Denver coach finding joy in grief
Pioneers’ Johnson courageously copes with the death of son
Summer McKesson, NCAA.com
A year ago, the University of Denver women’s basketball pregame routine wasn’t much different than it is today minus one tiny, 4-year-old detail.
Traditionally, the Pioneer would come out and shake the team’s hands before taking the court. Each home game, as soon as the team was ready, this big, rough-and-tumble, crew cut, gap-toothed, barrel-chested kid would run warp-speed across the gymnasium to be the first in line to wish his daddy’s team good luck.
Sadly this season, that faithful well-wisher no longer rushes to the front of the line. Instead, his initials are donned across the heart of each player’s jersey in his memory.
Davis, head coach Erik Johnson’s son, passed away suddenly on May 6. He had an undiagnosed birth defect called intestinal malrotation which led to the twisting of his small intestine.
“Everyday is a combination of being totally humbled by how wonderful I have it with an amazing wife, two beautiful daughters, and this great job,” Johnson said. “But at the same time we can also never escape from the fact that it’s every parent’s worst nightmare.
“When you love something more than yourself and you lose that, how can you ever be the same?”
Despite how difficult a time this has been for Johnson, his positive outlook and strength, some of the very qualities that made Davis so lovable, have been a foundation for his wife Laura, daughters Daly and Avery and the team to lean on.
“He’s been a rock through this whole thing,” said Brianna Culberson, a forward from Jefferson City, Mo. “He’s done very well managing his own emotions and taking time out for himself, while also being there for the team.”
It’s not likely Johnson would describe himself as a rock, with days where he faces a rollercoaster of emotions and it’s hard to muster up the strength to pull back the covers and start a new day. Somehow he puts aside the grief and despair to get through one moment at a time.
“There are times when I’m paralyzed. I don’t know how I’m going to get out to practice,” Johnson said. “But when a player walks into your office and asks to talk to you about the offense, you just do it.”
Basketball, Johnson’s safe haven, is sometimes a welcomed escape, especially on the toughest of days.
“When you’re out there on the court practicing and trying to get the team to run an offense better or make defensive rotations better, then nothing else exists,” Johnson said. “Which is great, but you have to have balance. I also need my time to be able to let the pain come.”
This fall the family went through 10 weeks of counseling sessions at Judi’s House, which is a program founded by former Denver Broncos quarterback Brian Griese that is specifically designed for bereaved children. In this program, Daly and Avery were able to work out their feelings and emotions through the use of art, drama and play.
In such trying circumstances as these, it is often said that one of two things can happen to a marriage. Either your relationship with your spouse can become much stronger, or you can allow it to tear you apart. Johnson and his wife have a vision for their marriage and have taken on the challenge of getting through this jointly.
“My wife has been unbelievable. We have made a commitment to do this together. She’s the only one in the world who knows how I feel, and I’m the only one in the world who knows how she feels,” Johnson said.
The support of the University of Denver, his colleagues, administrators, staff and the local community has meant the world to Johnson. Knowing that others care, even if they didn’t know Davis, helps in the healing process.
The women’s basketball coaching community has also been nothing short of amazing. It’s not just about getting a top recruit, or winning the next big rivalry matchup. There are more important things in life than basketball and coaching.
“I went out on the road briefly this summer. The amount of hugs, tears and support that I got from the coaches was wonderful,” Johnson said. “There probably wasn’t a lot of recruiting going on at some of those camps. I was dreading going on the road a little bit because it is grueling just being faced with this, but at the same time it was really therapeutic.”
Johnson appreciates those people who will take time to genuinely ask how he is doing, share a tear, or simply express their concern about what he’s going through. “I saw a poster somewhere that said being a parent is like having your heart on the outside of your body,” Johnson said. “This is always going to be a huge part of who Laura and I are now.
|What is Intestinal Malrotation?|
|An intestinal obstruction is a blockage of the digestive tract that prevents the proper passage of food. Some intestinal obstructions are present at birth, while others are caused by such problems as hernias, abnormal scar tissue growth after an abdominal operation, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Malrotation is twisting of the intestines (or bowel) caused by abnormal development while a fetus is in utero, and can cause obstruction. Malrotation occurs in 1 out of every 500 births in the United States.|
“People often wonder, it’s been seven months now … should I still talk about it? Yes, you should. It gives me an outlet to talk about my feelings.”
The players were also a huge part of Davis’ family, and many times get overlooked in this grieving process. Davis spent time with them at countless practices, postgame locker room chats being passed from lap to lap or just running around in the women’s basketball office. They babysat for him, and were his guests of honor at his third birthday party where all he wanted was to invite the girls over for macaroni and cheese and to dance to “High School Musical."
“I know that often people don’t pay enough attention to what the team is going through,” Johnson said. “Everyone asks how coach is doing, but they have their own grief. They lost a little brother, too.”
The players are undoubtedly grieving, but they took it upon themselves to find an outlet for their grief and honor Davis’ memory by trying to alleviate as much pressure and stress off of their coach as possible.
“It has impacted us each individually, but it kind of made us realize how we can’t even imagine how Coach Johnson is feeling right now,” said Abbey Leichliter, a senior forward from Jackson, Wyo. “It was important that we all, as a team, were a support system for him.”
“We’ve taken it upon ourselves to be the best basketball players we can be and to be as close to each other as possible,” added Kaetlyn Murdoch, a junior forward from Temple, Texas.
Though it’s been a difficult time to get through, Johnson knows how important it is to keep Davis’ memory alive. But he doesn’t have a difficult time doing so. There are so many renowned “Davis stories” from his family, friends and team that serve as constant reminders of the unique, entertaining charisma that defined Davis.
From playing dress up with his sisters, to creating potions out of sand, to tackling his father as soon as he walked in the door, to wearing grass skirts and coconut bras, to singing and dancing to “High School Musical,” it was hard to be around Davis without finding a reason to laugh.
“Davis squeezed the absolute most out of 4 years and 16 days that any human being could have. He didn’t waste a moment.” Johnson said.
Davis may have been young, but he did not leave this world unchanged. He impacted his family, friends, the Denver women’s basketball players, fans and many who merely observed the contagious joy that he carried with him in whatever he did.
How many 4-year-olds do you know who have their own book of quotes? Johnson and his wife kept a book of famous Davis quotes that they were able to share at his funeral. Through his fearless, adventurous nature Davis taught those around him key lessons in the simple ways that he lived.
- Never lose sight of the child in you.
- Have a good time.
- Be who you are.
- Love life.
- Be open to new experiences.
- Never judge anyone.
And the list goes on. Lessons that adults forget to take time out to emanate in their own lives. And perhaps if they did, they would squeeze much more out of life. Small lessons that can have such a huge impact -- the kind of impact that Davis left on each person with whom he came in contact.
As Davis would say -- maybe not through his words, but definitely through his actions -- don’t blow this moment. Be the life of the party. Don’t miss this chance to live enthusiastically.
“The best way to honor him is to try to live that everyday,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t mean the pain goes away, and it doesn’t mean you don’t miss him. You just try to learn from his example.”