(Excerpted from Between the White Lines)
It is almost impossible to comprehend what it is like for a sixteen-year-old boy to run onto the Dallas Cowboys home field to play for a state championship. Kids who have played in front of a few dozen or a few hundred look at a vast sea of faces. They struggle to balance fear and exhilaration. Some teams thrive on this big stage and others wilt. The Newton Eagles always looked to one source of strength in these moments: their coach W.T. Johnston.
“There is nothing like being in the battle with these young men,” W.T. says. “One of the things I love the most about coaching is the team huddle. It is a sacred place that only I get to share with my players. No one else gets to invade that sacred space between the white lines. I always ask them to take a knee and I get down to their level. I look in their eyes and I see what is going on in their hearts and minds. Sometimes I see fear. Sometimes I see anger. Sometimes I see confidence. Sometimes I see overconfidence. When I look in their eyes I know what I need to say in that moment. I will miss that more than anything when I am done coaching.”
On this Thursday, December 21, 2017, Coach saw a team that was ready. A team that wanted to win for their coach and their community. His job today would be to keep them from getting too emotionally charged up and to focus only on the task at hand. Coach knew they had a good plan. But when you deal with high school boys you never know exactly what will happen.
The Newton community had shown up in all their purple splendor. There was no school on Thursday and Friday. Newton looked like a ghost town on Friday afternoon as everyone who could take time off hit Highway 190 to Arlington. Those who had to remain behind were glued to the broadcast of the game. Many gathered to watch on a big screen at a somewhat unlikely location—the Son Asian Bistro in Jasper. Championship day in Newton rivaled Christmas Day in anticipation and excitement.
The Newton cheerleaders were wide-eyed as they walked onto the field. The Eagle mascot ran along the sideline where Dallas Cowboy mascot Rowdy would be pumping up a hundred thousand hometown fans in just two days.
It was a surreal and magical atmosphere. The tension in the stands was palpable for the Newton fans and particularly Debbie Johnston. “You always want to win but the stakes for this game were so much higher. I knew that short of a miracle this would be W.T.’s last chance. I was a nervous wreck.” Like every other time in their relationship she knew her husband was calm. “His strength in these moments is my rock and he is the rock for the team as well.”
The teams finished their warmups and went to the locker room for the final moments before kickoff. W.T. called his team around him. The team knelt together as W.T. Johnston prayed before the Eagles took the field. They were ready to leave it all on the field for their God, town, school, coach, and one another.
With an earsplitting roar the team ran into that magnificent venue with their coach trailing behind. W.T. tried to savor the moment. This was what coaching was all about—hard work, teamwork, grinding, and mental toughness. Months of early-morning workouts in a spartan facility that would be laughed at by the big school programs. Boys becoming men in the pressure of lofty expectations. Living life in a locker room with young men and teaching them about football and life. This was what God put W.T. Johnston on this planet to do, and he was more than grateful for this moment. And if the outcome was a championship, well, that was a bonus.
W.T. walked to the sideline, the place that gave him such joy. “Between the white lines is the purest and most real place you can be. There is no black or white. No rich or poor. No conservative or liberal. It is just competition.”
He had taught his players there was another dimension inside those white lines where it was only one another.
“I taught them to find Christ inside those white lines. Jesus epitomizes the equal playing field. Paul wrote there is no Jew or Gentile. No free man or slave. We are all the same inside those theological white lines. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you don’t matter. You do.”
Johnston stopped to breathe a prayer. The moment was here. He looked up as Gunter placekicker Evan Gonzalez launched the opening kickoff. God had answered his prayer. He was here with his team. He had been given a great gift.