Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Holding on Hope: Kearney Catholic’s Matt Johnson is a Responder

November 29, 2020

This story originally appeared in the November issue of Hail Varsity Magazine. Never miss an issue with a subscription to Hail Varsity.


For what seemed like hours, Matt Johnson’s family waited by his side along a ditch about a mile from their home near Oconto, Nebraska. “Time moves so slow when you’re waiting on an ambulance,” said Greg Johnson, Matt’s father.

When Greg found Matt face down in the grass, he knew to check for a pulse, clear the brush from around his face and leave him be for the paramedics that would soon arrive. His first-aid training as part of the local fire department told him to stay calm, his fear put his conscience in conflict.

The ambulance finally arrived and it took Matt to a hospital some 15 minutes away in Callaway. Shortly after, he was taken by helicopter to a hospital in Kearney. Doctors told Matt’s family to brace for bad news.

On June 28, 1994—seven days later—Matt was moved again. This time, he was taken by Learjet to Craig Hospital in Colorado. His mother, Tammy, boarded with him, leaving Greg to drive over from the family farm to the hospital to meet them there.

It was a five-hour drive west, as I-80 became I-76 and took Greg right into the heart of Denver. Plenty of time to think.

To think of the nervousness that fell over him when he got home and Matt wasn’t behind him.

To think of the panic that set in when he found the overturned three-wheeler.

To think of the barb-wire fence that Matt had been thrown through that was now spread across the grass field next to the ditch.

To think of the phone call to Mom.

To think of what would come next, how life would change.

And to think of hope.

Greg held out hope. The whole family did. Despite what doctors at Kearney told them, Matt was being taken to a world-renowned hospital. You can go two ways, really, when confronted with a nightmare. The Johnsons chose to keep hope.

“There’s no bigger shock than walking into a hospital and all you see is wheelchairs,” Greg said. “We were all hoping he could walk out. Unfortunately, a lot of them do not walk out of that hospital.”

***

Kearney Catholic had already opened its 2020 season with a 65-6 win over Wood River/Shelton. The Stars, led by longtime Kearney Catholic coach Rashawn Harvey, are at practice, and on this particular day they’d opened it up to a football writer who wanted to embed with their team as much as COVID-19 safety precautions would allow.

Stand wherever you need to, watch whatever you want to, just don’t get in the way, the writer is told. Kids file out, stretching starts, the sun is beating down on the pavement as those who aren’t practicing look to take up residence in the shadow cast by school buildings, and on this patch of green grass north of the high school life is as normal as the new normal permits.

Except practice doesn’t start on time.

First a few coaches notice that Matt—Kearney Catholic’s special teams coordinator—isn’t responsive in his wheelchair. Harvey is called over. Kids figure out what’s going on. An ambulance is called.

The players take a knee and the coaching staff frantically tries to cool Matt down and shade him from the sun. He’d just suffered from heat stroke.

“That was the first time we’ve seen that happen,” Harvey would say later. “We’ve never seen that.” Matt stayed at practice. Before the team got back to business, everyone walked through, single file, to check on him.

Matt has been learning to live with a new normal for 26 years. The coaching staff at Kearney Catholic has had to adjust alongside him as health complications have occasionally lurked around corners.

Matt Johnson in action ahead of Kearney Catholic’s matchup with Broken Bow. (John S. Peterson/Hail Varsity)

The team knows about his accident.

“The incoming freshmen try to feel him out,” Harvey says. “You can see them looking sometimes like, ‘Wait a minute, we’ve got one of our coaches in a wheelchair? How is that gonna work?’ I think each year as they progress through high school and being part of the team, they realize after being around him that this isn’t a guy they keep out here just to keep him busy.”

Matt—his dad says—isn’t afraid to approach you if he catches you staring. “Something wrong?” he’ll ask.

He’s not fragile.

Harvey remembers one particularly windy afternoon when the team was practicing kickoff return. The ball catches a gust of wind and moves off course, angling toward the left sideline where Matt is seated. The return man doesn’t realize where he’s at in relation to Matt, and crashes into his wheelchair.

“We’ve had some scares with Coach Johnson on other days,” Harvey says with a laugh. Nothing serious. No one tip-toes around him.

One time, when Dave Colling was head coach (he’s now an assistant on Harvey’s staff), Matt surprised everyone on the field when he blew up and started yelling at Colling. Harvey looked on in shock. When someone yells all the time, you just hear yelling; when soft-spoken becomes loud, everyone notices. Matt is the latter. Two or three minutes go by and Matt just abruptly switches moods. “I’m just playing,” he says. Laughter rings out.

