Newton’s W.T. Johnston, Darwin Barlow Share Unbreakable Bond
NEWTON -- W.T. Johnston is a man of faith.
After each game Johnston, the football coach at Newton, gathers his team together for a prayer. It's something plenty of football teams, if not all, do in Texas. But few understand the importance of the practice quite like the Eagles.
Johnston has been praying a lot himself these days. His prayers follow a common theme.
"God, just give me six more weeks," Johnston said before the playoffs.
After the first round game against Arp it was five more weeks. Before Newton's state semifinal matchup with Boling it was two more weeks. Now, as the Class 3A Division II state championship has the Eagles facing Gunter at 7 p.m. Thursday, it's one more week.
Johnston is living in limbo, unsure of how much time he has left. He developed chronic graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) of the lungs in 2015 after getting a transplant. The disease causes the white blood cells to attack the lungs, putting the afflicted in pain and making it difficult to breathe while also putting them at higher risk of contracting other illnesses. It is extremely rare, with a 2015 article in the Beaumont Enterprise claiming there have been only four cases in the U.S.
He could live another 10 years or he could die tomorrow. He is sure of one thing, though. He doesn't want his life to end before winning a state championship.
In what has so far been an atypical journey, nothing less would be expected.
“Nothing that’s happened to me has been normal," he said. "That’s what they all say.”
Darwin Barlow stood above Johnston, who moments earlier was angrily chasing an official following what he deemed a bad call.
It's 2014 and the Eagles are playing Blanco in the state semifinal. Barlow is in eighth grade, two years before he will star in Newton's backfield as a running back. He was tasked with wheeling Johnston's oxygen tank, connected to a 10-foot cord, as the coach moved erratically with each play.
On this particular play, Johnston moved too quickly for Barlow, disconnecting the cord. As quickly as he was screaming at the official he found himself on the ground, gasping for air. Barlow, overwhelmed by the sudden chaos, desperately tried to plug the hole with his thumb to keep the oxygen in.
"Plug the damn thing back in," Johnston tried to say.
Johnston laughs at the absurdity of the situation as he recalls it. He has a hearty laugh that is infectious and often makes light of his illness.
"It’s hard to get on officials," he said, laughing again. "It’s hard to run around like you used to."
Because the disease is so rare, doctors are still figuring out how to treat Johnston. Life expectancy after diagnosis is about 280 days, which Johnston has shattered. He is constantly undergoing new treatments at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He goes there every two weeks.
One of the treatments involves injecting Johnston with Methoxsalen, a drug taken from the Egyptian plant Ammi Majus.
"I’m an experiment," he said. "They’re writing clinicals about me at MD Anderson. Nobody has survived it but me."
Johnston has struggled with lung issues for going on 20 years. In 1998, he was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, a disease in which inflamed tissues, usually around the lymph nodes and the lungs, cause pain and difficulty breathing.
Johnston experienced symptoms of the disease long before he was diagnosed, but didn't go to the doctor. It was football season and he feared that he had lung cancer. He didn't want to find out until the year was over.
When he finally did go to the doctor, they told him the sarcoidosis had reached stage four, the highest stage.
"That was the biggest mistake I ever made," he said. "If I went then, they would have treated that and I never would have had a transplant. I let it go too far."
Johnston waited years for a transplant to come. He defied reason, which suggested that he should be dead. By 2014, there wasn't much time left. He was a frail version of his former self, down to 143 pounds.
But the Eagles were heading to the playoffs and he wasn't about to leave the sidelines. He stayed, against the suggestions of doctors. Most of the time he was there only physically. He said he doesn't remember many of the games from that season. His assistant coaches did much of the decision making.
He approached Barlow about wheeling his oxygen tank around on the sidelines.
Despite being a year away from high school, Barlow attended every Eagle practice. Johnston knew his family well and even taught his mother, Michelle Gilder, in P.E. when she was in high school at Newton. Barlow accepted the job and so began a relationship that would bring both ineffable joy.
"After each game, you could tell we’d get closer and closer," Barlow said. "Now, he’ll always be there for me. He told me if I ever needed anything, he would always be there because he felt like what I did was unexplainable.”
Johnston received the lung transplant he needed in 2015 and thought the battle was finally over. Not long after, he was diagnosed with GVHD.
Yet again, he faced the prospect of death.
When you think of small town Texas high school football, you probably imagine a town like Newton.
The Eagles pack the stands for every game, even on the road. Gilder calls football games "Friday night church." She organizes a charter bus for elderly citizens without transportation to get to away games.
Johnston loves the simplicity of Newton. He calls it "the town that time forgot." The players and residents have an old school way of thinking. Everything else takes a backseat to church and football.
"We’re still stuck in the '70s," he said. "Not much has changed and that’s a good thing. We don’t have a lot of outside problems."
The football tradition at Newton is strong because of continuity. Johnston is just the third coach the Eagles have hired since 1968. Because of this, coaches become somewhat of celebrities. When people discovered what Johnston was going through, they set up a bank account for donations.
"I could never repay them," Johnston said. "I tell people that all the time. Prayer is why I’m still here. I believe that. The people of Newton have been unbelievable for me. I’ve got the best job in the state. If somebody offered me $200,000 tomorrow, I wouldn’t take it."
He joined the Eagles in 1991 as an assistant and stayed until 2009 (with a gap year in 1993), when he left for Kirbyville. He returned to Newton in 2010 as the head coach following the death of Curtis Barbay.
