BY JON JOHANSEN
Although my elementary-school-aged son is simultaneously blessed and cursed with a competitive streak, a brain injury causes his body to betray him.
And so I found Michael, on a hot afternoon recently, struggling to keep up with his cross-country teammates. Though MJ pumped his arms, he fell farther and farther behind.
I hauled my 6-foot-2, 240-pound rugby frame into a jog, and rumbled up beside him.
While his red cheeks sucked in and out, he looked up and puffed, “Why … am … I … so … slow?”
“Strong Boy,” I replied, “I am really proud of you. Do you remember how — ever since one of your brain tumors bled — your right arm and leg don’t always do what you tell them to?”
“Uh-huh,” he said.
“Well, that makes running harder, but here’s the thing: It’s amazing that you are even out here! You are incredibly tough, and you have many gifts. And the truth is, I’m not fast either.”
The smell of freshly cut grass wafted upward as he gazed to the opposite side of the long field, now bereft of teammates.
I continued, “All I want you to think about is trying your hardest and having fun. Will you do that for me?”
At the next practice, assistant coach Jeanne Grayson took it upon herself to amble alongside Michael while affirming him.
When Coach stopped on a hill, to assist other children, moms like Christi Young, Suzie Flaherty, Amy Hammontree and Kandace Lewis took turns jogging with him.
They preached into his one working ear.
“Woo hoo! You are doing it!”
“You’re getting faster.”
Michael’s younger brother Jonathan, a more natural miler, flitted past and chimed in:
“Yay, Michael! Keep it up!”
MJ smiled at each affirmation, and jerked his knees upward to hustle. His right arm wildly pinwheeled while he fought for momentum.
Each day, he loped a little farther, his lungs sucking in air. In time, traversing the practice course became easier for him — except for the trail’s lengthy, uphill finish.
Thankfully, each time Michael stopped and walked, fourth-grader Bella Grayson bounded toward him, her brown ponytail bouncing behind her.
“C’mon Michael,” she urged, “you’re doin’ awesome! I like to see you smile.”
The result? MJ pushed himself to the finish while high-fiving his jovial principal, Mr. Roddy.
Just like that, preseason ended. It was time for the first race of the year.
Jonathan finished his heat with great aplomb. I kissed his damp hair and pulled him close for a half hug.
And though I was so happy for JJ, my joy diminished when I glanced at the starting line for Michael’s race.
Speed-stealing sun baked down on MJ’s blonde hair. To his left and right stood a line of skinny competitors — each appearing more fit than my boy, whose daily medicine regimen leaves him swollen. A gray-haired man quieted the crowd.
“Oh, Lord,” I thought to myself. “He’s gonna get crushed, but please don’t let him get discouraged. And this is a selfish prayer, but please don’t let him be last.”
And they were off!
Though Michael beamed and sprinted (best he could), by the time the runners rounded out of sight he was already far from the pack.
Michael briefly reappeared on the far side of the course.
Hope left my heart.
A slew of waif-like boys crossed the finish line. Still no sign of him. Finally, Michael came into view.
He was running neck and neck with two other boys!
As Michael hit the home stretch, he galloped forward — pursued by his opponents! Alas, when he caught sight of his mama and me, he stopped running – a mere 20 yards from the end.
“C’mon buddy! Good job!” I hollered, frantically gesturing toward the finish line. “The end is right up there!!”
Just before the nearest challenger caught him, Mighty Michael’s heavy feet pounded across the line.
Not even second to last.
My son beat two healthy kids.
As Michael departed the course, Amy Hammontree placed a Dixie cup of cold water in his trembling hand. She leaned over him — her fingers on his heaving shoulder — and whispered in his ear.
Though I did not hear her words, I watched Michael break into an exhausted, toothy grin.
While driving home, MJ tilted forward in his seat and gushed, “I wanna do ‘cwoss countwy’ again next ye-uh (year).”
Of course he does.
After all, he got 44th place.
And I couldn’t have been prouder.
Jon Johansen works as an assistant principal and school counselor in Gig Harbor. He used to work a lot of overtime, but after almost losing his son to cancer, he gets his rear end home and spends time with his beloved brood. Read two previous stories by Johansen about Michael’s basketball exploits here and here.
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