Grand Valley mentor returns to sidelines with Cardinals

Mike Johnson watches his Girls hoops team practice

He looks fit. The color is back in his face, as is the smile.

“I’m back to doing what I love to do,” Mike Johnson said.

There was a point three months ago when the Grand Valley High School head football and girls basketball coach had to wonder if life would ever return to normal.

The problems started as a fever in early September. Nothing major and nothing that, at the time, seemed like it would knock him for a loop.

The fever went away. The next day, Johnson was back on the practice field coaching the football team.

His life took a radical turn Sept. 11.

He had just finished a team dinner the night before a nonconference game against Hayden.

“I went home and felt sick at about 9,” he said, thinking it might be a touch of food poisoning.

“By 12:30 (a.m.), I was calling everybody I knew to give me a ride to the hospital.”

His appendix had ruptured. Johnson was operated on in Rifle the next morning.

“I went through all the emotions of missing a game for the first time in 14 years of coaching,” he said.

Without their usual direction from Johnson, who was also the offensive coordinator, the
Cardinals struggled through Friday night’s game with Hayden, losing 28-7.

Johnson was sure he’d be back on the practice field the next week. During the weekly coaches meeting Sunday, two days after the game, he felt sick again, running a fever.

“At 5 (the next morning), I started vomiting,” Johnson said.

That continued for 10 more days. With swelling and blistering in his stomach, Johnson couldn’t eat solid food for six weeks. He was on an intravenous drip three hours a day.

He went back to the hospital in Rifle, then had an option of being transferred to Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs or St. Mary’s in Grand Junction. With his mother and sister living in Glenwood Springs, he chose Valley View.

Further tests revealed an E. coli bacterium and an intestinal abscess. He wasn’t able to keep any food down and was losing weight rapidly. He had no energy.

“He looked frail,” Grand Valley Athletic Director Dave Walck said

“Mentally it was so challenging for me because I’m so used to being on the go,” Johnson said. “When I was home and sick, I had nothing to do.”

Three weeks later, out of the hospital again, he showed up at Cardinal Stadium ready to at least be able to coach from the pressbox. Shortly after the game, he went back to the hospital.

By that time, the coaching staff and the players had adjusted to being without their head coach. Jeremy Tanner, who had coached with Johnson for six years and was the defensive coordinator, assumed the interim head coaching duties. Danny Manzanares, who played quarterback under Johnson and was now an assistant, took over the offensive coordinator duties.

Johnson had nothing but faith in his coaching staff.

“My assistants were great,” he said.

But as a coach, he wanted to be out there.

“In sports, you understand because it kills you to be away,” Walck said.

But Walck knew Johnson had to take care of himself first.

“What I don’t think (people) realize is how sick he was,” Walck said.

The Cardinals, in their first year playing Class 2A football, qualified for the playoffs but lost in the first round.

“They had a great year,” Johnson said. “I wish I could have been around to coach it.”

In all, he spent 39 days in the hospital. His form of E. coli was sent to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, which hadn’t seen that strain before.

Johnson lost 48 pounds through the ordeal. He’s gained 15 of them back.

When he finally returned to school, he did so on a limited basis, teaching only an hour and a half or two hours a day.

“When he came back for basketball, we had a contingency plan,” Walck said.

That contingency centered around Tanner, who is also Johnson’s basketball assistant.

Johnson craved returning to his normal routine, as much for his mental benefit as his physical.

“He needed that,” Walck said.

Since basketball season started, Johnson is back to his usual self.

“He still commands from the sidelines, paces the floor as usual,” Walck said.

Coaching is a form of therapy for Johnson.

“Being back in the gym and being around kids has been great,” he said. “With coaching, they say you do so much for kids. But honestly, kids do so much for me.”

Johnson admits to having some sleepless nights in previous seasons.

These days, “I go home tired, and it’s great,” he said.

“It’s good to have him back,” Walck said.

Johnson’s illness has given him reason for pause.

Living in a small town, teaching and coaching at a small school, watching his daughter do her homework — those are the little things he no longer takes for granted.   

“It sure made me appreciate what I have,” he said.


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