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Mike's fight: Booster soldiers on despite cancer prognosis

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

FLOWERY BRANCH -- Last December, Mike Johnson began having stomach pains. He thought it was indigestion.

By January, he heard words like "pancreatitis."

In February, he heard "Stage IV pancreatic cancer" and "spread to the liver."

He heard "a year to live."

"Nobody had ever said boo, word one, about it being cancer, and then all of a sudden you're on the oncology floor," said Lenita Johnson, Mike's wife. "What the hell are we doing here?"

A February trip to Northside Hospital in Sandy Springs was the first Mike Johnson, president of the Gwinnett Gladiators booster club, had heard that his illness might be cancer, much less pancreatic cancer -- a disease that has a mortality rate almost identical to its incidence rate.

"The intern came in and said, 'You know you have cancer, right?'" Johnson said, a cautious laugh included. "I was like, 'Nope, I hadn't heard that one yet.'"

On Feb. 18, the self-professed blue-collar working man from Flowery Branch began the fight for his life.

Friday, his prognosis worsened -- he heard "four to six months left."

'They've made it easy'

Nobody would have blamed them for calling it off. It would have been completely understood, if not expected.

Johnson and his Gwinnett Gladiators were going to the Ronald McDonald House in Atlanta. Even if the timing was far from perfect.

"He approached me ... and said, 'I think it would be great to take some of the boys down to the Ronald McDonald House and visit some kids,'" said Steve Chapman, the Gladiators' general manager. "When you're not scoring goals it helps to put it in perspective."

That visit to the Ronald McDonald House, the charity that helps sick children and their families, came on Feb. 20 -- two days after Johnson found out he was in a battle for his life.

The trip, though, would not be called off, rescheduled or go on without the Johnsons there.

"We never even thought about canceling," Lenita Johnson said.

"Regardless of what was happening with us," Mike Johnson added, "those families were relying on us to have a nice little breakfast and have a good time."

The Johnson-Gladiators love affair began about three years ago. With their kids now out of school, the Johnsons needed a new passion. The couple, originally from Missouri, found the Glads.

"We were always involved in everything our kids did in high school, and this kind of took over," Lenita Johnson said.

Lenita Johnson owns "10,000 bucks worth of (Gladiators) jerseys." There are pucks, pucks and more pucks. There's even a dog, Presley, that the Johnsons adopted from a former Gladiators player.

More than that, though, there's the familial relationship that has developed in Mike's two-year reign as booster club president. When Mike was diagnosed in February, Gladiators players, members of the front office and coaches all cycled through his Northside Hospital room.

"He's a great guy. He does a lot for our organization, our team," Chapman said. "Over time you become friends. Our organization, we're kind of like a second family. I think it kind of hit us all pretty hard. We do whatever we can to support him."

And the Johnsons have always done whatever they can to support the Gladiators.

Whether its setting up events, making sure there's food in the locker room or a late-night run to Wal-Mart when a player gets sick, the Johnsons are there.

That's why it wasn't really a surprise when the Johnsons went through with the trip to the Ronald McDonald House.

"That's Mike, thinking of making someone else's life a little better when his is fighting a serious illness," said Mike Ramer, a fellow booster club member.

On his original timeframe, Johnson's goal was to make it to Christmas. Now, it's to make it to the weddings of several Gladiators, several friends, in August.

He'll admit even that's "up in the air."

"We don't have family other than them down here, we just don't," Lenita Johnson said, wiping away tears.

The Gladiators booster club is holding elections for new officers this week. Mike Johnson will not be running. But he'll still be part of the family.

"They've made it easy," he said, pausing quietly before re-evaluating his choice of words.

"Easier."

'Puck cancer'

Friday, the Johnsons will be among the expected 8,000 people at Gwinnett's Relay for Life event. The larger theme there is "Celebrating More Birthdays." The Johnson's personal theme is a natural one for a hockey-loving family: "Puck Cancer."

Lenita Johnson has been in the top three among the county's individual online fundraisers for weeks, and had personally raised $2,500 as of Wednesday afternoon. The 26-person "Mike's Fight" group, one with a decidedly Gladiators tinge, had raised more than $8,600.

They've raised money through a "Goals for Mike" program through the Gladiators, and sold pins bearing the "Puck Cancer" motto.

The Johnsons took part in Relay for the first time last year, in support of friend Scott Isabella. He passed away just a week afterward.

That was tough. This year will be tougher.

"It will be ... probably for me a little more somber," Mike Johnson said. "It will be tough for her because she will have another one or two."

"There will be some good memories," he added, pausing. "I'm going to make the best of it, try and make it (around the track) once."

They'll have an RV for Mike to rest in during the all-night event. Fittingly, they'll be boothed up with the Gladiators for the event.

After that, he and Lenita will get on a cruise to Alaska.

It's all part of Mike Johnson's final lap.

"You'll be there for me next year though," he said, squeezing a tissue in one hand and his wife's hand with the other.

Lenita Johnson didn't take time to contemplate the true weight of those loaded words, didn't hesitate with one quiet word of her own.

"Definitely."