By Cathy Harasta
The Texas Catholic
CORSICANA—Bishop Dunne Catholic School head football coach Michael Johnson stood on tiptoe near mid-field at Tiger Stadium as he held aloft the gleaming state championship trophy on an uncommonly mild night for December.
The imposing plaque represented a summit his school had reached for the first time in 24 years.
It also signified the first state football championship for the Johnson family since 1958, when Michael’s father, Walter Johnson Sr., played defensive end for Dallas Booker T. Washington High School when it beat Houston Booker T. Washington High School, 35-0, for the state football championship of the Prairie View Interscholastic League during Texas’ segregation era.
Walter Sr. sat high in the grandstand as Bishop Dunne defeated Plano Prestonwood Christian Academy, 41-10, on Dec. 5 at Tiger Stadium to win the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools’ Division I state championship.
Three generations of the Johnson family had prayed for this outcome, which embodied the faith of the devoutly Christian family, the cohesive Bishop Dunne community and unselfish team goals.
Michael strained to lift the trophy above the swarm of jubilant Falcons players and a coaching staff that included four of his brothers: Walter Jr.; John; David, and Ron.
As Michael’s nephew, Walter Johnson III, hugged his uncle, the momentum gave Michael the extra boost to tilt the plaque reverently toward the spot in the stands where his father stood, rooted in the moment but also in a continuum of faith, family and football.
A family legacy
“To God be the glory,” said Walter Sr., a retired engineer who sat with his wife, Dorothy, between their son Lelious and daughter, Evelyn, at a game that united all seven of their children and many of their grandchildren. “Evelyn won a state basketball championship at Bishop Dunne. But all six of our sons played football without ever winning a state championship.
“It’s hard to explain the joy.”
Michael, 32, demonstrated the joy by fulfilling a promise he’d made to his players. Breaking from the celebration, he took a few running steps toward the goalpost and performed his trademark backflip, which actually resembled a cartwheel into a roundoff, according to a nearby cheerleader.
Walter III, a Bishop Dunne sophomore and wide receiver on the junior varsity, explained the joy by pointing toward his Uncle Michael, who was honored as District Coach of the Year.
“This championship means a lot to my uncle,” said Walter III, who was diagnosed in infancy with Sickle Cell Disease, a genetic blood disorder that affects red blood cells. “I think it means the world to him. It’s amazing. The coaches prepared for everything.”
But Michael, a 2000 Bishop Dunne graduate, said his family and team drew strength from Walter III.
“My first year as a head coach, Walter III got really sick and was in the hospital for almost a month,” Michael said. “We didn’t know if he was going to make it. To see him now is such a blessing. He’s not just an inspiration to me and my family, but he’s an inspiration to the whole team. It can be very painful for him, especially when the weather changes.
“I say to our strong, talented players that they have no business complaining, when they see Walter III out there playing football.”
But Walter III, 15, said that he does not dwell on his condition.
“It’s a challenge, and you just have to overcome it,” he said. “Imagine what a charley horse feels like, then triple it. Sometimes it will be in your legs, sometimes in your arms. You can hardly move. It can last two or three weeks. After it passes, it’s a regular life. You can do anything—run and jump.”
Walter III, who hates being called “Little Walter” when all the Walters are present at family gatherings, dreams of playing for the University of Texas Longhorns.
His father, Walter Jr., long has been known for his even temper, studious intelligence and reserved nature at Bishop Dunne, where he is the Dean of Students and wide receivers coach. Many have heard his spectacular Gospel singing, though he politely declines invitations to sing.
Walter Jr. said that he and his wife, Lisa, received a letter from the hospital shortly after Walter III was born that informed them that their baby had Sickle Cell Disease.
“They put us in touch with a hematologist,” Walter Jr. said. “We said, ‘We’re going to pray and trust God.’ Our son has been pretty healthy this year. His doctor said that he’ll be able to do anything that anybody else does.
“He will never complain. That’s just something that’s not in his nature.”
On one wall of Walter Jr.’s office at school, a tapestry reminds visitors that “…God so loved the world.”
When Michael, the youngest of the six Johnson brothers, called on Walter Jr. to come out of coaching retirement in 2013 and rejoin him on the sideline, Walter Jr. said that he and Lisa prayed about the decision.
“I had stepped away to focus on being a dad,” said Walter Jr., whose other children , Alesia and Nicholas, also attend Bishop Dunne. “I got Lisa’s blessing to get back into coaching. That was my brother asking me. We were always there to help family.”
David Johnson, the fourth son of Walter Sr. and Dorothy, said that his family always believed that football transcended merely an on-field contest.
“As much as we believe that football is a lot of diligence and hard work, we also recognized that this is God’s grace that allows us to orchestrate things to be where we are now,” said David, a program manager in information technology who served as a volunteer statistical and trend analyst for the Falcons. “We have a really close family that shares in each other’s successes or struggles.”
His brother John coaches the linebackers and deep-snappers and brother Ron coordinates videotapes and game-film preparations.
A reason to celebrate
Dorothy Johnson called the state championship and family reunion an early Christmas present.
“I’m so thankful,” she said. “Every year, we said we were going to State. Every year, we got closer.”
The Falcons, who ended the season with a 12-1 record, prayed together after the game. They sang the school song. And the fans laughed, cried, hollered and hugged before preparing for their return 50-mile drive north to Dallas.
Bishop Dunne president Kate Dailey found herself engulfed in congratulatory hugs.
She said that Dunne athletic director Kenneth Davis, a former standout running back at Texas Christian University and with the Green Bay Packers and Buffalo Bills, had established a football program that emphasized character and scholarship.
“Kenneth set the standard very early on,” said Dailey, who said that her school has an enrollment of about 450 in grades nine through 12. “The academics came first. The coaches had a strategy, and treated the players with such kindness. They have made their kids mission-driven, too. These kids have worked extremely hard.
“A state football championship is absolutely exciting.”
Until that moment, Walter Sr. had been the only Johnson who had experienced the thrill.
His voice grew warm and mellow as he talked about growing up in Dallas near Thomas Avenue and Griggs Park in what now is Uptown.
He said he was a little boy when he fell in love with sports as he watched Ernie Banks, one of the older neighborhood kids, play baseball at the park and star in sports at Booker T.
“Oh, he was a legend at Booker T.,” Walter Sr. said of Banks, the Chicago Cub great. “Ernie’s father would get out there with him every day to hit baseballs when Ernie was a kid. We’d all watch.”
Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier 20 years before most Texas high schools integrated. The Prairie View Interscholastic League governed extracurricular activities and competitions for the state’s African-American high schools from 1920-1970. Spirited efforts continue in Austin to recognize the records and achievements of the stellar athletes who played in the PVIL.
“Ernie was quite a football player in high school,” Walter Sr. said. “And Booker T. during that time was one of the greatest high schools around.”
But on this night of Bishop Dunne’s triumph, almost six decades later, the Johnson family celebrated a bond of brothers who helped complete a championship season, and a full circle.
Walter III, who suited up to join his father and uncles on the sideline on an unseasonably warm December night, said one word encompassed the experience: “Awesome.”
His grandfather, father and uncles had seen more seasons, lived more of the tapestry of Texas social history.
“It’s a great thing to see it all bearing some fruit at this great Christmas time of year,” David Johnson said. “It’s been a journey.”