Tulsa coach's daughter inspires Marine Corps Marathon runner

By JOHN E. HOOVER | Tulsa World, Okla. | Published: October 23, 2013

TULSA, Okla. — When Steve Dickie stands at the starting line of the 38th Marine Corps Marathon on Sunday in Washington, D.C., he'll have a University of Tulsa hat on his head and a University of Tulsa football coach in his heart. 

Dickie, 57, is running in honor of Kelsey Johnson, daughter of TU assistant Denver Johnson.

In April 1996, just after Johnson took a job coaching offensive line for the Oklahoma Sooners, he got a phone call that Kelsey, then 4, had been diagnosed with leukemia.

"It was shocking," Johnson said. "You could have run a spear through me and stuck me up against the wall and probably not shocked me more than what that did."

Johnson's wife, Danita, still living in Starkville, Miss., as her husband relocated from one coaching gig to another, got a ride in the back of a highway patrol cruiser to St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, where Kelsey began treatment immediately. Their other daughter, Taylor, stayed with friends in Starkville to finish kindergarten.

"We thought we lost her several times," Johnson said. "She was a siiiick little girl."


Now, Kelsey Johnson and her support group have written one of the greatest stories ever.

Last spring she graduated from nursing school at the University of Mississippi and is working at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital in Memphis.

Naturally, her career goal is to be a nurse at St. Jude.

Dickie's role in this tale is almost accidental.

He'd always been a runner, but in 2002, while living in Memphis, he became interested in running in the inaugural St. Jude Half Marathon. His own daughter, then 13, asked him, 'Why only go halfway?' So he went all-in and ran his first marathon. The Marine Corps Marathon will be his third to raise money for St. Jude.

"The operating costs there are obviously staggering," Dickie said, "because they not only provide treatment, but they do research."

Last December, during the TU football team's Liberty Bowl excursion to St. Jude, Kelsey and her dad got to virtually lead a tour of the facility. Everyone was struck by her story.

Then in August, TU coach Bill Blankenship was a guest speaker at Oklahoma Methodist Manor, a Tulsa retirement community for which Dickie is CEO.

When the bowl trip and St. Jude and Kelsey's story came up, Dickie saw a chance for another opportunity to help St. Jude.

"This time is different for me," he said.

So on Sunday, the former U.S. Navy hospital corpsman will run the Marine Corps Marathon as a St. Jude Hero, raising money for the hospital that doesn't charge its patients a penny. So far, he has raised $4,385. More — contributions may be made at bit.ly/dickierun — would be nice.

"What St. Jude does day in and day out is to fight for children like Kelsey, to fight for the other two people I've run for before," Dickie said. "The privilege in me doing this — I'm not a Tiger Woods. I can't build a hostel for parents, I can't build a Ronald McDonald House or a Grizzlies House like the Memphis Grizzlies have done. But I can increase peoples' awareness about the mission of St. Jude, and I can raise money."

Kelsey Johnson was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Because of the work and research at St. Jude and similar institutions, survival rate for Kelsey's form of leukemia has gone from about 4 percent in 1962 (when entertainer Danny Thomas started St. Jude) to 94 percent now, according to the hospital.

Kelsey was at St. Jude for almost four months, and continued treatment for 2½ years while her dad coached football, first in Norman, then as head coach at Murray State in Kentucky, just three hours from Memphis.

"The logistics of all that, and the time and distance and then the severity of all — I tell you, it just about broke me," said Johnson, a gentle but mountainous man with the combination of wit and intensity that may be unique to offensive line coaches. "I thought I was gonna crater there about two or three times. I'm just not that strong, and I'm not that brave. I can only attribute making it through that period of our lives to the many Christian friends who held us up in prayer. We just had a very difficult time."

When Kelsey finally was pronounced cancer-free, she knew only that she would someday return to St. Jude and do for others what they had done for her.

The football team at Tulsa is having a rough season. A consensus preseason pick to win Conference USA, TU has opened the year with a 2-4 record. The offense has struggled, and Denver Johnson's offensive line unit has taken plenty of blame.

Football is as important to Johnson today as it ever was, but everyone knows a difficult football season is small compared to the emotional enormity of what he has been through. For the past 18 years or so, he has had a different perspective on life.

"Unfortunately, I know what some daddy somewhere today is experiencing," he said, choking back tears behind the desk in his office overlooking Chapman Stadium. "Some daddy today has just been told his kid's got cancer. Maybe some daddy in Tulsa."

And because of St. Jude Heroes like Dickie and so many others, that daddy's ordeal might not be as dire as Johnson's was or might not last as long as Johnson's did.

It takes a lot of heroes for someone to beat cancer. That's why Johnson and his family are so moved by Dickie's marathon efforts.

"I was flattered. Honored. And really appreciative," Johnson said. "Because right now, it's not about us. It's about those kids that are there today, and the ones that are gonna show up tomorrow."

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