This is a story about how the camaraderie of football brought together foes in heartbreaking death and how the tragedy was a bittersweet coming-of-age moment for those left behind.
ADA, Okla. — The Tigers were huddled together one last time. The Class 4A football state quarterfinals had just ended in a Cleveland defeat.
Athletes were lamenting the finale of a nine-win season that sparked a community of less than 4,000 to rally like it hadn’t since a hometown kid won the Heisman Trophy in 1952 or when another was taken Prisoner of War in 1991.
To long-suffering Cleveland fans, it was a season of stories that belong engraved on a pedestal in the halls of heaven.
It’s a program that, under the current head coach, started out 0-7 in 2006 and worked its way within two wins of playing in the state finals, something Cleveland hasn’t done in half a century.
As fans and friends congratulated them on a brave effort, sweat merged with tears. The Tigers just proved football is a game in which you not only strive to champion, but one in which you strive to do so honorably.
About 35 teenage boys met on a blistering hot Pawnee County practice field over the summer.
In the fall, they walked off a field in Ada, Okla., transformed into men.
It wasn’t the touchdowns that gave them a growth spurt. It was a reminder that life is precious and sometimes cruel, even to kids with nothing but dreams ahead of them.
When their sophomore teammate Walker Griffith was diagnosed with tissue cancer earlier this year, the Tigers gathered around him, supported him and made him believe that cancer or no cancer, hair or no hair, he was still part of their team.
The Tigers strapped on their helmets over 12 weeks and with every punishing tackle, every diving attempt to catch a ball, every single down of every single game, they symbolically shouldered Griffith’s battle with cancer.
They couldn’t literally take on his battle, but they could take a swing at the ugly disease by dominating opponents like a heavyweight boxer attacking a speed bag.
Griffith was their inspiration to win, and they were his inspiration to fight.
The Tigers were often reminded that the life of a teenager isn’t always about girls or movies or girls or video games or girls. Sometimes, instead of innocence, it’s about your greatest fears. Sometimes, it’s about your friend’s life.
Those moments of fragility prepared the Tigers for the state quarterfinal.
Reality prepared them for the game itself, but also prepared them for what happened the week leading up to the game and the moments after the game, when they didn’t know the world was watching.
It prepared them for a moment when they, despite life struggles within their own team family, showed that their love was too big to stay within the borders of the Cleveland city limits.
Devastation hits Ada
Almost 48 hours to the minute before the game kicked off against Cleveland, the town of Ada came to a standstill.
For perspective, Ada is one of those places where football is like air. The program has 19 state titles, the most in the entire state of Oklahoma. It is also one of the winningest high school programs in the entire United States. It’s stacked with the kind of history that jumps off pages.
Even though the Cougars have been in a 16-year title drought, the sting of losing still hits folks in Ada like a February baptism at icy Lake Konowa.
Football players are like junior mayors in Ada.
So, when the news trickled in to the gas stations and the grocery store aisles and the all-night diners, it was devastating.
Cody Johnson, a senior two-way starter for the Cougars, was killed when his motorcycle hit an object in the road.
He was wearing a helmet, but he was pronounced dead at the scene.
Johnson wasn’t just a gridiron star. He was a star pitcher and catcher on the baseball diamond as well, earning All-State honorable mention honors last season. He had a shot in 2012 at being a dual-sport All-Stater.
Nine hours before his death, this statement published in the Cleveland American’s scouting report: “On the defensive and offensive lines, 6-foot-1, 255-pound Cody Johnson is king.”
Two nights before the big game, Ada put football aside and instead prayed its defensive tackle was resting peacefully alongside The King.
“He was just a kid everyone liked,” said an Ada fan who declined to give her name after Friday’s game. “He was going places. He really was. To see a life with so much promise just end like that… I just can’t describe it. I didn’t know him really well, but I knew who he was and not because of football or because he was a troublemaker or anything. I knew who he was because he just had a light about him.”
Another fan poked her head into the conversation and simply said, “He was a big, ol’ teddy bear of a kid. Polite. Goofy. Always smiling.” Then she kept walking, clutching to her Ada stadium blanket and holding hands with a crying girl who was wearing an “in memory of” T-shirt.
Johnson’s death didn’t only leave a hole in the defensive line. It was clear that losing him left a hole in the community.
Do Unto Others
When Cleveland coach Dale Anderson told the Tigers about Johnson’s accident, the team immediately prayed together.
This is one team that is no stranger to prayer. The Tigers have come together many times to pray for teammate Griffith in his cancer fight. They also pray to ask for guidance. They pray for safety. They pray to remain grounded in all the hubbub that surrounds a winning season. They pray before games, after games and in between. Sometimes they do it as a team. The majority of the time, players kneel off to the side, out of view, and pray alone.
And the day before the biggest game of their lives, before the biggest crowd they’d ever seen – the small-town team held hands and prayed for its opponent, an Oklahoma Goliath that had been dealt tragedy.
The Tigers decided they wanted to pay respects to Johnson by wearing No. 56 decals on their helmets.
Cleveland was about to play in the state quarterfinals, where battle lines are drawn and the only objective is to win and move on, yet it was making plans to wear the jersey number of an opponent on the field.
Maybe Johnson’s death made them think of losing their own teammate. Maybe it made them think of their own brothers or sisters at home. But maybe it wasn’t any of that at all. Maybe those kids just had a gut reaction like all of us should: When someone is hurting, console them and think about yourself later.
As the residents of Cleveland gathered for a send-off fit for a team with realistic hopes of making it to the semifinals, the players were busy, once again, thinking of their foes.
