Athletics & Recreation / Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Pioneers honor coach’s son

Davis Johnson always was uniquely wise beyond his years, even if his years were far too few.

Johnson, the four-year old son of University of Denver women’s basketball coach Erik Johnson, was very specific about how he wanted to celebrate his 3rd birthday less than two years ago. Channeling the dreams of a teenager while displaying the bravado of a kid far too young to be shackled by shyness, Davis Johnson wanted to party with his second family — namely, the young women his father coached every day.

“We asked him what he wanted for his birthday, and he said, ‘I want to have a party with the team,’” Coach Johnson said. “He said, ‘I want to eat mac-and-cheese and dance to High School Musical.’ And that’s exactly what he did. We told him, ‘Buddy, this is the best birthday you’re ever going to have  — 12 tall, fit women all just hanging around you thinking you’re the cutest thing ever.’ So they ate mac-and-cheese with him and danced to High School Musical with him. And he commented to everyone, ‘This is the best birthday ever!’”

Those moments instantly became even more precious in May, when Davis Johnson passed away suddenly less than three weeks after his fourth birthday. Davis Johnson was afflicted by an undiagnosed condition called intestinal malrotation that caused a catastrophic twisting of his small intestine.

When the Pioneers hit the Magness Arena floor on Sunday for the first time since the tragedy for an exhibition game against Regis University, they will do so with a small tribute to Davis Johnson close to their hearts. The game will mark the unveiling of a black patch adorned with Davis Johnson’s initials — DJJ — that the team will wear on their jerseys throughout the season.

Additionally, Johnson, his staff and members of the team’s support staff will don crimson buttons bearing Davis Johnson’s initials. DU opens the regular season on Nov. 12 at Wyoming and begins its home slate against the University of Colorado on Nov. 16.

“When we were presented with this idea, we all agreed right away,” DU junior Kaetlyn Murdoch said. “It obviously hit hard with all of us. We want this year to be as easy as possible for Coach. If anything, it gives us more incentive to play for Davis, to play for Coach and to play for each other. It has made us closer. I guess you hope something better will bring you closer, but we want to come out with the attitude that we will work hard for Davis instead of having a sad attitude.”

The tribute will allow the Pioneers to process their own grief — a situation even Coach Johnson admits has gotten somewhat lost in the overwhelming support the Johnson family has received from the entire University of Denver community.

For the players, losing Davis was akin to losing the team’s unofficial baby brother. They routinely babysat Davis. They hoisted him on their shoulders and, indeed, danced with him on his birthday when asked. With what surely will be an emotional season finally about to begin, the Pioneers are enthusiastic about moving forward while paying tribute with a little piece of Davis on their jerseys.

“I think many people forget our players in this whole grief process,” Coach Johnson said. “Everyone asks them, ‘How is Coach doing?’ or ‘Tell Erik I’m so sorry.’ I don’t think enough people are probably asking them how they’re doing. I mean, how many people does a 4-year old really know? But every one of our players babysat for him. He was in the locker room after every game, sitting on their laps, listening to Dad talk. At least a couple times a week he was there at practice running around. Every one of them threw the ball around with him, picked him up and let him try and make a basket.

“One of the things I love about my team is they are over at my house for barbecues, they babysit my children, and my children have unbelievable role models in them. If my daughters can grow up to be like my players, I will be very, very proud and happy. And I don’t mean as athletes — I just mean in terms of character and as human beings. The team has stepped up in wonderful, wonderful ways. So this patch to honor Davis is a nice way for them to show me how they care.”

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