There are times in the television business when you realize that there are people at play that are a lot bigger than you- or anyone else around you for that matter. It can come across in a simple gesture, or in a gesture of many acting as one. The power is the same from either source.
And the story will stay with you always…
The first time I met Chris Johnson was when he was a Sophomore at Northside High School. Depending on what part of the state of Georgia you live in, it’s either “Northside” or “Northside-Warner Robins.” You get in to the semantics of geography since there is more than one city that holds the title.
Chris was in street clothes for the state championship game in Statesboro in December of 2005.
He wouldn’t be playing, and I knew why.
He couldn’t play football.
He had a higher set of priorities and worries.
He was fighting leukemia.
He seemed like every normal 15-year-old- hat slightly off-center, over-sized, striped, collared shirt, and baggy blue jean shorts. He was quiet on the sidelines for the game in Statesboro and just kind of took everything in. I asked him how he was. He said he was “all right.” I told him that I hoped he would get well quickly, and I went on working that sideline for the night. I admit, now, that I would look over at him every now and then. I would wonder what he and his family were going through. I had a good guess, and it’s never a pretty one.
He kept on fighting, and I kept on working.
For the 2006 season, I visited Warner Robins a few times for games. Once was for their in-town rival game where Northside would play Warner Robins. Chris went through the banner as football players do. But he did it in a wheelchair this time around. His mother, “Miss Pat” as she is known, was driving him through the paper and grass over to the sideline. She did it again for the state title game against The Marist School. During the season it became crystal clear that the Johnsons were spending the standard “boatload” of money for their son’s care. The Northside community started a “Quarters for Chris” campaign at home games, and asked anyone with change to spare to donate it to help fray the costs.
It helped some, and Northside won their first state title for head Coach Conrad Nix at home that night last year. Twenty years of work at the school, in two different shifts, and Nix got his first ring.
Chris still fought, and I still worked.
That is, until June…
Chris lost his battle, but the team never forgot.
The number “96” was emblazoned everywhere on campus. Football players had the number placed on their jerseys over their hearts as a memorial. When the home turf was decorated, the team asked the number be painted in the endzone. The offensive linemen would gather in a circle and pray around his number before games. There were “96” stickers on every helmet without fail.
And what a lot of people outside of middle Georgia don’t know is- the quiet kid came out of his shell. He became a spokesman for bone marrow donation in his community. He would encourage others, old and young, through their cancer treatments as he persevered through his own at the children’s hospital. It didn’t matter what you looked like. It didn’t matter if you were a fan of some other school. He unified an entire community that is normally divided in their allegiances by the road that bisects Warner Robins at its mid-section. In a military town, it was the football player who stood ramrod straight in the face of a disease and gave it his best shot.
All this from a kid who didn’t even make it to the age of 18 like his teammates and classmates did.
Which left this nationally-ranked team in an emotional void for what would have been Chris’ senior season.
A community, a school, friends, and family all needed closure. But how does something like that come for someone who has left such a mark on those he touched…?
The team marched through the regular season, at one point losing their star quarterback to a broken bone in his leg, and steam-rolled people in the first three rounds of the playoffs. No points allowed… which gave them the chance to play a suburban-Atlanta school, Tucker High School, in the state semi-finals. Tucker’s speed seemed to get to the Eagles in the first half as they broke out to a 28-7 lead.
But then the world tilted…
The injured QB, Marquez Ivory, returned to start the second half. It was common knowledge that he would play- ahead of schedule- but no one knew how much. Ivory found receivers all second half long. He completed 11 out of 16 for 305 yards and three scores. Two of those TD passes were to Kevyn Cooper for 69 and 82 yards. After the game, Kevyn was asked about it. He said that there was no doubt in his mind that Chris was there helping him catch those passes.
You see… Kevyn, Marquez, and Chris were best of friends.
A field goal with 12 seconds left gave Northside the win to advance to the state finals.
The way the state finals worked was, that if both teams were top seeded in their region, it would come down to a coin flip to decide where the game would be played. Ware County High School Head Coach Dan Ragle won the toss, and got to host the game three hours away from Warner Robins- in Waycross.
