Pioneers help coach deal with death of young son

By Pat Graham

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Nov. 13 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

DENVER — Erik Johnson pored over the game footage from last year, not so much to study his University of Denver women's basketball squad as to search the fringes of the frame for a glimpse of that precocious kid.

Inevitably, the youngster would pop up on the screen.

Johnson would spot him dancing with the cheerleaders, climbing on railings; sometimes his beaming face was plastered on the big screen.

The images of the affable kid around the court at Magness Arena were both heartwarming and heart-wrenching.

That boy was his son, Davis, who died suddenly on May 6 after an undiagnosed precondition led to a twisting of his small intestine. He had just turned 4 years old.

"I miss him," Johnson said. "My wife misses him, my daughters miss him and my team misses him, too.

"He should be here."

Dealing with the loss has been difficult, especially here, on the court, with basketball season starting. Hoops has always served as Johnson's escape, his sanctuary from the real world.

But everywhere the Pioneers coach looks these days, there are little reminders of Davis.

At practice, Johnson can almost picture Davis on the floor running around, clowning around with his players, who used to pitch in and baby-sit.

In the locker room, where his son would saunter in after a game and climb into someone's lap as his dad gave his postgame speech.

And especially when looking at game film, as virtually every home contest featured the fun-seeking Davis getting caught on camera in some fashion, whether it was greeting the team with high-fives before the game or entertaining the crowd by donning size 12 shoes and trying to make a shot during a break in the action.

Watching those tapes again has been difficult — and a delight.

"I don't look back saying I wish I would've paid him more attention or I wish I would've loved him more. Not possible," Johnson said. "Same with my wife, Laura. Every night, we'd say, 'Can you believe what your son did today? Is he not the cutest thing ever?'

"We didn't miss a minute, and he squeezed every ounce out of his four years and 16 days."

That boy who bounded all over the arena, all over practice, has brought this Pioneers squad even closer. He was like their little brother, the players taking turns watching him and his two older sisters, Daly and Avery.

And he admired the team.

In fact, Davis' wish for his third birthday was to have the entire squad over to his house to dance to "High School Musical" in between bites of macaroni and cheese.

"At one point, he turned to everybody and said, 'This is the best birthday ever!'" Johnson said. "It was a wonderful thing to say and ended up being very prophetic."

To honor Davis this season, the Pioneers will wear patches bearing his initials on their jerseys. They will also keep a locker for him.

Just small remembrances for their biggest little fan.

"This teaches you how you need to enjoy life," said Kaetlyn Murdoch, a junior forward from Temple, Texas. "Enjoy every moment."

Months later, Johnson still chokes up talking about his son's death, still way too emotional, too raw.

In medical terms, Davis had an intestinal malrotation that caused a catastrophic twisting of his small intestine, cutting off the blood supply and leading to a large portion of his small intestine dying. No one knew until it was too late.

As sad as Johnson was, as much as he wanted to retreat, he simply couldn't.

Not with his wife and two young daughters grieving, too.

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