Johnson takes ‘backyard’ game to grander level

Jana Mackin, For the Journal

Submitted photo 

Matt Johnson (right) tosses bags with Mike Isakson. (Below) Johnson, a Brandon resident, and fellow corn-holer Matt Ryan, of Harrisburg, compete at ‘21 state tourney.

They look like average Joes, your local hardware or HVAC guy, but make no mistake they are A-1 corn holers. Just set up a board, throw them some bags and look out. Mr. Nice Guy becomes Ninja Zen, master of sack toss in what is fast becoming America’s number one blood sport. It’s likely the game started here when high plains drifters tossed dried cow pies into glory holes, fertilizing modern generations of corn-holers.

 “We have a lot of good throwers,” said Matt Johnson, 52, a Brandon bag tosser who placed second at the American Cornhole League state championships last year. He’s also accumulated other titles and awards.

“We play all the time,” he said of the ACL Mid-North Conference that includes North and South Dakota and Minnesota. The ACL is a sanctioning body in the U.S. for the sport of cornhole that contracts with ESPN and CBS Sports to air live tournament broadcasts and other national events. Other bodies include the American Cornhole Organization and American Cornhole Association.

 “The sport is spreading.” said Johnson, a military veteran and grill-n-smoke manager at Nyberg’s Ace in Sioux Falls.

Like many cornholers, Johnson is self-taught. He has played for 11 years, working his way up from backyard lawn competitions to hard gravel parking lots of bars and local venues into leagues and tournaments. Early on, he and a buddy won the Viborg Danish Days bean bag toss five years in a row, which fired him up to evolve and grow as a highly-respected competitor in a game where players throw bags into a hole on a raised board governed by specific rules, technique, strategies and hand-eye coordination.

However, competitors here face a major obstacle not faced by say Florida cracker cornholers: the weather. Winter whiteout and frostbite are not ideal for air mail, kill shots.

“Winter time is a problem,” Johnson said. “The biggest problem is that we don’t have a place to set up boards and throw.”

Area players continue to wish for some centrally located, heated indoor/outdoor, year-round throwing facility where people could practice and play the sport.

Still, Matt Ryan, a Harrisburg resident, is among area players weathering the challenge in a big way. Ryan, 34, is the first player in the ACL Mid-North Conference to obtain pro designation. Ryan went pro in September after he won the ACL Mid-North Pro Qualifier, a single elimination tournament that took place in Wall. He also has won the big blind draw tournament and singles tournament at the ACL South Dakota state championships last year. He’s now one of 256 professional cornhole players in the ACL, and has been playing for eight years. He plans to compete at the ACL Kickoff Battle national event next month as well continue competing locally and regionally.

“This is the fastest growing sport,” he said, “and as goofy as it sounds, it could be an Olympic sport.”

“It’s already in the works,” Ryan informed.

In the meantime, the Triple Crown Cornhole will stage their annual tournament at Grand Falls Casino later this month. The growth and interest in their tournament on the national stage reflects all levels of interest in the sport fueled by such national media exposure and the enduring attraction of the sports Democratic accessibility to all levels of play and outreach to all demographics. You can be young, old, poor, rich, competitive or lazy and still enjoy the game of cornhole. While cornhole is fast becoming a competitive sport it still is a lawn game of barbecues, tailgating and fun.

“We are getting nationally known,” said Mark Krueger, founder of Triple Crown Cornhole League and tournament promoter now in its fourth year. “It’s an American sport, it’s a very social sport and it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “This is a tournament where people come to win and like to drink beer and have fun.”


The Brandon Valley Journal


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