Johnson wins fight for her life, returns to Earlham

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Melissa Johnson missed three full seasons on the sidelines for Earlham, but will return for next season.
Earlham athletics file photo 

A familiar face is returning to the sidelines of the Earlham College women’s basketball program.

Melissa Johnson, who left the program in 2014 for what became a nearly three-year battle for her life, will return as head coach, beginning April 3.

“Melissa’s return to the coaching ranks is more than just an announcement, it’s a celebration,” said Mike Bergum, director of athletics. “It will be wonderful to have her back with the program and on campus.  She is an inspiration to all and will continue to enhance the lives of everyone surrounding the women’s basketball program, the Earlham community, and those who have been touched by the Johnson family story.”    

Johnson, a 2003 graduate of Earlham, served as the program's head coach for three seasons from 2011-2014. During her last season as head coach, Johnson led the Quakers to a 12-13 overall record - the most wins in a season since the 2002-03 campaign. Earlham finished 8-10 in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference and narrowly missed the HCAC tournament on tiebreakers.

A routine hysterectomy in March of 2014 turned into chronic pancreatitis which led to a host of other problems. In total, Johnson has had all of or parts of 13 organs removed along with spending more than 600 days in the hospital.

“To say that these past three years have been difficult and life-changing would be a huge understatement. We had no idea that I had a genetic pancreatic condition lying dormant, nor that I would face multiple life-threatening issues that would arise,” Johnson said. “Often, we did not know what the future would hold or if I would live to see the next day. I was blessed to be taken care of by one of the top pancreatic doctors in the world at a hospital that was within close proximity to my family. The doctors and nurses worked tirelessly to keep me alive and get me to the point that I am today. I was determined to win this battle, to reclaim my life, and return to the program and institution that I hold so dear.”

Johnson did not attend a single game for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. She was not present to see Kasin Spay, a former player and recruit, reach the 1,000-point plateau. Instead, Johnson was largely confined to her hospital bed at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

“Melissa is a warrior, and no one can possibly understand what she has endured before and after surgery,” said Syed Ahmad, Director of the Division of Surgical Oncology at the University of Cincinnati and Melissa’s pancreatic doctor.  “During her multiple hospitalizations including admissions to the ICU [intensive care unit] on several occasions, Melissa’s singular goal was to get back to her family and team as she considers them the same.  I truly believe that wanting to get back to her family and team is what kept her going. Without them, I don’t know if she would have pushed herself to succeed.”

Although she has been away from the program she invested so much time in, Johnson’s health has steadily improved for the last several months. She first came back to Schuckman Court to watch the Quakers take on Wittenberg on Dec. 20, 2016. Johnson has been to several games since then including watching Hannah Franklin score her 1,000th career point, witnessing Lexi McFarland break the record for career three-point field goals, and seeing a senior class she coached as freshman come from 16 points down to win on senior day.

“It was difficult for the past three years to watch this senior class from a distance. When I recruited them to Earlham, I knew that they were a special group. While I was not always able to be there in person, I watched every single game online, many times from my hospital room,” said Johnson. “I am so excited to be returning to my alma mater to resume my role as head women’s basketball coach. I feel like I am witnessing a miracle. I could not have gotten to this point without the unwavering support of my family, friends, community, medical staff, and complete strangers who heard about my story and showered us with love and prayers. I look forward to working with our current players and future recruits.”

Nick Johnson, Earlham football head coach; Melissa Johnson, Earlham women's basketball head coach; and their two children.
Posted to Twitter 

Prior to being a head coach, Johnson spent eight years with the program; four as a player and four as an assistant coach. As a player, Johnson was a two-time Earlham defensive player of the year, a team captain for three seasons and a member of the best team in program history. The Quakers finished 17-10 during the 2000-01 season and came one win away from a berth in the Division III NCAA Tournament, falling to Ohio Wesleyan University in overtime in the North Coast Athletic Conference tournament championship.

Melissa’s husband, Nick, is Earlham’s current head football coach. Prior to the end of the 2016 football season, the Johnsons had their story shared in a Around the Nation column.

“Melissa’s return to the Earlham community and to coaching is an inspiration for us all. Triumphing after a three-year struggle, Melissa shows us she is fighter who is passionate about life,” Earlham president David Dawson said. “As person of faith, wife, parent, friend, and member of an extended family, she helps us all reflect on the priorities of our own lives. Melissa is a wonderful model for Quaker basketball and for Earlham College, and we are overjoyed with her return to health and thrilled to welcome her back.”    

Johnson will assume her role as head women’s basketball coach on April 3. She takes over a program that finished 3-22 during the 2016-17 season along with an eighth place finish in the HCAC.