As news came down on Monday that defensive coordinator Jim Johnson would take an "indefinite leave of absence" to attend to his ongoing battle against cancer, the real story isn't the football side. The heartfelt perspective is the human element. Jim Johnson is fighting the battle of his life, for his life, and there aren't enough X's and O's in the world to make this a story that matters about what happens on a football field.
Hey, there is no denying the challenge here for Andy Reid's coaching staff. Johnson has been running the defense here since 1999 and he is the architect of one of the league's most complicated, most aggressive, most unpredictable schemes. That he is not going to be here with the rookies and the veterans for the immediate future is a loss in the football sense. At the same time, secondary coach Sean McDermott is deeply ingrained in the defense and he knows it front to back and in every phase and so the teaching part of the business is in good hands with McDermott as the interim defensive coordinator and with a capable, bright, talented group of coaches around him.
But this is real life we're talking about. Johnson is a football man, yes, but he is a loving husband, father and grandfather. Football has been his professional life for decades, but even when he's been holed up in his office at the NovaCare Complex, Johnson has gathered pictures of his family and friends and memorable moments away from the game. He is friendly to all, with a dry sense of humor and that low, gravelly voice that rumbles out of his mouth and whether you are talking football, or golf, or family, Johnson has always been interested in the conversation.
His thoughts are elsewhere now as he fights the melanoma that he was diagnosed with late in the 2008 season, and the disease for which he has been receiving treatments since February. Johnson was able to participate in the team's post-draft camp as he moved around the practice fields at the NovaCare Complex in a motorized golf cart. During that weekend, he met the media and spoke of how much energy he felt by working with the players in the football environment.
"It's something you have to deal with every day and like I said, I'm still going through treatment hoping you can get it done," said Johnson then. "Sure it affects your life. You think about it every day, no question, as far as the pain a little bit here and there. But the thing about when I come here to work is that it feels good. It's not going to be like this all the time, hopefully we'll get that injury back so I'm walking back on the field. Right now I'm on that cart and it helps out quite a bit."
Head coach Andy Reid wants to give Johnson as much time as possible away from work to gather the strength to return to the game. This is listed as a "leave of absence," and not a "retirement." Johnson intends to get back to the Eagles, to his defense, to this team. When, well, we don't know.
All we know is that everyone is praying for Johnson. I know how the fans feel. I know how his friends feel and his family and the team, his players. There is deep, deep concern, a lot of love and prayers from everyone.
"We're all pulling for him, obviously," said middle linebacker Stewart Bradley. "This isn't about football at all. It's about someone we love. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Jim and his family."
Reid made it clear in his statement that the hope is that Johnson returns as "soon as possible." Right now, though, football is not close to being the primary thought for Johnson. He has a massive battle on his hands, and all that matters is that he does whatever is necessary to get back his health.
Football is football and life is everything. We're reminded of this once again during a tough time in a beloved coach's hardest times.