The Tigers filed out of the Event Center at the Cleveland Public Schools complex and, one by one, just like they do every game, touched the statue of hometown Heisman hero Billy Vessels.
As they turned the corner to walk toward the team buses and the cheering student body, a sign carried by a player in the front of the line flapped gently in the wind. It read, “In loving memory of No. 56.”
It was their moment to shine, to eat up the attention being showered upon them. Good gravy, they had a chance to take state. Those were goals that escaped Cleveland for a few decades. This was a big moment.
They instead chose to honor a player who had worn the opponent’s uniform, one who wouldn’t ever get the chance to play football again.
Despite the looming competition, the Tigers showed compassion that was far-reaching. They desperately wanted to win, and they promised to show tribute to a great athlete by giving it their all on the field.
It didn’t matter that Johnson’s jersey was a different shade of red. It was about honoring the memory of an elite athlete in the most respectable way.
That’s the moment when Cody Johnson, of Ada, Okla., became an honorary Cleveland Tiger. Forever.
Doing it for Cody
The Ada captains met at midfield carrying Johnson’s jersey like they were still holding onto his hands.
A moment(s) of silence and a balloon release in Johnson’s honor made fans on both sides cry.
Perhaps one of the most moving moments for Cougar fans was when the Cleveland cheerleaders delivered a condolence sign, along with dozens and dozens of pink sympathy flowers from Tiger fans.
“When the Tiger cheerleaders came over to our sideline, I lost it, admittedly,” 2001 AHS graduate Adam Crabtree said.
When the game began, it was Ada’s turn to do something for its brother.
Playing with passion usually only found in the depths of souls, the Cougars, determined to stay afloat to win their 20th title, took control of the game.
The final score, 41-7, was wide, but the Tigers didn’t give up, and they fought hard every down. They did so for the hundreds of Cleveland fans who traveled nearly three hours to watch them attempt to write a footnote in Tiger history. They did it for Griffith, who had a brutal round of chemotherapy and radiation earlier in the day, yet insisted on being on the sidelines that night.
They did it for Johnson, who lived for football, but died before he got the chance to play on the ultimate stage.
None of the Cleveland players had experienced the playoffs before. In fact, the week prior, the program played in its first playoff game in eight years. Usually, the most seasoned teams thrive in the postseason.
An inexperienced Tiger team fell short of advancing to the final four. It hurts for those boys. They don’t play to lose. A good team, however, learns more in defeat than in victory.
Their unsolicited compassion for a heartbroken community 125 miles away was something that will be remembered in Ada forever.
A fortune cookie once said, “Sometimes traveling to a new place leads to great transformation.”
In their response other people’s heartbreak, those boys became men.
Fortune cookies are mostly silly, but in the case of the Cleveland Tigers, it’s a future worth believing.
Sweet hour of prayer
The Tigers finished huddling with family, received all their “good game” and “you’re winners in our books” comments, and they turned to see a middle-aged man in a maroon sweatshirt. He was walking across the field with purpose.
Johnson’s stepfather, Bert Masters, was flanked by several Ada cheerleaders. He walked up on the group of Tigers and said on behalf of his wife, Angie, his voice cracking, “I want to tell you and the whole town (of Cleveland), thank you so much.”
He was distraught and his hands nervously clutched to one another. Then he said, “I’m sorry for your loss, guys. Somebody’s got to lose.”
He was sorry for their loss?
Time seemed to stand still as those words left his lips. There was a man grieving for a boy he helped to raise, and he also was concerned about kids he’d just met and their reaction to losing a ball game.
A local minister who is part of the Cleveland staff put his hand on Masters’ shoulder, and the Tigers joined together and removed their helmets. Anderson embraced Masters and held him while he wept.
And just like they have done hundreds of times before, the Tigers prayed.
They prayed for comfort and they prayed for peace.
Two parties that had never met each other before that instant were sharing a love so strong, they might as well have been family.
Masters turned to Anderson after the prayer, took a photo of Johnson and pinned it to Anderson’s jacket. The two men embraced again – one feeling the pain of losing a precious son, the other seemingly trying to absorb as much as he could to make the load a little lighter.
Masters turned to the players and he didn’t stop until he hugged the neck of every Tiger in his sight.
Cheerleaders clung to each other. Cleveland coaches held tightly to their wives and children and mothers.
Spontaneously, Cleveland fans lined up and began removing their pink heart-shaped “56” pins and handing them to Masters.
They couldn’t heal his heart, so they left a little piece of their own.
Hearts of gold
Just like that, Oklahoma’s most decorated team and Oklahoma’s little engine that could, joined together in an unlikely friendship that has created an unbreakable bond.
Two groups of people, led by the memory of a kid and the reaction of other kids, showed there is hope for this cruel world and all its awful twists and turns. They demonstrated that the next generation is full of kind and compassionate high school students who already are leaders in society.
Some scrunch up their faces and say that Oklahoma is a poor state. Pawnee County is just a bunch of poor folks in poverty, they say.
In the middle of the United States, on a battlefield soaked with tears, a group of people from a poor, little Arkansas River town personified love in a way that actually makes it the richest place on Earth.
You’re doing fine, Oklahoma.
Gold balls don’t outweigh hearts of gold.
This story by Brandi Ball was published in The Cleveland American on Nov. 20, 2012 and won multiple sports journalism awards.
Photojournalist Mark Whaley captured raw video of the emotional postgame moments, prayer and friendship. To watch (and cry), click here: https://vimeo.com/user9440139/adapostgamemoment