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Loyalty Through Losses

At Earlham, husband-wife coaches find strength in each other through health crisis

A husband and wife cried together. Her dream — their dream — had imploded.

Melissa Johnson, now 36, relinquished the job she hoped to reclaim after spending more than 600 nights in the hospital through the past three years, 13 organs completely or partially removed. Sobbing, she told her husband, Nick, age 38, she knew she wouldn’t be able to again patrol the sidelines as the women’s basketball coach for Earlham, their alma mater. She had begun to lose consciousness in spurts, and her heart had started beating at untenable speeds, jolted out of rhythm by the trauma of having so many organs rewired or cast aside.

In March, the school had announced the return of the beloved coach after a three-season absence. Weeks later, though, she told administrators about the new ailment that had revealed itself. Returning to the bench had long served as motivation to stay alive. Now, she knew it might kill her.

Six years earlier, Nick and Melissa had shared happier tears. After she took a moment to sit on the stairs in their Richmond, Indiana, home and cry, she phoned him and said she would be Earlham’s next women’s basketball coach. They would soon have offices side by side: Nick was the football team’s defensive coordinator.

He was named head football coach in 2015. Today, the Quakers are mired in a 33-game losing streak, and Melissa has been bested by her own heart. But Nick relishes the victory each day brings.

“Not a lot of people that went through what she went through would have survived,” Nick says. “I’m grateful for her.”


Melissa, a freshman determined to star on Earlham’s basketball team and prep for medical school, had little interest in dating — and hated McDonald’s. But she had chatted briefly with Nick, a junior, after watching him play in a football game and eventually to a date — at McDonald’s.

More dates followed, then time apart. More than a year later, on Nick’s birthday, she confessed she missed him. A month later, her team coughed up a seven-point lead in its conference championship game, falling an overtime loss short of what would have been its first NCAA tournament bid. Nick’s words brought the comfort she didn’t know she craved. “This is the guy that will, in the darkest of moments or the toughest of moments, give me light and give me hope,” she thought.

Her senior year, Melissa suffered a series of near-fatal pulmonary embolisms. Nick already had taken a job as an assistant coach at Earlham. “I realized that if something had happened to her, I’d have been really lost,” Nick says. To accommodate a $9,000 coaching salary, he ate peanut butter sandwiches for months while saving for an engagement ring. “I think it was him seeing that I almost died, for him to say, ‘Yeah, this is the lady I want,’” Melissa says. “I guess I had to put on a show.”

The health scare prevented her from preparing for med school, so she took an opportunity as an assistant on Earlham’s women’s basketball staff. Soon, she was hooked. Daughter Jayden was born in 2008; Jacob followed two years later. Certain she couldn’t balance life as a physician with an infant and a toddler, Melissa planned a new path. She took a job as a teacher in Richmond and, in 2011, heard the head women’s basketball position at Earlham was open. Shortly after, she was crying on the stairs, telling her husband she had earned her dream job.

The Quakers were 0-25 the year before Melissa took the reins. By her third season, they had jumped to 12-13. Melissa’s success came despite the pain that had plagued her since Jacob’s birth. Endometriosis was the culprit: Ovary removal and a partial hysterectomy did little to alleviate the suffering.

Through long hospital stays, Melissa Johnson enjoyed family time with husband Nick and children Jayden and Jacob, snuggling in bed or walking hand in hand through the halls. Submitted by Nick Johnson

In March 2014, she underwent a full hysterectomy that awoke the painful genetic pancreatitis that had lain dormant her entire life. She couldn’t eat through the summer and absorbed nutrients through a tube.

In March 2015, at a Cincinnati hospital, Melissa underwent a rare surgery to remove her pancreas. Her liver would assume the lost organ’s functions, and her digestive tract would be reconfigured.

By September, Nick was set to take the field as head coach for his first home game. A port used to pump medicine into Melissa’s body became infected. Encephalopathy followed, sending her into a coma. As Nick sat down for a pregame radio interview, Melissa’s mother relayed the terrifying news — Melissa was being rushed to Indianapolis via helicopter. Riding on the freeway with a church pastor, Nick gazed up at the helicopter, wondering if he had heard his wife’s voice for the last time.

The game Nick missed ended as a 53-0 defeat to DePauw. Still, his phone glowed late into the night as his players texted to ask how Melissa was faring.

A few times, she cajoled her damaged brain and reconfigured digestive system back to life, she considered conceding defeat, but thought of her family. “They deserve to have a mom and a wife in their life,” she says. Jayden asked her father if Mommy would die. “Daddy doesn’t believe so,” is all Nick could muster, unwilling to lie.

Grim moments were balanced by happier ones. The small hospital back in Richmond became the family’s second home. Nick surprised his wife when he could, telling her he was stuck in meetings only to show up with a movie in hand, snuggling up to watch in the hospital bed. Despite an 0-10 season in 2015, Nick was voted coach of the year by his Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference peers in honor of his dedication to his wife. “He says it doesn’t, but I think it would wear on anybody,” says Avis Stewart, an Earlham vice president. “He handles it with grace.”


Late last year, Melissa finally seemed to be returning to her old self, or at least a facsimile. After her feeding tube was removed at Christmastime in 2016, she began to attend women’s basketball games. Earlham administrators discussed her return to the program. “We were ready,” she says. But her heart wasn’t, regularly reaching 170 beats per minute. The stress and relentless schedule would overwhelm her, doctors said. She wanted to ignore them, but she knew they were right.

After three years of fighting to earn her job back, she told Earlham to fill her spot. Melissa is home with her children now, kicking the soccer ball with them when she can, and believes she will once again be a coach. She says resigning after a few fleeting days back was more painful than anything a defective pancreas ever conjured.

But Melissa’s husband has taught her to laugh. So she does. And Nick’s wife has taught him to endure. So he does. Doctors have told them most marriages splinter when faced with such circumstances. The Johnsons, though, remain undefeated.

“When you take your vows, you say, ‘in sickness and in health,’” Melissa says. “We’re looking forward to health, no matter how hard we have to work to get there.”

 

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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