He experienced state championships in 1998 and 2005, but has never won one as a head coach. The Eagles advanced to the title game in 2014, but fell to Waskom.
Johnston wasn't sure whether he would get another chance at a championship after that, but the lung transplant gave him hope. The GVHD, however, brought back uncertainty. It caused him to reevaluate the relationships he has with his players.
"What coaches don’t realize is when you’re in a huddle with a kid after a timeout or something, you see a look on their face that nobody else will ever see," he said. "Their parents will never see that look. Their teachers will never see that look. Nobody will ever see that look on a kid’s face during a game but us. It’s different. The stress, competition, jubilation, sorrow, hurt. All that. Most people never see that in the stands."
Revelations like that allow Johnston to see the disease as a gift. Everyone will die, but few people allow the threat of death to occupy much space in their mind. It seems distant. Something to worry about when you reach a certain age.
But when the doctor tells you that when your white blood count starts to go down it's over and three weeks later your white blood count starts to go down, it's more tangible.
"Most people die of a heart attack or they get into a wreck and die instantly," he said. "They have no time to think about what their life means to people. I’ve had that chance. I can see how my life influences people and act accordingly.”
That has strengthened relationships with current and former players. No one has experienced that quite like Barlow, who has been there for the highs and lows of Johnston's story the past few years. Looking at him now, it's difficult to imagine the eighth grader pushing the oxygen tank.
He has filled out at 5-11, 198 pounds and can bench press 350. As a junior, he already has scholarship offers from Baylor and Southern Miss. He has been at the center of Newton's offense all season, accumulating 2,094 yards and 37 touchdowns through 14 games.
"Last year, being a sophomore I had to look up to a lot of people," Barlow said. "I had a senior running back in front of me. Knowing I had my part to do, I knew that in big games, it was his time to step up. Now I feel like it’s my time because I have to be a leader and set the tone. I know a lot of people look at me. I have the big game role.”
Thursday, he will return to AT&T Stadium, the same field he stood on three years ago.
There is a feeling around Newton that this time will be different. The Eagles have dominated opponents this season with little struggle, even in the playoffs. They have talked about the state championship with certainty this year, predicting a title after each playoff victory.
Gunter enters the matchup with a 31-game winning streak, but Newton isn't intimidated. Stories like this always have happy endings.
“Even though this is football it surpasses that because of the history," Gilder said. "Because of the story. Because of the miracle that took place. For it all to come full circle now is just indescribable.”
As Barlow has grown as a player, so has his relationship with his coach.
Johnston's health took a turn for the worse this season. He missed a Sept. 29 game against East Chambers because he had to be admitted to the hospital. When Barlow discovered what happened to Johnston, he implored Gilder to drive him to Houston, where Johnston was receiving treatment.
Barlow skipped school that day. When they arrived at the hospital, Gilder waited in the lobby while Barlow went into Johnston's room.
He stayed there four hours.
"It’s just a special bond they’ve created," Gilder said. "I don’t think they even understand it. But I know they feel it."
Barlow didn't tell Johnston he was coming. He could tell his coach was surprised and excited to see him. Johnston was falling in and out of sleep, so they talked when they could. Barlow stared at his coach, connected to wires. He wanted to cry.
In that moment, he understood just how significant a state championship could be.
"When I saw him, I saw what he was going through and it just inspired me," he said. "I knew we had to get one this year."
When the clock hits zero, W.T. Johnston allows himself to rest.
He is tired. He is in pain. He ambles over to the bench where he sits and waits for people to find him. There are always plenty. Reporters, alumni and players will come sit with him one by one to chat.
He has been hurting since the beginning of the year during two-a-days. He went to the doctor to discover he had a punctured lung. The doctor told him that in his condition, he can puncture his lung simply from yelling too loudly.
He thinks it was Barlow he yelled at and lets out another chuckle as he realizes this.
Since then, he has tried to control his emotions during games and practices.
Despite the bleak outlook in recent months, Johnston appears healthier than the last time he coached in the state championship. He at least won't need the oxygen tank this time.
Johnston gets a moment to reflect on his career and finally says that going through this has given him the greatest memory.
"I would not ever want to go through this again, but I would not change anything that’s happened," he said. "You have a transplant, that’s some major stuff. First thing, you’ve got a 50-50 chance of getting off the table alive. There’s so much pain and sickness involved, I would never want to go through it again.
"I would not change anything now that I’ve went through it. People don’t understand that. Like I’ve said, I’ve seen things that I would never have seen and learned things that I never would have learned if I didn’t go though this. I was not alone in that valley.”
He calls this team the loosest bunch he has ever coached and means it as a compliment.
Newton faced true adversity in a game for the first time all season on Friday. The Eagles trailed 14-0 seven minutes into the state semifinal game against Boling. Johnston said neither he nor his players panicked, though, and they went on to win 56-28.
Moments like that give him confidence that this team will be the first to bring him a state championship as a head coach. Johnston knows should that happen, much of the spotlight would fall on him. But in his eyes, a win would be something much greater than a high school coach's dying wish.
"I just hope I can give them a state championship," he said. "To the people and all the kids that played for me that didn’t win it. That’s the way I look at this. I want these kids to get their names etched in stone and I want this to be something for the community and the kids who’ve played for me that didn’t win it, because they’re a part of it.
“Me, I’ll be gone and they’ll still have something to remember that happened that year.”