The game was big. What happened at the game was bigger.
When the Providence boys’ soccer team hosted defending 4A state champion South Mecklenburg on Oct. 24, there was plenty to focus on. The winner — between two of North Carolina’s top 10 teams — would have the inside track to a SoMeck8 conference championship and likely a No. 1 seed in the 4A West playoff bracket, with home-field advantage.
It also was senior night for Providence — the final, regular-season home game for 12 players. And the teams were playing for bragging rights. Just 13 days earlier, Providence had dealt the Sabres their first loss of this season.
Amid all that, Darius Johnson put on his white, No. 3 jersey before the game, with his shiny new, blue cleats (bought by the team). And nothing seemed more significant than what was about to happen. Coach Nathan Williams, had informed Darius, minutes earlier, that he would play — and be in the starting lineup with his fellow seniors.
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He’d never played.
Darius has autism. He is described by his mother, Kym Johnson, as “high functioning.” She said she had been told Darius would never read or write. Now he’s an A-B student who will graduate in June.
“When he was younger, he would hide behind me and didn’t want to be around other people,” Kym said. “He was like a preschooler at times. Now, he’s a social butterfly. ... Everybody knows him and everybody likes him.”
He has served the last four years as manager of the boys’ and girls’ soccer teams. So, when Johnson sprinted onto the field as a starter just before kickoff, the roar from the crowd indicated a different kind of excitement for the Providence sideline and student body.
A few moments later, Darius booted the opening kickoff. Then he left the field as the entire Providence varsity and junior varsity teams formed a tunnel for him to run through.
“Just the look in his eyes, when we announced that he was going to start was an amazing feeling, because you could tell how much it meant to him, and you could see the pure joy in his eyes,” said Williams, who began planning this event a year ago. “Then, when we got on the field, I looked over at Darius, and said to myself, ‘This is about to happen.’
“I thought about how big this game was for our team and our seniors, the biggest game of the year. And yet, every player in our starting lineup, even the seniors, told me they would give up their spot for Darius. To have a night, where we all got to celebrate how we genuinely feel about him and let him know. That was special .”
Darius got to live his dream.
“Putting on that jersey and running out onto that field to play for the Providence soccer team was the greatest feeling in the world,” Darius said. “There are no words to describe what that meant to me. I’ve always dreamed of running out on that field as a player. For that to actually happen was unbelievable.”
Darius soaked up every moment. Williams said Darius wore his jersey to practice the next day, and then to the regular season finale at Charlotte Catholic, the day after that.
Kym Johnson felt the same joy as her son.
“I found out that he might be playing when he texted me around 2:15 p.m. on Oct. 24,” she said. “I was so shocked and so excited. But when I saw him run out on that field, I was so proud of him. I couldn’t stop crying.”
Always 100 percent
When you go to a Providence soccer game or practice, you can’t miss Darius. He seems to be everywhere, sprinting down every wayward ball, organizing equipment or grabbing water for his teammates. You also can hear him constantly offering words of encouragement on nearly every play.
Williams said Johnson’s infectious energy is a big key to both his boys’ and girls’ success over the last few years. The Providence boys’ and girls’ teams are a combined 148-17-10 through Oct. 31 during Johnson’s tenure as the manager, including a 2016 4A state championship victory for the girls. The girls made sure Darius got a championship ring.
Johnson missed two games this season, against Charlotte Catholic (a loss) and Weddington (a loss that later was forfeited back to a Providence) — the only two team losses.
“There is no question that Darius has been a major factor for this team, and without him we just aren’t the same team, and everyone knows that,” Williams said. “It’s no coincidence that the only two games we lost on the field he was not there. His performance is always 100 percent. He never gives less. I believe that his effort is a big lesson for all of us in life. Darius is always full of energy. Darius is never not smiling. Darius is never not enjoying the moment. His positive energy is contagious for everyone around him.”
As the seniors were announced during the game, each was allowed to cite the person they most admired. Several listed Darius, saying without him the team would not be the same.
‘You Can Do Anything’
Darius’ favorite words of inspiration are “You can do anything.” He often shouts that messages as he runs along the sideline.
He lives by those words, and the entire Providence soccer program has adopted them. The 2016 Providence girls’ soccer teams’ state championship rings have “You can do anything,” engraved inside. The Providence boys’ soccer team’s playoff T-shirts say “You can do anything.”
The T-shirts also are sold to help the Johnson family. Darius has had medical expenses. And his brother, Devin, has a heart ailment that has required medical attention.
Still, Darius spreads his message
“It may be just four words,” Williams said. “But Darius has lived those words, proving that he can do anything. All people have gifts given to them. Darius’ gift is that he has taken the profile of a person with challenges in their lives — autism in his case — and refused to let it stop him from achieving his goals.”
Providence won the game on senior night. However, Darius’ massage may be what team members carry with them.
“When I say ‘You can do anything,’ I really mean it. I mean that anything is possible if you put your mind to it,” said Darius. “As long as you believe in yourself, you can accomplish anything in your life. I am living proof of that.”
Jay Edwards is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to help
A an account has been set up if you’d like to help the Johnson family. Go to: www.gofundme.com/johnson-family-fund-2tuwmak