Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett gave Jeremy Johnson, a Wichita Falls father of three fighting the battle of his life, perhaps the same pep talk that led his NFL team to a come-from-behind victory Sunday.
Just days before quarterback Tony Romo erased a 21-point deficit to beat the St. Louis Rams 34-31, Garrett visited Johnson in his Dallas hospital room, where the Wichitan is undergoing stem cell transplants and chemotherapy.
Given a 1 percent chance earlier in the year of surviving a recurrence of cancer, Johnson has put his body through treatment after treatment, fighting for his own victory.
“Fight,” Garrett told Johnson, “I need you to stay in the here and now, and I need you to fight. Focus on what Jeremy can control, and that’s right in this moment.”
Johnson’s wife, Crystal, recalled the meeting that took place Friday at Baylor T. Boone Pickens Cancer Hospital.
Days later, Crystal Johnson still beamed with amazement “that this guy who is so big in the NFL world acted like a normal human being and treated us like we were the most important people on Earth.”
The visit came at one of the lowest points in Jeremy Johnson’s treatment, his wife said, and quickly became a bright spot on this journey.
The idea of asking for someone from the Cowboys — anyone — to visit Jeremy Johnson came to Crystal when she remembered that former Dallas safety Bill Bates visited Jeremy’s older brother, Frank “Tres” Hood III, before his 1998 death from cancer.
The family, which owns Johnson’s Furniture in Wichita Falls, finds itself fighting cancer again, a fight that asks the community, through purple signs and numerous fundraisers, to “Pray for Jeremy.”
“I knew it was a long shot,” Crystal Johnson said, “but I thought, there’s no reason someone can’t come see him. So she searched the Internet for any contact information, any number linked to the Cowboys organization. She found a random fax number and gave it a shot.
That was around 1:30 p.m. Sept. 16. By 2 p.m. Wednesday, Crystal Johnson got a text.
“Hey Crystal, this is Jason Garrett from the Dallas Cowboys,” she recalled. “I wanted to let you know I’ll be praying for you all and thinking about you, your wife and your three children.”
Before she had a chance to recover from that unexpected response, another text came.
“I was also wondering if there is a time in the next couple of days when I could come by and see Jeremy,” Garrett said.
“I couldn’t believe it. I was shooting for the stars,” Crystal Johnson said, “and 24 hours later, I get a text that he wants to come see Jeremy. ‘Of course,’ I told him. And he said, ‘Friday would work better for me.’”
Other visitors, such as his pastor, Bob McCartney, of First Baptist Church, have lifted his spirits, too.
Crystal Johnson kept Friday’s plans from Jeremy, just in case Garrett had something come up. Jeremy Johnson was already down that morning, nervous about treatments that would start the next day. He’d been warned by nurses and doctors just how tough this stretch of chemo would be. Treatments will take the family through the holidays, finishing at the end of December.
He didn’t need his hopes dashed.
Crystal Johnson faxed a letter to another professional team in the Dallas area, one she didn’t want to name, that responded with, “We’re not allowing our athletes to visit the hospital at this time.”
On Friday, Jeremy Johnson was lying in his hospital bed, weak from giving up 3.5 million stem cells. Doctors hoped for 5 million but would work with what they had.
Crystal Johnson got a text from Garrett.
“I’m here. Is it OK if I come up?”
“Absolutely,” she said.
Jeremy Johnson rolled his head toward the door just as a figure appeared in the doorway.
“Hey, Jeremy. I’m Jason Garrett.”
Jeremy popped out of bed “like someone shot the life back into him,” his wife said. His eyes got as wide as saucers, and he said, “I know who you are.”
The two embraced as if they’d known each other for years.
“He is just the nicest man ever,” Crystal Johnson said. “He stayed 20 or 25 minutes, hugging Jeremy and coaching Jeremy.”
“Fight,” he told him. That word would appear on one of the many gifts Garrett brought in the room. In addition to the signed footballs — one from Sunday’s victorious quarterback — the Cowboys sent a special T-shirt worn by the team during organized events. The T-shirt’s theme: “Fight.”
Garrett presented such items as teddy bears for the children — kindergartner Savannah and 10-month-old twins Mason and Natalie — as well as hoodies for Jeremy “for when he gets cold during treatments.”
“We even got a Cowboys cookbook,” Crystal Johnson said.
Jeremy Johnson slept through most of Sunday’s game against the Rams but awoke with about five minutes remaining. He and Savannah cuddled up and watched Romo pull off what seemed impossible.
Crystal Johnson texted the coach a photo of father and daughter enjoying the win.
And she got a text back.
“How did this morning go?” Garrett asked. “When you feel up to it, I’ve got some tickets for you.”
“He could have stayed five minutes and forgot about it,” Crystal Johnson said. “Never did I think in my wildest dreams this would happen. I feel like he’s our friend now, I really do.”
As of Monday afternoon, a photo of Jeremy Johnson with Garrett had 30,000 views and had been shared 84 times.