I wrote these words almost a year ago. In many ways I can't believe it's been that long. On November 2, 2016, my big brother and best friend called to tell me that one of his closest friends, a guy I grew up with and admired, had unexpectedly passed away. A year later I still miss Dean Johnson. There are so many things I look forward to when I visit home (Indiana), but the one thing that gave me life was playing poker with my brother Chris, my dad Terry, Kenny Knartzer, and Dean Johnson. I thought today would be a good day to post my thoughts about Dean as I wrote them on the way home for his funeral.
Miss you Deano ...
Today I'm taking an unexpected trip home to Indy. Usually I love going home, but not today.
Last Wednesday night I received the kind of text/call that I simply never wanted to get. Someone close to me had passed out and it "didn't look good."
I hate those words.
My longtime and dear friend Dean Johnson was teaching a small group of high school boys at church when he passed out and began gasping for air. My brother, Chris, was called and, on his way to the hospital, let me know that things "didn't look good."
I was sitting in the parking lot at the Bluffton School of Dance, 800 miles away, waiting for Sadie to finish her ballet class. When we started home I texted Chris to let him know I was praying for him too. By that time he was at the hospital with a room full of worried friends and frightened teenagers. He sent me a short, heartbreaking response:
"No one here knows yet, but he's gone ..."
I wept when I read it.
I wept when I got home.
I'm tearing up as I write this 3 days later.
Dean Johnson passed away almost immediately on Wednesday night from what is believed to have been a massive heart attack. He was 47.
Is this happening?! Am I really sitting in the airport to fly home for Dean's funeral?
HOW. IS. THIS. POSSIBLE?
Dean is one of those guys who makes everything better. He's full of joy. He creates laughter. He makes situations better ... he makes people better. And his motives are pure. I honestly don't think I've ever heard him say a disparaging word to anyone; he genuinely chooses to love people.
I don't remember the first time I met Dean, but I remember being around him as a teenager. He was one of my Big Brother's best friends, so I was required to look up to him! It was always Chris, Dean, and Kenny Knartzer playing basketball or whiffle ball or softball or football. When I got a little older (and bigger) I was invited to play, and I was always on Dean's team. He was my basketball and football teammate, always playing against Chris and Kenny.
The battles we fought and the fun that we had!
24 by 4, best 3 out of 5 or 4 out of 7 in the sweltering heat, playing on the goal at the culdesac down the street where the crack in the pavement served as the 3 point line. There were the moments Dean would simply take over the game by saying, "And now entering the game ... number 33 ... Larry Bird!!" Then he'd make the 'hahhhehhahh' sound of the crowd roaring. I would just smile and move out of the way as Dean would more-times-than-not step back and drill some absurdly long 3 pointer to win the game!
Whenever Chris would ask if I could play I'd drop whatever I was doing with a resounding "Yes!"
It was fierce on the basketball court, but it got downright bloody on the football field! We won a lot, and we lost a lot too. The Hilltop Super Bowl. The "Chad Beck" game. The Bloody Finger game. The unstoppable "hook and ladder." Dean's strip-tackles. Karl Knartzer's improbable running game. I would drive 100 miles from Cincinnati Bible College whenever I could to be a part of the Putz Football League!
I remember these games as the best of my teenage and college years.
I've played basketball, football, and a little whiffle ball as Dean's partner, and I've played some softball and golf with him too. Looking back I can't think of a single time that Dean got angry with me or pressed me or made me feel smaller or less than the rest of them, even though I was 4 grades younger. He just let me be me, win or lose.
It has been a long time since I've thought about those days. In recent years the four of us, mostly retired from competitive sports, have taken to playing poker. In fact, every time I come to Indianapolis ... my home ... we get a poker game together. These games have become a cherished tradition for me. It is one of the only places I feel truly "home." Chris' obsession with Blackjack. My Dad (Pop) calling 7-card, low hold, last card down and dirty. Kenny calling Baseball. My love of 2 legged continual sequence. Jacks or Better/Trips to Win. And then there's always the night's closing game from Dean: dollar-dollar-dollar (Screw Your Neighbor). I generally always sit to Dean's left, which puts me in the "catbird seat" for Screw Your Neighbor, but I never seem to win! Poker with my Big Brother, my Pop, and my Big Brother's friends ... MY friends Kenny and Dean.
I can't tell you the number of times we have been in tears laughing or staring in disbelief at an unbelievable hand of "In-between" or "Screw Your Neighbor" over long talks about 80's music, the Colts, the Pacers, or politics. And then there's Dean's uncanny, unnatural, inhuman encyclopedic knowledge of Country music! Seriously, 10 seconds (usually less) of any country song from virtually any decade and Dean can tell you title, performer, and year of publication ... and on occasion song author and awards won!
While he loved sports, politics, and country music, his true passion was following Jesus. I don't mean the "go to church and read your Bible" kind of following, I mean the "dying to yourself" kind. Dean didn't spend years on the mission field in a foreign county, he made everywhere he went a mission field. At work, in his neighborhood, and especially when hanging out with the high school boys at Mount Pleasant Christian Church. He didn't spend his time telling people about Jesus because he was too busy being Jesus to them. He served people. He encouraged people. He challenged them. But mostly he just loved them.
A few hours after Chris told me about Dean's passing he said, "I don't think I've known anyone more faithful than Dean."
I couldn't agree more.
It is both poetic and powerful to know that last Wednesday night when Dean passed out he was in the middle of teaching a group of high school boys about the importance of their faith. My brother was scheduled to teach on finances that night, but a week or two earlier Dean decided to change the lesson because he didn't think "his guys" were "getting it" with regard to living their faith.
Faithful to the end.
And so I'm traveling home on an unwanted trip to say goodbye to my friend Dean. It won't be an easy trip, but it will be a good one. There will be tears for sure, for Dean will be missed terribly, but there will also be celebrating. We will celebrate Dean's smile, his kindness, his laughter, and his wit. We will talk about how fortunate we all were to have known him and to have spent time with him. We'll be inspired by the stories of his faith and challenged by the example of his faithfulness.
And we will embrace the hope we all so dearly need; a hope that lets us know that we'll see Dean again someday.
And while I don't know exactly what heaven will be like, I do believe that I have not played my last game of poker with Dean Johnson.
Until then ... thanks Deano, for being my partner and my friend, and inspiring me to live faithfully and run the race well to the very end.
I can't wait to sit in the catbird seat with you again ...