Wiedmer: Mocs' new captain in tough battle but hates to lose

Wiedmer: Mocs' new captain in tough battle but hates to lose

September 14th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

UTC Mocs logo

UTC Mocs logo

The setting was remarkably familiar to anyone who's witnessed a coveted high school football player signing a collegiate national letter of intent.

The long table in the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Hall of Fame room at McKenzie Arena was appropriately covered in a dark blue cloth with a gold and white "Power C" on its front. A white UTC helmet anchored one end, a leather football the other. Photographers stood ready to record the big moment.

Only this was Friday evening, not a Wednesday afternoon in February, the traditional time for such news conferences.

Yet here stood Mocs coach Russ Huesman, authentic looking papers in one hand and a blue and gold pen in the other.

"We're going to sign you to a national letter of intent," the coach said as he handed the papers to 17-year-old Jack Johnson of Centennial High School in Franklin, Tenn. "And then you're going to be our captain on Saturday for the Austin Peay game."

And with that, the 5-foot-10, 140-pounder momentarily put aside his desperate, daily battle with a malignant brain tumor long enough to become a Moc. His 87 new best friends and teammates instantly saluted Jack with a rousing and prolonged ovation.

Asked by Huesman if he had anything to say, Johnson replied, "I just hope we don't lose. I have a nasty temper when it comes to losing."

Hearing Jack's plea for victory, senior defensive back and permanent captain Chaz Moore shook his head, then said with a grin, "Now that's pressure. This is one game we have to win."

Real pressure is what Jill and Ben Johnson and their oldest son Benny Jr., a UTC freshman engineering major, have lived with the last three years, ever since the first floor of their home was swallowed by 13 inches of water during the torrential rains of May 1, 2010, and Jack was diagnosed with a pediatric brain tumor 46 days later.

"Two-thousand-ten," Jill Johnson said earlier this week, "started the ball rolling toward the hard part of life for us."

There had been moments of hardship with Jack from the time he was 18 months old, when he was diagnosed with autism, the neurological disorder that often impacts social interaction and verbal communication.

But like many children, Jack had largely weathered that storm, remaining in mainstream education and enjoying normal relationships with his fellow students.

"He was making good grades; he was headed to a technical school after high school," Jill said. "His classmates loved him; his teachers loved him."

They still love him, but now from afar. Ever since the chemo and radiation treatments began, and his immune system became compromised, Jack has been forced to remain much of the time at home, as far from daily exposure to common germs as possible.

To make matters worse, all those full radiation treatments to his brain and spine -- including three months at St. Jude -- have weakened his cognitive skills.

"We've gone from being on track for a regular diploma to receiving a special education diploma," Jill Johnson said. "We've gone from one child to a completely different child. We're on our fourth different regime of chemo, and there's no cure. None."

Nine years ago, Dennis Murphy began a similar journey with daughter Jaclyn, who was 9 at the time. Enduring many of the same hardships as the Johnsons, the New York native founded the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, which grants wishes to terminally ill children, much like the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

"Our mission is to help children who are battling pediatric brain tumors," Murphy told the UTC team. "Jack is the 415th child we've reached out to. Over 4,000 children are diagnosed with brain tumors every year. When you're the parent of such a child, you live from MRI to MRI for the rest of your life. We call it 'Scan-xiety.'"

For the Murphys, the news has been good. Jaclyn is now a sophomore at Marist College. Her MRIs are now yearly instead of monthly.

But Jill Johnson knows the statistics often sway the wrong way.

"September is Children's Cancer Awareness Month," she said. "Seven children a day die from childhood cancer. But no one seems to talk about it as much as other cancers."

Murphy talked about it. He told the Mocs, "This isn't just a one-game program. Jack's now your brother for life."

Said Jack's new brother Chaz Moore: "It just lets you know that while everybody goes through struggles, our struggles are really little compared to his."

Assuming the newest Moc won't have to struggle too much this evening to join his teammates, Jack Johnson will walk onto Davenport Field at Finley Stadium for the coin toss wearing the navy blue No. 14 jersey with his name on the back that Huesman gave him.

"I might call heads; I might call tails," Jack said. "We'll see."

Smiling wide, the coach said, "I just hope you're going to bring us some luck."

It's Jack who needs the most luck, of course. Luck and one other thing we all can provide, whether we make it to Finley tonight or not.

"We welcome any prayers you'd like to say," Jill said. "It's all we've got now."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com