Over my forty-year sports broadcasting career I have met a lot of coaches. Some are famous. Some are infamous. Rarely does an interaction with a coach impact my life in a truly significant way. That happened to me when I became friends with a Newton, Texas high school football coach named W.T. Johnston. One of my assignments in 2017 was directing a number of Texas high school championship games for Fox Sports. Our preparation included a conference call with each coach. Most of the time the coaches simply tell us about their season and their players. W.T. Johnston did that in December of 2017. When a question was asked about his health challenges I was captivated by his story.
Johnston had been diagnosed with sarcoidosis in 1998. That was the lung disease that ultimate took the lives of Hall of Fame football player Reggie White and comedian Bernie Mac. Johnston eventually needed a double lung transplant and at first it looked like his health had taken a turn for the better. But an exceedingly rare reaction called Graft versus Host Disease caused his body to attack the new lungs. Only four people in the United States had dealt with this reaction. An experimental treatment at MD Anderson Hospital in Houston relieved the GvHD symptoms but Johnston’s body was still rejecting his new lungs. W.T. Johnston was on borrowed time as he headed into the 2017 UIL Texas High School championships. At the age of 54 he did not know if he would have another chance to win that coveted title.
One of the people on the call expressed their sympathy for all he was going through. W.T. responded in a way that rocked my world.
“I have been given a great gift. A lot of people die suddenly or never have a chance to see how their lives matter. I have been given that gift.”
He told more of his story and then he said that “some people told me I should write a book but I have no idea how to do that.”
I remember praying that God would allow me to tell this story. After the championship game I contacted W.T. and went to visit him and his wife Debbie. I left Newton, Texas convinced that his story of faith, family, and football needed to be told. This fall I will be releasing “Between the White Lines… One coach’s determined pursuit of ultimate victory”. It is an amazing story that shows how God can use ordinary people in extraordinary ways. A portion of every sale will be donated to a scholarship fund in W.T.’s name.
The book tells the story of his life, his faith, his family and the experiences that shaped him. After he was able to win his second State Title in 2018 an interview on Fox Sports went viral. Here is part of what W.T. Johnson shared.
“I always told them this was the last lesson I was gonna’ teach them. I’ve been around these guys and their dads and their mothers since 1991. And I told them the last lesson I would ever teach them is how to live until you die, and where you put your strength and where you put your belief. The Lord has done so much for me. It’s unbelievable what Jesus has let me do and see through these kids. And I tell everybody—they don’t understand this—I’ve been given a great gift. I’ve been able to see how my life could affect people before I die. These guys, they’ve touched my life. It’s been a mutual thing. But I’ve been able to teach them a lesson that you don’t get to see most times.
“Last night they were talking about wanting to win for me. I’ve had my time. This is their time. This is all for them. I told them to do it for their teammates, to do it for themselves. Because fifty years from now, this will be something special they’ll always remember. I mean, they’ll remember me—if I’ve done right, a part of me is going to live in them and that’s what I’ve always thought—if I’ve done things right.”
There is no doubt W.T. Johnston has done things right. Those post-game comments went viral and over 3 million people heard W.T. Johnston’s testimony and story.
On Saturday, May 11th W.T. Johnston was finally healed when he went to be with the Lord. I thought of the lyrics of a song from Chris Tomlin.
Jesus has overcome
And the grave is overwhelmed
The victory is won
He is risen from the dead
And I will rise when He calls my name
No more sorrow, no more pain
I will rise on eagles’ wings
Before my God fall on my knees
I will rise
W.T. Johnston rose on Eagle’s wings and met his Lord and Savior on Saturday night. He was finally healed of the pain that he had suffered for so many years. I have no doubt that this was the greeting my friend received from Jesus.
‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ (Matthew 25:23, NLT)
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