LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) - Chronic disease has made life hard for Newton High School Head Football Coach W.T. Johnston but you will not see him complain about it.
Newton only has a population of 2,387 according to the recent census. Despite being in one of the rualest areas of East Texas it has become known as a football power house across Texas. The school is home to five state championship teams. Two of those coming the past two seasons with Johnston as head coach.
Two of them coming while Johnston has been praying to see another day. For years, Johnston’s health has been hampered by lung issues. In 2015, Johnston received a double lung transplant and that is when he developed chronic host versus graft disease which makes it nearly impossible to breathe at times.
Last year when the team made it to state, Johnston was not sure if he would be there. The following spring, Johnston was told he did not have much time to live.
“The doctors told me I had eight months,” Johnston said. “I had been told that before but this time it was more real and I could see it happening.”
Like the year before, Johnston said a simple prayer and that was for him to be able to live at least another week. When I made the hour and a half trip this past week to Newton, I was able to meet coach Johnston for the first time in person. There was a peace about him that was different.
“How are you doing sir,” I said.
“I am doing great,” Johnston replied. “Just another day of life and football.”
Johnston made me feel welcomed to his practice. He was like any other coach I had been around. If a play was done wrong, he would holler for the team to do it again. Multiple times players were called out. He did all of it from his golf cart, observing every single movement on the field.
As plays were reset, Johnston would smile and talk to players on the sideline.
“You know, when I was in school, everything was closed on Sunday and you stayed home with your family,” Johnston said t two of the players. “Things were better back then.”
When the team made it to state, Johnston was on the sideline. He witnessed every play of the first half, including two touchdowns from Darwin Barlow. Back in 2014 when Newton was attempting to win state, Barlow was with Johnston rolling his oxygen tank around the field.
“I was there when we lost,” Barlow said. “This man means a lot to me. I wanted to get this title for coach.”
When the dust settled and Newton won state 21-16 over Canadian, Johnston appeared to hold back tears as players hugged him. He was immediately put on TV by Fox Sports Southwest and since then the clip has gown viral.
Once the interview was done, Johnston gathered his players and talked to them.
“You guys have been such a blessing to me,” Johnston said. “You seniors have done such an amzing job for the community... We are going to end this game like we do all games with a prayer."
There is no hiding reality. Johnston has no time table on life. It is a hard reality he lives with, but instead of being sad or worried about it. He looks at every second as a chance to impact the life of a high school student. A student that still has a life to live.
“I get to see how I am impacting people before I die,” Johnston said. "I know I am going to die. "Most of you won’t get that chance. You will have a heart attack or die in a car crash or something and never see it coming. I’ve been given a gift. “I’ve been given a great life. It is about what you do with it. I try to not just talk about x’s and o’s. I try to talk about life. Everyone is going to experience it one day. The lord has shown me so many great things through this and I hop I have shown these guys. I hope they come back and see me in five years and they have kids and they have a good life. That’s what means more to me than anything else.”
Johnston understands the bigger picture of being a high school coach. To him it is a game and a way to teach lessons. He admits the community members are harder on the boys then he is when it comes to expectations. Maybe that is what makes the Newton Eagles two straight state championship special. With all the talk of how good they are on the field, Johnston is more concerned with shaping their life off the field.