“He just has the best outlook,” Colling says of Matt.

Matt has his bad days. He does his best to mask them. “There’s gonna be struggles, I’m not any different from anyone else,” he says. “You think you’ve got it bad, all you’ve got to do is look around and there’s going to be someone else who has it just as bad or worse than you.”

Credit Craig.

He spent five months at that hospital. From June 28 to Nov. 21, Matt was rehabbing at one of the best places in the world for spinal cord injuries.

Craig has 93 hospital beds at its Englewood campus, and one opened up right when Matt needed it. At any given time, Craig will treat roughly 50 inpatients with spinal cord injuries. Matt got around-the- clock care as he underwent several surgeries and battled bouts of pancreatitis.

When he left for Colorado, Greg said Matt couldn’t move his arms.

Now, he can control his chair with a joystick. There were signs posted throughout Craig setting one ground rule: “We don’t allow whiners in here.” He got a shirt shortly after arriving that said “A champion is someone who gets up even when they can’t.”

Matt went to shopping centers and fishing spots and hunting ranges. Group outings to sporting events weren’t uncommon. Matt got to see the local pros. The Broncos in the NFL, the Nuggets in the NBA, the Avalanche in the NHL. To that point, Matt’s life had been spent on the field, not watching from the sideline.

Of course Matt dreamed of the NFL. Every young man who puts on a helmet does. Matt was an athlete, held in orbit by competition and drive. To be there, watching others do what he no longer could, it might hurt.

There were others who would have rather stayed within the hospital’s walls.

Not Matt.

“I’d never been to a professional football game up until then,” he said. “I honestly can’t tell you that I felt bad … It was more me just enjoying being able to get out of the hospital and go enjoy watching these professional athletes who would do something that I grew up doing. Everyone has that dream of wanting to reach the pros, you know, and that was just kind of a treat for me to actually finally get to see it.”

Matt was able to grow through the change. And there was plenty of change.

Though his mother was often with him in Colorado, Greg was home in Oconto renovating the house. He expanded the kitchen, widened door frames, added a second bathroom with a handicap accessible shower, and created a bar area in the kitchen for Matt to use from his wheelchair.

The family home sits on 1,000 acres of land. For 50 years, family friends from Ohio would visit to hunt pheasant on the property. During deer season, they’d go rifle hunting together. Greg built a steel-sided shed in the middle of a fruitful area for spotting deer that Matt could use for trips.

“We call it The Cabin,” Greg said. “It has a bathroom and a pull-out couch and a bed and windows all the way around so if the weather’s not cooperating, (Matt) can just stay in there and look out windows on all four sides of the building. He has shot deer out of the building, as a matter of fact. Right out the front door.”

After his accident, that same friend that came for pheasant season—a man by the name of Jake Hammond—bought Matt a rifle mount for his wheelchair. It would hold the gun and offer him the ability to aim with a joystick on his chair and pull the trigger by sipping on a straw. “And it was not cheap,” Greg said. Similar models cost upwards of $2,000.

Matt has gone every year since his accident. Twenty-six years and counting. And he’s come back with a deer 25 times, only missing out once because of a snowstorm.

“He really lives for that,” Greg says. So they found a way to make it work. Both father and son credit Craig Hospital for Matt’s outlook on life.

“I don’t think I would probably be the same person I am now if I hadn’t have gone there,” Matt says. “(People) say, ‘I don’t know that I could do or handle what happened to you.’ I always tell people when you’re put in any situation, you’ve got virtually two choices. I could say, ‘Oh, poor me,’ and sit at home and feel sorry for myself and not do anything. Or I can keep going and get back to what I love to do and keep going on with life.”

***

June 21, 1994, was the longest day of the year. In part, because of the Summer Solstice. In part, for what it would hold.

“(It’s) usually the first day of summer,” Greg said. “It’s the longest day of the year for daylight … and it was most definitely one of the longest days in my life.”

Matt was enjoying the summer before his junior year at the University of Nebraska-Kearney. Each break, he’d go home to help on the family ranch.

He and Greg were scheduled to go to a packing plant in Lexington, Nebraska, and measure beef on the rail for a 4-H group. Matt wasn’t in 4-H—a youth organization whose goal is to develop citizenship and responsibility through experiential learning programs—but he had agreed to help out.

Matt liked the farm life. He learned how to rope a calf from neighbors and helped wrangle calves on the ranch for branding each year. The family had a three- wheeler and a newer four-wheeler, so Matt would help his father spray thistle along the pasture, too.

