Without the help of medication, Dennis Johns can't get out of bed, brush his teeth or dress by himself. Without the walker he uses to get around, he falls down on a regular basis - and has the bruises to prove it.
Johns, 56, has suffered from Parkinson's disease for nearly 22 years, and in that time, the illness gradually robbed him of the ability to do many routine things as well as participate in many of the activities he loves. As his condition worsened, his confidence waned and he wondered if he had anything to offer other people.Then came the chance this summer to be an assistant coach for a Little League baseball team. It's proven to be a life-altering experience.
"It's the best thing that's happened to him in a long time,"
said Johns' wife, Judy. "When one of the boys calls and asks for `Coach Johns,' he grows a couple of inches taller."
Before the season began, Johns' neighbor, Bryan Benson, was named the head coach of the White Sox, a team made up of fifth- and sixth-graders. Knowing that Johns possesses an excellent working knowledge of the game - he played on the freshman baseball team at BYU as well as semi-pro ball - Benson asked him to be his assistant.
"Dennis just perked up," Judy Johns recalled. "It was like he was being offered a $1 million job."
Since then, she has witnessed an inspiring transformation in her husband. Whenever he goes to the ballpark or spends time with the players, he recaptures a sense of what he's lost to Parkinson's. The last time he coached was 15 years ago in California, back when the disease didn't have such a firm grip on him and he was able to coach his sons' Little League teams.
"People don't come to him much anymore for help. People don't depend on him," she said. "He's passed over and not understood.
"Now, there's a glimmer, a glow about him. He steps back into a wholeness. It gives him relief. The little guys put confidence in him. They respect him. On game day, he counts the hours until game time."
Yet that doesn't mean it is easy for him. He frequently takes spills while playing catch with the players. Yet Judy Johns revels in what her husband can accomplish despite his limitations.
"He rises to the occasion," she said. "He's not a quitter. He falls on his face so many times, he's gone beyond being embarrassed."
Johns is one of about 1.5 million people who suffer from Parkinson's. Though it is not a fatal illness, there is no known cure. What doctors do know is the disease destroys brain cells, causing victims to lose muscle control.
Slowness of movement, poor balance and a stiffness of limbs are some of the symptoms of Parkinson's, which Johns calls his "unwanted companion." The illness also lowers voice volume, impeding the ability to communicate verbally. There are times when Johns suffers a "shut-down mode" and is rendered immobile.
"Everything turns off," Judy Johns explained. "He freezes and doesn't have a lot of functioning ability."
A variety of drugs mitigate the disease's severity and Dennis Johns takes medication five times a day. Still, the drugs provide plenty of side effects, such as uncontrolled movement. On days when the team plays, he schedules taking the medication around the game, ensuring he's at his best during those two hours.
Because it is difficult for him to project his voice, Benson often vocalizes Johns' thoughts and feelings to the players. Even when others can't understand the point Johns is trying to make, Benson can.
"We're pretty much on the same wavelength," Benson explained. "He's a remarkable man and a baseball fanatic."
The players have responded to Johns' knowledge and coaching expertise. It's difficult to determine who has benefited most from the experience, Johns or the kids. The 11- and 12-year-old players on the team don't see anything strange or different about him.
"They accepted me as I am," Johns said.
Ask the players about their coach, and they talk about him inviting them to his house for individual workouts and the way he's helped them with their batting and pitching.
That's it. To them, he is simply "Coach Johns." There's no mention of the fact he's the only coach in the league to rest on a walker, equipped with wheels and hand brakes, in the third-base coaching box.
Their parents believe Johns' example is teaching unspoken lessons. Leave it to the grown-ups to wax philosophical and gauge the long-term benefits of Dennis Johns coaching their children.
"It's very encouraging for a father, knowing his son is learning that you can get past disabilities in life," said Jeff Rasmussen, whose son, Tim, is on the team. "Kids don't see him as someone with a disability. He's their coach. He's a real role model because he's here for these kids."
"It opens up for them an understanding and to look beyond a person's physical situation," Benson said. "I've learned that no matter what difficulties we have in life, you can be an example to others through weaknesses."
Following each game, Johns and Benson huddle the players together and rehash what happened on the field. Then Johns awards the game ball to a player on the team who did something special that day. Every player has received a game ball.
"This has been as good for the players as it's been for Coach Johns," Rasmussen said.
Indeed. Without him, the White Sox wouldn't have been the same this summer and vice verse. The team took third place in the league and is preparing for the state tournament in a week or so. But no matter how that turns out, everyone agrees the season has been a winning proposition all the way around.