Heart of the Heartland

More news about: Earlham
Nick Johnson took on one of the most difficult jobs in Division III football while facing a difficult job at home as well.
Earlham athletics photo

Nick Johnson is a winner. Melissa Johnson is a fighter. The first family of Earlham athletics embodies the spirit of Division III athletics.

Nick, the reigning HCAC Coach of the Year, has yet to claim his first victory as head coach. Earlham has lost all 18 games in Johnson’s two seasons at the helm and carries the nation’s longest winless streak at 31 games.

Melissa was the head coach of the women’s basketball team before illness forced her to step down. She has spent the better part of the past three years in hospitals enduring several surgeries stemming from pancreatitis and ensuing complications. She has been treated at Indiana University Hospital, the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

In the midst of this turmoil, Johnson was offered the position of head football coach at his alma mater. A former defensive lineman and longtime assistant coach, he was the head track and field coach when the top football job was offered. With Melissa’s blessing, he took the position and the responsibilities that come along with it. Supporting his ailing wife and their two young children was challenging enough; then Johnson added the challenge of resurrecting a program that had won just three games in five years before his hiring in 2015.

“I don’t know how he does it. He’s able to maintain a good attitude. I don’t think anybody that hasn’t been in that situation can imagine what that’s like,” said assistant head coach and defensive coordinator Robert Lee. “I know he’s passionate about Earlham football and obviously he loves his wife as well. It’s just tough. He has a way of not really showing it. He’s able to deal with it with a great attitude.”

Nick Johnson, Melissa, and their children.
Posted to Twitter 

There were moments of doubt, but football has helped Johnson as he continues to deal with adversity at home. Sometimes, he doesn’t know when he’ll get to see his wife next. Other times, he is scrambling to arrange transportation to and from school for his children. There is comfort in knowing that for about three hours six afternoons a week, part of his life is planned.

“Early on, I thought I should step away from football for the benefit of my family. Football is very much cathartic for me, it helps me get my mind off of everything else. It’s been a good separation of those two things, and it’s also given me focus and drive and all the other great lessons that come from coaching and playing football and being around it,” he said. “It’s helped us to work through some of those doubts, fears, and uncertainties and steel our resolve. I’m glad I never backed down from it, I’m glad that I never went away from it after taking the job, with my wife’s consent. It’s done so many things for me and blessed me in so many ways in terms of patience, and strength and resiliency and determination. I’m glad I have those tools now. I feel like I can get through anything.”

On D3hoops.com

If coaching college football is about preparing young men for life after college football, few have done it better than Johnson. His mere presence inspires his players and assistant coaches. His unwavering positivity fuels the program.

“Following him makes you want to become a man yourself because he’ll come in every single day, with all of his struggles, and he’ll be more excited than anybody else on our football team,” said senior defensive lineman Joey Miller. “It’s really cool to have a guy who has all these personal issues that nobody else on our team could even think about comprehending and he’s out there being all jacked up every single day. It teaches you and helps you want to become a better person and better man and to follow in his footsteps because he’s been such a great leader for us.”

That’s why the Quakers are lifting weights at 6 a.m. in November even though only a handful of players on the roster remember being on the winning side of the scoreboard. It’s why the program’s 14 upperclassmen have stuck it out despite the often lopsided scores. They are learning more through this experience than they ever expected.

“That’s just the true picture of manhood, of being an adult — going through adversity, still believing in what you believe in and striving for your dreams, and still trying to get the outcome you want,” said senior linebacker Lajay Kelly of his head coach. “He’s a very admirable guy. Great character. He comes out every day. If he can do it, why shouldn’t I be able to do it?”

Nick Johnson hasn't won a game at Earlham, but he's won the respect of his fellow football coaches in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference.
Earlham athletics photo 

The 18-to-21-year-old young men on Earlham’s roster are learning first-hand how to balance family, illness, and adversity while still maintaining a positive attitude and passion. At some point during or after college, these men will have to handle real-life challenges. They will be better prepared for those obstacles thanks to Johnson’s tutelage and leadership.

“One of the things we always talk to players and recruits about is that education takes place outside of the classroom as well,” said Lee. “Our players benefit from his example.”

Johnson’s efforts on and off the field have been noticed outside of the program as well. There was the Coach of the Year award following the 2015 season. Parents of players at rival Rose-Hulman sold wristbands to raise money for Johnson which helped him travel to Minnesota to visit Melissa last year. Franklin coach Mike Leonard had his players sign a copy of Tony Dungy’s book The One Year Uncommon Life Daily Challenge. Leonard, Johnson, and Hanover coach Matt Theobald exchange text messages almost daily, discussing the book and life.

“I have the utmost respect for Nick Johnson, not just as a coach, but more importantly as a man,” said Leonard. “That man has something very special in his leadership powers. I totally admire every football player at Earlham. They are the epitome of what football is all about.”