On this June day, they rode out to the pasture to spray what they could before they had to leave for Lexington. They did a couple other small jobs here and there, worked up a sweat, and then charted a course back home.

The summer had been particularly dry and the gravel was loose. The two rode back together, one would pass the other and then the lagger would catch up and take the lead. Normal father-son racing. With the newer of the two vehicles, Greg made the decision to go on ahead of Matt and get home. The house had just one bathroom, and both would need to shower before they left.

He stopped in front of the mailbox, checked for anything important, and then turned around expecting to see Matt coming in soon.

Nothing.

No dust being kicked up into the auburn sky.

No gravel pinging off the wheel wells.

Just nothing.

So Greg rode back out.

Matt remembers only the before.

He rounded a big bend in the road. He reached up to pull down his cap to try and block the bugs and dust that were smacking him in the face. He estimated he was driving about 50 miles an hour.

His left hand came off the handlebar and it happened in a second. On the right side of the road, his right rear tire was sucked into the ditch, the front tire of the vehicle jack-knifed on the embankment, and Matt was catapulted up into the air and through a barb-wire fence on the side of the ditch.

He landed face down in knee-high grass, unable to move.

As Greg made his way closer to the crash, his brain finally registering what his eyes were showing him, he slammed on the brakes and turned his vehicle sideways, actually flipping it over on the gravel road. He crawled out from underneath and checked on his son.

When he found a pulse, he raced back to the upside-down four-wheeler and with his own two hands flipped it back onto its wheels. “The adrenaline was pumping so much,” Greg said. “I couldn’t even come close to picking that much weight up the next day or the next week or 10 years from then, you know? It was just adrenaline.” He sped to a neighbor’s house up the road and used their phone first to dial 911 and then to call Tammy at the house.

Tammy and Marci, Matt’s younger sister, came shortly thereafter.

In Kearney, at the Good Samaritan Hospital, the family learned Matt had either cracked or shattered his C3, C4, and C5 vertebrae. He was unconscious throughout the ambulance and helicopter rides. He woke up in a bed in Kearney.

“Pretty lucky to not be completely paralyzed,” Matt said. “Also, at that level there’s a pretty good chance your breathing is impaired or you’re put on a ventilator, so I was very lucky neither one of those things happened to me.”

Matt lives in Kearney now. It’s remarkable really. The place he calls home is the place where he learned he’d likely never walk again. His life changed about 50 miles west of Kearney. Someone goes through something traumatic, and you’d think they’d want to erase any reminder of that past trauma. He could get away and no one would blame him.

For two years after coming home from Craig Hospital, he lived with his parents near that ditch. Marci was still in high school, attending Callaway— Matt’s alma matter—so they’d drive together to school each morning.

That was where he began as a coach.

Matt Johnson meets with quarterback (and Husker commit) Heinrich Haarberg before the matchup with Broken Bow. (John S. Peterson/Hail Varsity)

“I would help the PE teachers, and those were actually my first coaching jobs, back at Callaway,” he said. “Coached high school basketball and football.”

As a boy, Matt played sports year-round. In football, he played center and defensive tackle his first two years for Callaway, an eight-man team. As a junior and senior, he played tight end and defensive end. He was athletic enough to star on the basketball team. He threw shot and discus for the track team. Colling called him an excellent athlete.

“I basically went to school for sports,” he said. “They played that big a part of my life.”

Coming back and getting started at Callaway “kind of proved to myself that I could get back into it, it would be a part of my life still and I wouldn’t have to have that void in my life,” Matt said. “Maybe it wasn’t me actually playing, and I’m not so much playing through the kids, but at the same time I kind of am, you know? I feel that passion and drive while watching them grow.”

Harvey says Matt identifies as a football player. He was a football player. He loves the game. “Every one of us, when we’re part of something, we still want to identify,” Harvey said. Matt has gone in and out of coaching basketball and teaching at Kearney Catholic, but football has always remained.

The timeline is a little fuzzy, but Colling says he brought Matt aboard as an assistant coach

at Kearney Catholic around 2009. He’d served as a volunteer assistant the year prior to being promoted to the staff. As Colling got to know him, he knew Matt was someone who needed to be on staff.

Johnson’s been with the program ever since.

In fact, a lot of this Kearney Catholic coaching staff has. Colling left briefly after stepping down as head coach, but he’s since returned. Harvey has been at the program for 17 years. Assistant coaches Mike Pacheco, Rick Moses, and Paul Brungardt have been right there alongside them the whole way.

