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A Great Gift

(This is an excerpt from my new book Between the White Lines. I hope you read this remarkable story.)

W.T. Johnston sat alone in a service tunnel inside the cavernous home of the Dallas Cowboys. From his folding chair he could hear the cacophony of sounds as two high schools—Brock and Rockdale—battled for a state title. Soon he would lead his Newton Eagles football team against undefeated Gunter for the UIL 3A Division II Championship of Texas. Johnston’s mind raced as he considered the miracle of this moment. Most Texas high school coaches only dreamed of being on this stage.

He chuckled to himself. The entire population of Newton would fit forty times into AT&T Stadium with just a few seats left over. He knew that most of the town had made the 265-mile trek from Newton County to Texas football’s crown-jewel facility.

Three years earlier, Johnston had his first chance as a head coach to win a title on this very field. The dream ended in a disappointing loss to Waskom High School. On this Friday in December he would try again to win an elusive state title against the defending state champ that sported a daunting thirty-one-game winning streak. Most experts picked the Gunter Tigers to repeat as champs. That didn’t bother Johnston too much since most experts expected him to be dead. He had been praying for God to allow him to live long enough to see this moment and now it was here. It was almost certain this would be his last chance for a head coach championship ring in only his eighth season at the helm.

Not many people outside of Newton knew his story. Most of the crowd cheering their high school teams here in Arlington had no idea what Coach Johnston had endured to make it to this moment. Almost no one knew that he had collapsed earlier in the day, not even his son Drew. The coaches who had witnessed that scary incident worried that it could happen again and maybe the results would be worse.

Johnston pondered what this game meant. He knew he would be okay personally if the results weren’t good. Sure, it would be a disappointment because it is never fun to lose that final game. But the folks in Newton? This would mean so much to a town that had endured more than its share of adversity.

He thought about his family. Son Drew was his defensive coordinator who had previously won a 2005 state title as a Newton Eagle player when W.T. was Coach Curtis Barbay’s assistant. The family didn’t discuss the real chance that this could be W.T.’s final shot. He wanted this more for Debbie, Drew, daughter-in-law Kelsey, and Shaw more than he did for himself.

He thought about those sixty kids who would soon take the field—the same field that Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Romo, and Jason Witten had excelled on. Standing for the coin flip on that famous Cowboy star that measures ten yards from point to point. Trying to avoid staring at the ridiculously huge video screen that verified outsiders’ notions that everything is bigger in Texas.

W.T. knew how much they wanted to win it for him, but he wanted it even more for them. Johnston knew that long after he was gone this moment would be something special for these young men. Most of the kids were poor and this was an experience that they would treasure forever. W.T. wanted them to finish their high school football career with a state championship ring.

Television announcer Ron Thulin approached W. T. and sat with the coach for a few minutes. Thulin would be doing the play-by-play on Fox Sports Southwest that day. Thulin remarked about how Coach Johnston’s response to adversity had inspired him.
W. T. looked at Thulin and smiled. “Ron, most people don’t have a chance to really see how their life has mattered. They don’t get the perspective to treasure each day. I have been given a great gift.”

As Ron Thulin headed to the broadcast booth Johnston took one more moment to remember the gift of life and the gift of this moment. No matter what happened in the next four hours, he believed this promise from the Bible.

But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.
They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
They will walk and not faint.
Isaiah 40:31, NLT

Order Between the Lines now.