Paying respect forward for Emily Johnson in Glenwood Springs
Post Independent Sports Editor
Emily Johnson’s presence was evident on Saturday at Gates Soccer Park on the Colorado Mountain College Spring Valley campus.
Even though Johnson passed away in 2008 following an ATV accident, her influence has carried on five years later. And while her spirit made a positive impact on friends and family, her the gift of organ donation saved the lives of two people whom she had never met.
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Emily Johnson’s impact on the lives of her friends and family has extended to people she never knew.
She’s impacted people who have played in the tournament named for her, the Emily Johnson Play It Forward 3-on-3 Soccer Tournament, which had one of its largest turnouts ever Saturday at Gates Soccer Park.
She’s also impacted people through scholarships named for her, each giving an area student an opportunity to attend college.
Her biggest impact, however, was how her death following an ATV accident in 2008 saved the lives of two total strangers.
One of them is Tyler Garrison, a 42-year-old Denver native who now lives in Bozeman, Mont., who drove with his family to Glenwood Springs to attend the tournament. Johnson was listed as an organ donor, and her pancreas and liver went to Garrison following Johnson’s death.
It came at just the right time for Garrison, who was a Type 1 diabetic whose kidneys were failing. But thanks to Johnson, Garrison is not only alive and well, but hasn’t touched insulin since the surgery.
“I was on insulin for 35 years of my life before this,” he said. “I feel so blessed. She saved my life.”
Garrison wasn’t the only one who came a long way to attend the tournament. David Briggs of Ventura, Calif., made the trip on his Harley Davidson motorcycle. Briggs’ wife, C.J., received both of Emily’s lungs following Johnson’s death.
“You think about everything that’s happened since then,” Briggs said. “What happened to Emily was so tragic. Then you look around here [at the tournament], and the only thing I hear is laughter and happiness. It’s just awesome.”
Now in its fifth year, the Play It Forward tournament drew 40 youth and adult teams from around the nation, but primarily from around Colorado. It was just two short of the 42 teams the event drew during its first year.
Proceeds from tournament entry fees and sponsorships help pay for three $3,000 college scholarships, which are awarded annually by a selection committee to area high school students. This year, Diana Banks of Glenwood Springs High School won the Valley Wide Soccer Scholarship, Kelsey Fauser of Coal Ridge won the Play It Forward Soccer Scholarship, and Tzetzi Mendez of Coal Ridge was given the Creativity Scholarship.
Since Johnson was big into creative T-shirts, teams created their own uniforms as a way of making the atmosphere that much more fun. Some uniform tops consisted of bright orange or fluorescent green tie-dye, with others sporting pictures or custom writing.
Emily’s mother, Sheryl Johnson, who serves as the tournament organizer, was impressed with the diversity of teams. The tournament, which concludes today with adult co-ed play, brought in teams from Delta, Silt, New Castle, Carbondale, and even Montana and Massachusetts. She was also touched, however, by the gestures which were made by the donor recipients in attending the tournament.
“You definitely learn a lot about the journey,” Sheryl said. “You learn a lot about both sides of organ donation. I don’t think a lot of people understand both sides.”
Garrison had been on a waiting list for a new kidney for 12 months, and was set up to have a living donor give her kidney to him in December of 2008. But on Nov. 17 of that year, Garrison received a phone call telling him a kidney had just become available, but he was behind three other people on the waiting list.
Another phone call came 24 hours later, however, telling him he was up. Two people in front of him were sick with the flu, and another was outside the country. He was on a plane the next day to Denver, where he received Johnson’s pancreas and kidney.
“Oh my gosh. It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about how lucky I am,” said Garrison, whose children, son Smith, 8, and daughter Charlie, 10, played in tie-dyed tops on a team called “The Dream Team.”
“I get to watch my kids grow up now,” he continued. “And it’s all because someone was a good human being.”
When the phone call came to Briggs’ wife that same day in 2008, it was the second lung transplant C.J. would undergo. Her body was rejecting the tissue from the previous lung donor, which forced her to be hospitalized for close to six months.
Then on Nov. 17 — exactly four years after the Briggses received a call about their first lung donor — “we received Emily’s gift,” Briggs said.
C.J., however, died in January of kidney failure, though David admits her new lungs were still going strong. The couple, however, had planned to come out to the tournament prior to C.J.’s passing, and David was reminded of it weeks ago when some friends of his began talking about a West Coast to East Coast motorcycle road trip.
When his friends backed off the idea, however, David didn’t.
“I was already mentally committed to going by then,” he said.
“This tournament is great at honoring Emily,” Briggs continued. “I can obviously see that this is pretty well established, and it looks like it’s going to be around for decades to come. So that honor will live on forever, and the memory of my wife will go along with it.”
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