“It’s a family,” Colling says. “They mean a lot to me. They’re my best friends.”

They attend volleyball and softball games together. They stay late after meetings to have dinner together in-season. They joke with each other. Harvey will randomly start belting a tune in practice and others will join in. You choose to put yourself around people who believe the same things you do, Colling says.

“I think that’s kind of what’s stuck us together.”

It has for Matt. That’s why he’s stayed. “We’re all brothers,” he said.

Matt has an apartment 18 blocks from the school. At first, he and his cousin, Jason Vig, lived together while they both went to UNK. They grew up together. Vig has stories of pheasant hunting together and losing to Matt at pool. For about 10 years, Matt was married. “We went our separate ways,” he says without going into things beyond that. Now, he lives on his own.

He has caregivers who come and help him each day. It took time to come to the realization that he wasn’t going to be able to be as independent as he’d like. “Those were pretty hard lessons and things I needed to get used to,” he said. “I learned it wasn’t gonna change.”

For a time, he didn’t want to rely on others for rides to and from practice.

“I used to put a lot of miles on my chair,” he says.

Colling follows the same general path home. If Matt ducks out of practice before someone else can offer a ride, Colling will follow along behind him to make sure he makes it home. “He goes up Avenue E and he goes down the road, so as I’m driving home I’ll be looking for him, and there he is … Never once asked for us to go get his van for him.”

He asks for help now, though, when he needs it. The staff is as unbothered as can be. Matt is not a burden. He’s a friend.

“Probably one of the greatest things is that (Harvey) understands and sees that I’m going to have things come up where maybe I don’t have my help show up for the day and I’m late to practice,” Matt said. “Or maybe I can’t even make it to practice, but he’s gonna understand that’s part of Matt’s normal.”

***

There have been speeches at UNK to students with disabilities. He once went before kids at a tractor safety seminar just because a friend asked him to speak. Matt shares what he’s been through. “He uses it as a tool very well,” Colling says.

Nothing has been more powerful, though, than the pregame talks he’s given to the Stars.

“When I was head coach, I would have him tell a story about his accident,” Colling said.

Maybe it was a week where their players were a little out of it, or a little discouraged, or a little uninterested. If they needed a jolt, Colling’s pregame pep talk would be replaced with Matt’s story.

The message was clear and simple. The delivery was humbling. You don’t know when your last game is going to be. You don’t know when it’s all going to be taken away. You don’t know. So you have to play every down like it’s your last.

“Just hearing him tell this story about how he’d give anything to be able to do things our kids were able to do,” Colling said. “I get goosebumps, and that’s something that doesn’t happen a lot to me. Really, it probably even brought a little tear to my eye because he spoke from the heart. Every kid there understood exactly what he was saying and I think every kid there went away a better person for having heard that.

Matt Johnson talks with the team before a Kearney Catholic game this fall. (John S. Peterson/Hail Varsity)

“Maybe 10 years down the road, every kid who heard that might have a day that’s not one of their best, and they can remember that talk and turn that day around.” Matt gave one each year for five years in a row. Freshmen his first year heard it again each of their final three years. It had the same effect each time. There was an immediate charge to the room, an immediate energy boost every single time.

“Something transitioned or changed right after he gave that talk,” Colling said. “I mean, it had to. If you heard it, it would change you, too.”

After those first few years, Colling went away from the talk. He didn’t want it to feel like something Matt had to do every year, or something where Matt’s story was being co-opted to serve as fuel for a football win. If Matt brought it up, sure, but Colling wasn’t going to force it.

The school’s head volleyball coach even had Matt address his team before a game.

“When we got home (from Craig), everybody was to the point where they were almost scared to touch him,” Greg said. “They didn’t know what to do. He’s just done so well with that. He’s not afraid of people.”

The opposite really. He embraces the coaching. “He can still command the guys,” Harvey says, because he studies it. He puts the work in. And he understands the role he plays. Not just as a coach. “He’s gonna show everybody that you can overcome any situation that’s thrown at you if you mentally choose to do that.”

Harvey spoke for this story in a break room at Kearney Catholic. We sat at a table in the middle and, as we talked, Harvey turned a green rubber bracelet around his wrist. On it was the phrase “E + R = O.” It’s on the football team’s website, too. That’s the team motto. Event plus response equals outcome.

That’s Matt.

“Mhmm,” Harvey says as he nods his head. “That’s Matt.”

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