This one, you almost had to be there to believe it.
I was there, saw it happen, and maybe still don’t believe it.
But it was my job to tell the story.
Nick Johnson was a cross country runner for Huntington North, who, along with fellow standout Curt Daniels, were part of a Vikings’ team that place fourth in the state meet in 2003.
In 2004, HNHS was still running strong. Late in the season, I wrote a profile on Johnson and Daniels as they approached the final stretch of their high school careers. Johnson was the school record-holder and had won eight of nine races he had competed in during the year. Daniels was a step behind, but a top-five finisher all season. The two were workout warriors and were huge role models for the rest of the squad.
Not long after my story on Johnson and Daniels, Nick Johnson suffered a stress fracture in his foot. It was a devastating blow for Johnson and the Vikes, who was chasing a return to state and perhaps a state title.
Two weeks were not enough time for the fracture to heal in time for the sectional meet. Johnson spent the time in a walking boot watching his teammates prepare for the postseason.
When the sectional came, Johnson decided he would run. He wasn’t going to do any more damage to his foot, but there was pain on every step just walking. There was no telling how painful each running stride would be. It was up to Johnson to decide how much he could endure. He chose to go for it.
In a remarkable performance, Johnson not only ran, but won. He won going away, suffering with every pounding step.
Daniels finished third and the Vikings won the sectional title.
The lasting image is the one we ran on the front page of the Herald-Press. It is a photo of Johnson, wrapped in a blanket, obviously in pain. His face is hidden in his hands, and only his leg showing with his aching foot in a bucket of ice water.
He took his foot out of the water long enough to slide it into a walking boot to go up and accept his first place honor and to raise the sectional trophy.
In addition to the main story of the meet giving details of Johnson’s injury and effort, I wrote a sidebar column on what remarkable performance it was.
Typically quiet and humble, Johnson didn’t have much to say about what he had just accomplished. But there were plenty of others who had borne witness to what they saw, and I used those comments to build the story.
The challenge with that story is that I had to weave the narrative of Johnson’s individual battle with the results of the rest of the meet. Johnson obviously drove the story, but I saved much of the lyrical language for the sidebar column. That way I didn’t go overboard in the event coverage, yet I still was able to do justice to the effort Johnson provided.
Even after the excruciating experience in the sectional and with only a week to rest, Johnson was determined to give it a go again in the regional over the objection of his coach, Curtis Hines. Once again with a sharp pain in each step, Johnson started the race. Three-quarters of a mile into the contest, Johnson fully broke his tibia. He refused to leave the course. He completed the course, finishing last, but running more than two miles on a broken leg. Parents from other teams chastised Hines for not taking Johnson off the course, but it was the headstrong Johnson was the one who would not be denied the finish line. and Hines respected the decision of his senior star.
Led by a second-place individual finish from Daniels, the Vikings placed second as a team in the regional and advanced to the semistate. But at that meet, the season ended for Huntington North. Johnson was officially out for the semistate, and with a loaded field, the Vikes placed 12th and missed earning a return trip to the state finals.
Johnson went on to run at Huntington University, where he earned All-America honors in both cross country and track. He set numerous school records and was inducted in the HU Hall of Fame in 2017.
Johnson married Lauren Davenport, another standout Huntington North and Huntington University athlete. The two moved to Oregon, where Johnson helped coach Lauren as she became one of the world’s top runners at 1,500 meters.
Along with coaching, Nick became of the nation’s top consultants on the business of running.
Nick and Lauren returned to Huntington in 2018, and Nick took over as head coach of the HU cross country team.