Tickets were at such a premium that people were driving from Waycross to Warner Robins to see if they could get in that way. The coaches told me, at their mid-week radio show, that something special was planned for the entrance onto the field.
A photo of Chris from the year before, smiling and flashing a “peace” sign, was reproduced and placed in the middle of the banner. The cheerleaders holding the banner aloft seemed confused as the Eagles walked AROUND it, escorting a poster of Chris in his uniform from his 9th-grade year at the front of the procession.
They played, understandably, with too much emotion for the first half… the first three quarters, really… and they trailed the underdog Gators 16-13. The 4,000 fans that made the trip were given a piece of poster board with that “96” on it. They were asked to hold it aloft as a show of support- telling the world that Chris was their “12th Man.”
I’m not normally distracted by the atmosphere of my job. But when those signs were held in the air as we headed to commercial, I got goose bumps. I understood. And so did the kids on the field.
A play that the Eagles hadn’t used since a pre-season scrimmage, a half-back option pass, got the team the win and back-to-back titles- 20-16.
Head Coach Conrad Nix told the Johnsons, Chris’ father Ovie and “Miss Pat,” that if there was something- anything- he could do to give them closure where Chris was concerned he would do his best. Ovie rode the team bus down to Waycross for the title game, and was on the sidelines for as many games as I could count. He gave a pre-game speech at the pre-game meal before the championship, and even went as far as telling the team he wanted some gator-skin boots.
Chris was the only player on the roster in all capital letters. He was at the top of the tackle charts, and he was never far away from everyone.
And there was a lot of karma at play- if you believe in that stuff…
Going into the title game, I’ll give you one guess as to how many points the team had given up…
Going into the semi-finals, I’ll give you one guess as to how many minutes were left in the team’s season.
And, after that school week had been completed, I’ll give you one guess as to how many school days were left in the calendar year.
And, since he was the “12th Man,” I’ll give you one guess as to what number is evenly-divisible by 12.
For all the rallying, for all the chanting of a number that meant so much to so many people, and for all the pain that one family has gone through losing someone so young, you can only hope that the championship brought some kind of closure to the family in some small way.
Chris loved football. And an entire football team and town loved him back…
They still do.
And I have a good feeling that he saw the whole thing unfold right in front of him…
Play it safe everyone, I’ll talk to you soon…
Friday, December 21, 2007
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Knowing incoming Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long’s track record of hiring head football coaches, I figured the Long would hire a washed up former NFL head coach to lead the Razorbacks. This is the same guy who hired the Wanstache while AD at Pittsburgh. I had prepared myself for Norv Turner, Cam Cameron and when current Oakland Raiders Head Coach Lane Kiffen was on the initial list, I wasn’t shocked. It made perfect sense. There was the flirtation with Tommy Bowden and Jim Grobe but they like life in the ACC. Then Bobby Petrino emerged and Tuesday night said the hell with the Atlanta Falcons and came to the Ozarks as the new Head Football Coach at Arkansas.
If you are going to hire a washed up NFL head coach this is the guy. Petrino took Louisville to unprecedented heights, 2 conference titles and a BCS Bowl. However, Petrino doesn’t like to stay bogged down at one place. What are the odds Petrino remains at Arkansas for the 5 years of his contract?
By the way, I know Arthur Blank is worth billions of dollars but after the year he has had as owner of the Atlanta Falcons, I wouldn’t blame Blank for going on an all night drinking binge in fact, I would buy the first round. But king Arthur would probably want the $500 bottle of single malt scotch and that is a little out of my price range.
Back to Petrino, at Louisville he worked with Chris Redman and Brian Brohm on the college level at quarterback. Who does he inherit at Arkansas? Casey Dick. If Petrino can turn Dick into Clint Stoerner or even Barry Lunney, Jr. he’s earned his 7-figure income.
Darren McFadden will go pro. Petrino now must convince Felix Jones to return for his senior year. That will be like selling ice to the Eskimos. Without Jones, who are your offensive weapons?
I sound like a grumpy Razorback fan. I, as someone who bleeds Razorback Red, like the hire. I just hope he doesn’t have U-Haul on his Fav-5 list.
That's it, I'm spent.