With just 37 active football players, four currently injured, sometimes it seems like things won’t get better for the Earlham College football team.
But for head coach Nick Johnson, there is hope; otherwise, there would be no reason to keep fighting.
The Quakers fell behind early Saturday and ended the day with a 32nd consecutive defeat, 54-20 at the hands of Bluffton.
Despite their 0-9 record, and an 0-10 finish to Johnson’s first year as Earlham’s head football coach, he was voted the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference Coach of the Year in 2015.
The Quakers show signs of progress, and whether they are outmatched or outnumbered, they don’t quit, evident in a fourth-quarter touchdown by quarterback Wes Hundley.
Football, in the grand scheme of things, is small in comparison to the battle Nick Johnson’s wife faces. His players are well aware, and motivated to win for their coach.
Nick Johnson’s wife, Earlham graduate and former women’s basketball coach Melissa Johnson, has spent about 600 total days in the hospital in the last three years.
“I might say before coach even started coaching I was already aware of the situation,” senior Lajay Kelley said. “We already had funds going for Melissa and everything. I knew about it the whole time; he made it very vocal to us, he let us know. It’s not like he hides it; we’re all a family so he doesn’t mind expressing his feelings with us. … We just stay in there, keep pushing, stay with coach.”
Like the Earlham football team, there are days where it seems like things may not get better for Melissa.
But hope keeps Melissa and Nick fighting, and their story has been an inspiration for Nick’s players, the Earlham community, and after Saturday, ESPN’s viewers.
“Both Nick and Melissa fight every day, so it’s not just on the football field, it’s in real life,” Earlham athletic director Mike Bergum said. “I think that the 35, 40 kids that we have playing now on the roster really understand that and what’s going on behind the scenes in the program as well. I think that’s a testament to their fight and to Nick Johnson as a head coach as well.”
Nick and Melissa are both Earlham graduates.
Nick spent time as defensive coordinator for the football team and was the head track and field coach, before being hired as head football coach prior to the 2015 season.
Melissa was hired as Earlham’s women’s basketball coach before the 2011-12 season and helped the Quakers improve from an 0-25 finish in 2011 to 12-13 two years later.
The Quakers tied for the final spot in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament that year, but missed out due to a tiebreaker.
They had high hopes entering the 2014-15 year, but Johnson’s health forced her to take a medical leave.
Nick said that she had a “good 10-week stretch” before having to return to the hospital.
“I don’t claim to be an inspiration. If somebody’s inspired by our story, I hope they’re inspired by my wife’s strength and determination,” Nick Johnson said. “I am grateful to have all the help that I have and (it) allows me to enjoy my job and continue to move on. People in my family that watch my kids, and my coaches at work that help me take care of the team, and teachers that work with me so much. I’m thankful for all of that.”
Among those inspired was Bluffton head coach Denny Dorrel, a graduate of Franklin County High School.
“When we look at coach, whenever we’re around him, we feel better about ourselves, even if it’s a short interaction, just the way he carries himself,” Dorrel said. “He’s a God-fearing man. There’s things in his life right now that he’s up against it; we respect the heck out of him and he’s a success story in our mind, no matter what this team’s record is. You could tell, this team fought until the end and the reason they fought is because they love that guy and we respect the heck out of him.”
Johnson balances the duties of coaching with being with his wife. He visits her in Cincinnati on Thursdays and Sundays, but when they’re apart, he said football works as therapy for him.
“It’s cathartic for me,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if I can quite get away from it. I think about it every play and every down we do something great, and she would see that. If we were to win today, she wouldn’t be here to celebrate the first win with me; I think about that. But it’s not so much an escape as it’s cathartic, it’s therapy, it gives me something to focus on, it gives me energy and it’s gives me another system of hope believing in these guys and getting them to believe in themselves and what they’re doing.”
Sometimes, Nick Johnson misses out on coaching to be with Melissa. Sometimes he misses out on being with Melissa for his coaching duties.
But he does everything in his power to be with his 8-year-old daughter Jayden and 6-year-old son Jacob.
“I think Nick’s an inspiration,” said Richmond High School football coach Matt Holeva, who was in attendance Saturday. “The love and passion that he brings and the commitment that he shows to his wife he shares with his players and the football program here. I think that’s evident in how he carries himself and how he does business, I think that it’s quite a special inspirational story.”
Bluffton 21 19 14 0 – 54
Earlham 6 0 0 14 – 20
BLUF- Micah Roberson 58 pass from Conner Sheehan, 11:35 (Jordan Watkins kick)
BLUF- Roberson 19 pass from Sheehan, 7:26 (Watkins kick)
BLUF- Dante Carroll 3 run, 2:35 (Watkins kick)
EC- Dalton Engle 36 pass from Wes Hundley, 0:56 (kick blocked)
BLUF- Roberson 10 pass from Sheehan, 12:50 (kick failed)
BLUF- Sheehan 3 run, 4:55 (Watkins kick)
BLUF- Raphael Dell 23 pass from Sheehan, 1:14 (kick failed)
BLUF- Carroll 9 run, 13:05 (Watkins kick)
BLUF- Dell 35 pass from Brandon Koch, 6:56 (Andrew Donnellan kick)
EC- Marcaus Cooper 8 pass from Hundley, 11:27 (Justin Kerobo kick)
EC- Hundley 1 run, 4:34 (Kerobo kick)
First Downs- BLUF: 20; EC: 16
Rushes-Yards– BLUF: 32-166; EC: 38-153.
Passing Yards– BLUF: 299; EC: 178.
Comp-Att-Int.- BLUF- 15-19-0; EC: 11-30-0.
Punts-Avg.– BLUF: 4-45.3; EC: 8-36.8
Fumbles-Lost- BLUF: 0-0; EC: 0-0.
Penalties-Yards- BLUF: 8-49; EC: 8-42.
RUSHING– BLUF: Caroll- 9-76; Dustin Fisher 9-44; Sheehan 4-31; Koch 1-12; Tim Booth 3-4; Colton Royer 1-2; Drake Campbell 2-0; Dylan Szabo 1-0; Daiden Dicke 1-(-3). EC: Hundley 33-146; Malik Lawrence-Reid 3-5; Cooper 1-1; Jordan Christian 1-1.
PASSING– BLUF: Sheehan 13-17-263-4; Koch 1-1-35-1; Szabo 1-1-1-0. EC: Hundley 11-30-178-2.
RECEIVING– BLUF: Roberson 5-132; Dell 4-90; Lucas Espitia 2-28; Keyon Camden 1-23; Dustin Fisher 1-14; Adam Duncan 1-11; Royer 1-1. EC: Alec Dews 4-56; Lawrence-Reid 1-50; Engle 2-47; Cooper 2-24; Elijah Bilal 2-1.