Rod Huber lost 18 of his first 20 games as head coach at Mount St. Joseph. He remembers what it was like to be at the bottom of the HCAC standings. He also knows what it’s like to coach through tragedy, as he and his wife lost their son following his fourth season as head coach.

“I wish him nothing but the best. We all know what he’s going through, and he just keeps grinding and coming back. He’s a great, great person,” said Huber. “I’ve been there. I was Earlham 15 years ago. You just hope that the university at Earlham College is going to support him in everything he needs to do to turn that program around. He’s part of their family. He’s very proud of what he’s trying to do.”

The love and support Johnson receives from throughout the conference is appreciated. The quality of the HCAC coaches makes it hard for Earlham to recruit against them, but Johnson continues to learn from his colleagues. For the most part, they are all rooting for Johnson and the Quakers nine weeks out of the season.

“I appreciate the support all these guys give us. That’s who these people are. That says a lot about the character of these men. I’m grateful to know them. The daily encouragement I get from the other coaches is immense,” said Johnson. “I’m honored to be a peer of those individuals because they care about the right things. They’re so inspirational. Every time I see them, they uplift me and support me. I’m a big fan of each and every one of them. I look forward to game day because I get to see these great men and learn from them.”

The support from outside the program has been tremendous, but it pales in comparison to the support the Johnsons receive from within the Quakers community. Few coaching staffs are tasked with as many responsibilities as Earlham’s, because the assistants are willing to support Johnson any way they can.

“What we try to do as a program to support him is to always be mindful of the fact that he is the head football coach at Earlham, even during the times that he can’t be here. When he can’t be here, we try to do things the way we know he’d want them to be done,” said his top assistant, Lee. “We try to make sure he’s got to put his family first. Earlham football was here before he was here and will be here after he’s gone. You can’t get back the time with your family and loved ones.”

“Without these assistant coaches that I have, we wouldn’t be much of anything. They’re great men and they take care of me and our football program,” said Johnson. “The Earlham and Richmond communities have supported us so well. I’m so grateful for everything that has happened in my life to help through this difficult time.”

A YouCaring page for Melissa and her family has been active for more than two years, raising nearly $50,000 and providing constant updates as to her health status. Melissa spent six weeks in the hospital, then finally returned home on October 21. She had to return to the hospital a week later.

“She’s doing really well, all things considered,” said Johnson. “She has a strong spirit and is a strong individual and I admire her so much.”

He also admires the college that he first fell in love with as a visiting high school football player. The 2001 graduate has stayed at Earlham since graduation and the community embraced him long before Melissa’s illness. Victories on the football field are without question still the program’s goal. But, Johnson and the Quakers have a firm understanding of their inability to control results. As they have learned both on and off the field, they can only control how they prepare and how they respond to the circumstances they are dealt.

“I know people say we haven’t won, but there are greater things taking place here inside the hearts and minds of all the men here that are involved in Earlham football that just can’t be replaced by anything else. Seeing the adversity has helped them to become stronger. They know that there’s a lot that they can handle now,” said Johnson. “Everybody wants to win, everybody works to win, but only one team can win. I think there’s something very important about that lesson. Our guys understand that either they win or they learn. We’re continuing to learn. What we can guarantee is the amount of effort and energy and enthusiasm that we put into it.

“Our guys know that it’s a great day to be alive, win or lose. Important things are coming out of this down the road. This is a family here. I don’t want to win with anybody but these guys. They’re like my sons. No matter how good the days are or how bad the days are, I’m not going to trade any one of them in.”

Players’ Corner

This part of the column was created to help me rekindle a love for football. It will return next week, but it’s unnecessary this week.

After speaking to Nick Johnson, I remember why football is so important to so many. Earlham may be winless, but the players and coaches share a love and bond that is unique to and transcends football. Being part of a team is about so much more than football, as Johnson and the Quakers illustrate.

For more inspiration from Johnson and the Quakers, tune in to ESPN College GameDay this Saturday. ESPN was in Richmond, Indiana this past weekend shooting a segment that will air Saturday morning.

What do you know? Do you know things? Let's find out!

There are so many worthy stories to be told and I can’t find them all on my own. Please share with me those stories that make you passionate about D-III football. If you have suggestions for next week's column, please reach out to me on Twitter at @adamturer or via email at adam.turer@d3sports.com. Thanks for reading!

Adam Turer

Adam Turer graduated in 2006 from Washington and Lee University, where he was a two-year starter at free safety. He lives in Cincinnati and covers area high school sports in addition to his full-time job as an attorney. Adam has contributed to D3football.com since 2007 and is in his second season writing Around the Nation after spending four seasons writing Around the Mid-Atlantic.

2014-2015 columnist: Ryan Tipps.
2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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