He doesn’t hold any records and his name is not in the ranks with other Minnesota track and field legends.
But Jack Johnson’s place on the track and field program is as resounding as that of any other person.
Having retired last fall after 29 years as the track and field manager, Johnson is now more of a spiritual leader for the team, especially while coming to grips with the news that he has terminal lung cancer.
This weekend’s meet at the University Field House has been renamed the Jack Johnson Classic. Johnson also donated $25,000 to the athletics department to start a scholarship fund for student-athletes.
“I feel as though he became extra close to the track program,” junior distance runner Lauren Williams said.
“I think the least we can do is name a meet after him, just to kind of show him how much he means to the program.”
Coach Gary Wilson has worked with and been a friend of Johnson’s for more than 20 years, and said the money and time he spends with the team means a lot to him and the athletes.
“He is just such a tremendous leader by example,” Wilson said. “The kids are just drawn to him because they know that he is out there working for them for very little salary, and yet, he does it as though he is making a million dollars.”
The tough part is that Johnson does not have too many days with the team before his number is called.
He found out about four months ago that he is suffering from terminal lung cancer.
“You can never take it, it’s never easy,” Johnson said of the news. “But you have to do what you have to do… you just got to live with it.”
Johnson said the athletes help him stay strong and feel young.
“He would always ask us how our day was going,” Williams said, “and anything he could do to help us… equipment-wise or about the upcoming race.”
Williams said Johnson’s case has helped the team succeed at a higher level.
“Our goal and his goal is to see us win a Big Ten championship at some point,” Williams said. “It’s been kind of an inspiration for our team, probably both indoor and outdoor, to get him that Big Ten championship.”
Wilson said the team created “JACK” T-shirts to support Johnson, which they will wear for the remainder of the year.
Johnson said he appreciates all that Wilson has done for him and calls him a “brother.”
“He takes care of me and has been very helpful with me to fight this,” Johnson said.