Jack’s Run honors late equipment manager Johnson

Jack Johnson was the Gophers longtime equipment manager who died in 2006.

by Betsy Helfand

Jack Johnson died from liver cancer in 2006, but his legacy lives on at the University of Minnesota.

Johnson was a longtime equipment manager with the Gophers, and Saturday evening, the women’s cross country team will run in Jack’s Twilight Run — an annual race in his honor.

Former head women’s cross country coach Gary Wilson said Johnson’s passion for the University was unmatched.

“I can tell you this,” Wilson said. “There’s nobody in this world that’s ever been at the U that’s loved the U more than Jack Johnson.”

Now, the athletics program that Johnson spent years working for remembers him with meets in his honor.

The men’s track and field team participates in the Jack Johnson Invitational annually, and the women’s team runs in the Jack Johnson Classic. For the women’s cross country team, this will be the sixth annual Jack’s Twilight Run.

“I just wanted to honor him because without Jack and people like [him] in this program, it wouldn’t be where it is,” Wilson said.

Former athletics director Joel Maturi said he thought Wilson and current head coach Sarah Hopkins have done a “really good job teaching the new kids, who didn’t know Jack, who he was.”

Wilson said Johnson didn’t have much family, so the track and field and cross country teams became his family.

“He just loved the kids and the kids loved him,” Wilson said. “He treated the kids on the team like they were his daughters.”

And the job became an integral part of his life.

“That job was his life in some ways,” Maturi said, “and the students and the staff were his family. And I think that’s how he looked at it, and I think that it kept him going as long as it did.”

Hopkins ran for Minnesota when Johnson was an equipment manager and said he was always around in the equipment room and often traveled to meets with the team.

Though track and field and cross country were not the only sports Johnson tended to, Hopkins said she thought he took a liking to it because it was easy to figure out.

“He would always tell us, ‘Watch out for this one. She’s going to be really, really good down the road,’” Hopkins said. “And most of the time he was actually right.”

In his time with the Gophers, Johnson developed a close bond with Wilson. And while Johnson was battling cancer, Wilson and his wife, Suzy, took Johnson into their home. Johnson was eventually forced to retire because of his illness.

A retirement party was held in his honor at Mariucci Arena, and about 500 people showed up, Wilson said.

Johnson was at the hospital on the day of his party, and his nurse told him he had to stay overnight. Wilson said he came and “sprung him” out of the hospital anyway.

“He walked into the party and said, ‘I hate you. I hate you,’” Wilson said of Johnson. “But when he got in there, of course he loved it.”

Wilson said he bet Johnson would react similarly to meets in his name.

“He would not be happy about all this recognition, but too bad,” Wilson said. “He was a very special person to me. He was like a brother to me.”

Along with the meets, his legacy lives on through a scholarship fund he created. Wilson said before Johnson died, he sat down with his lawyer and decided he wanted to start the endowed scholarship.

“Basically every dime he had left in the world, he donated to the Jack Johnson [Endowed] Scholarship Fund,” Wilson said. “He didn’t leave anything to anybody else. It was pretty special.”

Though Saturday’s race is open to the general public and registration is free, a donation is suggested.

Proceeds from the race go to the Jack Johnson Endowed Scholarship and the Angel Foundation of Minnesota, an organization that Hopkins said was helpful to Johnson when he had cancer.

“[Until] his dying breath, all he talked about was the kids and how they were doing,” Wilson said.