100 feet away — all while wearing full personal protective equipment and a self-contained breathing apparatus. 

After numerous health exams, Johnson says he began training — eating a high-protein diet, walking at least 10,000 steps a day with an 80-pound weighted vest, lifting dead weights and riding a stationary bike on high resistance. He says he exerts maximum effort five days a week and takes two recovery days. “When you sit there and you self-reflect, not only physically looking at the mirror but figuratively looking at yourself, you have to say, ‘How can I be the best I could be? How can I be healthy? How can I be healthy for my family?’”

To motivate himself, Johnson says he made an incentive box with a slot for money. A day of training means $1, competing in an event means $5, and winning a medal means $20. “I was able to stuff that box this season,” he says, earning the elite Lion’s Den recognition, 15 medals and two national championship titles. At 60, Pops was recognized as the 2021 Rookie of the Year at the close of the season.

“I’ve dropped 27 pounds, put on muscle and got to where I had to buy new pants,” Johnson says. “But the biggest motivator is my son Jared. He is my youngest, and there were a lot of years we didn’t really get to spend together. This is something that he loves. It (is) part of his life. I just wanted to be able to share that with him, not only as a father, but as a competitor.” 

Top firefighters such as Jared Johnson can complete a Firefighter Challenge course in under two minutes. Jimmy Johnson clocked his record at 2 minutes and 57.54 seconds. 

Currently, Jimmy and Jared Johnson are the only competing father-son duo in the Firefighter Challenge. 

“At that moment when he and I completed our first race and crossed the finish line, there’s a series of pictures of my son giving me a bear hug,” Johnson says. “It really tells a story about what this is about. … To be able to walk out on a course where (Jared) just broke the record and embrace him, be in that moment with him, and have him do the same for me, it’s inspirational for both of us.” 

Johnson’s two older sons are also firefighters. He says that although the competition at the Firefighter Challenge is tough, he cherishes the camaraderie among the firefighters and feels as if he has gained an extended family. 

“Hearing people screaming, ‘Pops! Pops! Pops!’ just motivates (me) to do this,” Johnson says. “The true measure of success is found in time shared with my boy and the opportunity to enhance my quality of life, the new family bonds I’ve created with my fellow competitors and staff. While you’re competing against whoever’s on the course, you’re really competing against yourself. … Put your mind to it and you can push your body to limits that you didn’t think you could.”