The Providence High girls’ soccer team has many talented players and has gone 41-3-2 the past two seasons, often ranked among the best in North Carolina.
But coach Nathan Williams and the team agree their biggest daily inspiration comes from sophomore team manager Darius Johnson.
Johnson has autism but hasn’t let it stop him from succeeding.
Johnson is an A-B honor roll student and serves as manager for the girls’ and boys’ soccer teams and the Panthers boys’ basketball team; however, Johnson makes it apparent he’s most dedicated to the girls’ soccer team.
Johnson, 17, appears to be everywhere at soccer practice. He sprints to every wayward ball, organizes equipment and grabs water for players. He seems always to be one step ahead in getting what’s needed.
During matches, Johnson leads the cheers from the sidelines.
“Darius is just as important as any player or coach on this team,” said Williams, in his first year at Providence High.
“Here you have a kid who never plays, but shows up every day with an attitude of a player who is playing every minute,” Williams said. “His value to our team is immeasurable. He’s a huge inspiration to this team and all the girls love him.”
Johnson takes his role on the Providence soccer team seriously.
“I take a lot of pride in every single thing I do as the manager for this team, in every practice and game, because I know how hard these girls work, and so I feel like they deserve my best,” He said. “This team wants to be best team in state. I want to be the best manager that I can be to help support them.”
The Providence girls (20-1-1) are No. 2 in the state, according to the N.C. coaches’ poll, and have outscored opponents 119-4, allowing two goals in their last 20 games.
While it would be easy to get lost in their success, Johnson’s presence has been a constant and humbling reminder of the opportunities players have.
“Darius has never once come to a practice or a game in a bad mood, and he is so happy to be here all of the time,” Providence senior defender and co-captain Lizzie Melching said. “His presence and energy every day at practice really makes us appreciate the opportunities we have as players. When you see how hard he works, you want to keep energy and intensity as a player.
“We want to make him proud, too.”
Dealing with autism
Kym Johnson, Darius’ mother, says there were times when he was younger that Darius struggled with autism. Kym Johnson said doctors once told her Darius would never read or write.
Kym said Darius often had to do things a certain way growing up, and as a result wasn’t very social outside his family. He has three siblings: Desiree, 19; Devin, 15; and Emilee, 11.
Darius said he was a bit of a loner and often would hide behind his mother in social situations. When he started working as a team manager, however – first as an eighth-grader for the Providence High boys’ basketball team – he became more social.
Kym Johnson said it wasn’t until he started working with the Providence girls’ soccer team that he became dramatically more outgoing.
“Darius has learned to deal with autism better and better as he has gotten older,” said Kym Johnson. “But being involved in sports, especially the girls’ soccer team, has helped him a ton and helped him come out of his shell. Now he is a social butterfly.”
“It’s been very special to see this team take him under their wings,” said Kym Johnson. “They watch out for him in school. It’s means a lot to him to be a part of this team.”
Darius Johnson also has been sought after as a manager for Providence’s football, baseball, wrestling and track teams, but he says he’s staying loyal to the team that has been most loyal to him: girls’ soccer.
Darius said he hopes to be a part of state-championship run in the next few weeks as the Panthers get closer and closer; but no matter how the season ends, Johnson gives his team a perspective like no other.
“Sometimes when we are in a tight game and you look over at Darius and see how passionate he is about this team, it makes you realize what’s important,” Melching said.
Williams, who has a daughter with special needs, said, “Darius has overcome a lot of things that most people will never have to deal with in their lives. To see how he lives every day humbles all of us.”
“I think we all wish we had half of the heart and soul that this kid has,” Williams said. “He is a massive piece of perspective that motivates us all the time.”
Jay Edwards is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Jay? Email him at email@example.com.