By Dan Guttenplan, FNF Coaches Managing Editor
Newton High (Texas) coach W.T. Johnston was given eight months to live by his doctor prior to the start of the football season. The coach vowed that his final lesson to players would be to show them how to live before they die.
W.T. Johnston recognizes that he’s been sentenced to death by doctors three times over by now.
“I’ve outlived every diagnosis the doctors have given me,” Johnston said. “I don’t know if I’ll make it much longer, but I’m at peace with that.”
The Newton High (Texas) football coach was the first patient to survive a double lung transplant in 2015, but even after remarkably coming out of that procedure alive, he was given less than a year to live.
“The doctor told me that if my white blood count starts going down, it’s over,” Johnston said. “It started going down, and they said I’d last about 280 days.”
Johnston developed chronic graft-versus-host disease (cGHVD) following the lung transplant. In GvHD, the donated bone marrow or peripheral blood stem cells view the body of the transplant recipient as foreign, and the donated cells/bone marrow attack the body.
After Johnston dropped from 220 pounds to 140, he made what he thought would be his final request before death.
“I told them I don’t want to die in a hospital,” Johnston said. “If I’m going to die anyway, let me do what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
Johnston was discharged from the hospital, and that August, he returned to practice on a golf cart for preseason workouts. Johnston has since surpassed any expectations doctors had for him, serving as the head coach for four more seasons – the last two of which resulted in Class 3A Texas state championships for Newton.
“Being around kids has been the best medicine for me,” Johnston said. “They make me laugh. I haven’t always been able to do a lot of coaching during that time, but I’ve been able to see how my life can affect people before I die.”
Newton’s last two state championship seasons have overlapped with a period in which Johnston’s health has again taken a turn for the worse. During Newton’s 2017 championship run, Johnston often found himself feeling sicker than usual and struggling to breathe. He was evaluated at St. Luke’s Hospital – only to find his body was going through chronic rejection.
In March of 2018, doctors told Johnston there was nothing left they could do. He was given four to eight months to live.
“I got my players together, and told them I’m probably not going to make it through the season,” Johnston said. “I’ll be here every day until I can’t be here. I don’t want this to be the reason we can’t win. Get used to the idea, and it’s not going to be a shock. We talked for an hour about what was going to happen.”
Johnston said his first goal was to survive until August, so that the school couldn’t hire another head coach to oversee a staff that had helped him build the program over the last eight years. Once he made it to the start of the season, he gathered his players to stress the importance of his final lesson to them.
“That’s when I told them this is going to be the last lesson I teach them,” Johnston said. “It’s how you live before you die, where to put your strength, where you put your faith, and who to lean on. I’m going through this life experience, and we’re all going to experience it at some point. I’m going to show you how to handle it, whose feet to lay it on, and where to put your trust.
“I don’t want to die, but I’m at peace with it. I know where I’m going, and I’m not going to be sick anymore. Don’t worry about me.”
Johnston’s son, Drew, took over most of the head coaching duties at practice and on the sideline during games, while also being Newton’s defensive coordinator. Newton got off to a great start to the season, posting a 4-0 record in August in September against a host of Class 4A foes.
At that point, Johnston set a goal to live until the team went to Dallas for the state championship game.
“We played the best teams in 4A, and we beat them all,” Johnston said. “The kids said, ‘Coach – You made it this far, you might as well make it to Dallas.’”
The doctors told Johnston in March that his death would be imminent once his lung function decreased to 10 percent of capacity. At midseason, his lung function readings dipped into the teens, and Johnston prepared for the worst.
“I had a hard time getting up and going some days,” Johnston said. “I thought, ‘I don’t know if I’ll make it much longer; I don’t think I have a lot of games left in me.’”
Just as he has numerous times over the last five years, Johnston staved off the inevitable and made it to Dallas for the state championship game. He sat on the sideline in a wheelchair during his team’s 21-16 victory over Canadian at AT&T Stadium.
“I got better because I wasn’t sitting around thinking, ‘Pitiful me,’” Johnston said. “I lay it at the Lord’s feet. This is your will, not my will. I want to live, but if it’s your will, it’s your will. You can heal me any time you want, but it has to be your will. I can’t go around it. I have to go through it.”
Following his team’s state championship victory, Johnston did a postgame interview with a local FOX affiliate that has since gone viral. He never anticipated that his final game as coach would become a national sensation, but he’s not shying away from it either.
“I’ve been given a great gift through all of this,” Johnston said. “People don’t understand that. I’ve been able to see how my life can affect people before I die. Not everyone will have that experience. I’ve been able to see what I can do to enrich other people’s lives before I die. If I leave them with something from me, that’s a part of me that will never die.
“Coaches don’t realize the impact they can have. I still remember things my coaches said to me 40 years ago. Do things the right way, and put things in the right perspective.”
The W.T. Johnston File
School: Newton High (Texas)
Division: Class 3A Division II
Experience: Started coaching in 1991, head coach at Newton since 2011
Career record as head coach: 97-15
State championships: 2017, 2018
Family: Wife, Debbie; Sons, Drew and Shaw; also raised Corey Jenkins
In his words: “One of the mistakes I’ve seen too many coaches make is they give anything for the next win. That’s not what this profession is about. It’s about the impact you make on young men and the lessons you leave them with. I’m dying, and my last lesson has nothing to do with scheme or X’s and O’s. I can look back and see I probably spent too much time on that stuff earlier in my career. What I’m most proud of throughout my coaching career is the example I set for players and the leadership I provided off the field. That’s what high school football is all about.”