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BC’s Erik Johnson is coaching through the grief

Erik Johnson, a former BC women’s basketball assistant who is back now as the head coach, lost his son at age 4 to an undiagnosed birth defect in May 2010.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Erik Johnson, a former BC women’s basketball assistant who is back now as the head coach, lost his son at age 4 to an undiagnosed birth defect in May 2010.

It’s easy to see how a toddler could love this park. It’s child-sized, not too big, not too overwhelming, dotted with playground equipment and abandoned toy cars.

It was 4-year-old Davis Johnson’s favorite, in back of his parents’ house in Needham when the family lived in Boston the first time around, from 2006-08. It was close enough to the house, a staple on his father’s morning running route.

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Erik Johnson stretches there, near a young tree turning orange and brown as winter approaches. It was planted a year ago with perhaps 100 people gathered near a plaque, spurred by a memory. The family didn’t live in Boston then; they had relocated to Colorado because Erik had been hired as women’s basketball coach at the University of Denver.

“In loving memory of Davis James Johnson,” the plaque reads. “2006-2010. To our Sweet Baby James, a great teacher of life and love.”

Erik, his wife Laura, and their friends didn’t know that, just a year later, the former Boston College assistant would be back in Chestnut Hill, that they would return to Needham, as Erik would take over the BC women’s basketball program after Sylvia Crawley’s resignation.

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It’s a comfort, having the tree so close, a reason they chose to live in Needham upon their return; their new house is less than a mile away from it. Laura wanted to be able to walk over. Erik, too. The tree drew him each morning on his run.

Erik Johnson is entering his first season as the women’s basketball coach at BC.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Erik Johnson is entering his first season as the women’s basketball coach at BC. .

“That’s a big part of his therapy — ‘I need to go for a run, I need some time, I need to be alone,’ ” said Yvonne Hawkins, the BC associate head coach who has worked with Johnson for the last six years.

“Sometimes you can see the pain on his face, and you know Erik’s having a bad day. And he won’t say anything, but you just know.”

.   .   .

As he sat his team down in the locker room at Conte Forum, Johnson pulled out Super Piglet. It was their first meeting, the new coach introducing himself to his team, and he wanted them to understand him. So he told them about the night of May 5, 2010, when the Johnson family was living in Denver.

It had been a good night, a night that would be savored. His older daughters — Daly, now 10, and Avery, now 8 — were off playing piano, doing homework, allowing a father time with his son.

Father and son read six books together, and when it was time for Davis to go to sleep, he looked over at the Piglet keychain sitting on the bedstand.

“He said, ‘Daddy, Piglet’s being Superman,’ ” Johnson recalled.

The figure’s arms were raised, in classic Superman pose, and Johnson renamed him “Super Piglet.”

Davis went to sleep. He died the next day, of intestinal malrotation, an undiagnosed birth defect that created a twisting of his small intestine. Davis hadn’t been sick; he had been a healthy 50-pound 4-year-old, a stomachache earlier that day the only indication that something might be wrong.

“That was the last conversation I ever had with my son,” Johnson said. “So Super Piglet’s always with me.”

He wanted his team to understand what his family had been through, what he was still going through.

“I just told them, it’s got to be OK when Coach cries,” Johnson said. “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll never desert you. I’ll never not be able to be there for you. But I’m going to have days when I’m struggling, just like you’re going to have days when you’re struggling.

“We’ve tried to tie it into it’s part of life. Life is bigger than basketball.”

His new team listened. Some had known Erik, back when he recruited them to come to BC. They had heard about Davis, but now his words drew the wetness from their eyes.

Kerri Shields, the only senior on the team, understood better than anyone. She had lost a young cousin around the time that Johnson joined the program. The coach was there for her, for her family, to remind them to focus on the positive, even in tragedy.

“That’s why we’re a team,” said Shields. “We’re there to get us through those tough times.”

Solace in the game

He didn’t know if he would make it back. He didn’t know if the joy would still be there, the enthusiasm, the energy. He didn’t know if he could be as passionate, if he could sell the game, if he could convince his players of what they needed to do. He wasn’t sure he could be the same coach.

It took nearly six weeks after his son’s death for Johnson to walk back on the court.

“I had to take some time to heal, to be able to even just really get out of bed,” Johnson said. “But I found in my first practices coming back that it was like, for that two hours on that 94-by-50 rectangle, nothing else existed.”

It wasn’t a real practice, that first one. It was a camp with recruits, with incoming freshmen, and he was able to run it, perhaps three hours of basketball in the midst of the pain.

“That was really important for me to realize — what a great thing to be able to just escape into basketball and be able to just throw yourself into it, and that I still could,” he said. “That I could still love the game. Because I wasn’t sure if I could.”

Others were telling him not to come back. The athletic director at Denver wanted him to take a sabbatical.

He wouldn’t. He couldn’t. The tragedy made him realize how much he needed the game. How much he needed to see the initials “DJJ” on his team’s jerseys every game day.

His team went 19-12, and made the WNIT, in the 2010-11 season.

“That may have been his best coaching job,” said Hawkins.

This, he saw, was exactly what he should be doing. He wasn’t the shell that he felt himself to be, at least not when he was striding along the sideline, working with his players, coaching.

“The biggest thing is you try to enjoy every minute,” he said. “That’s the one thing I promised. I promised my children and my wife and myself. I spoke at my son’s service, and I said that’s the one thing is I know we never missed a minute with Davis.

“I just had to promise myself that I’m never going to stop enjoying my family, my job, whatever, although it’s hard sometimes. Don’t miss a minute.”

Honesty is his policy

It was Johnson who brought up Davis in his interviews with BC. He didn’t want the subject to make anyone uncomfortable. He didn’t want people to be afraid to ask. So he made his son a part of the process.

“He naturally brought it up, actually in the first conversation I had with him,” said BC senior associate athletic director Jody Mooradian. “It’s just a natural part of who he is.”

To BC administrators, who had thought of Johnson first when the job became available, it wasn’t a concern. They weren’t worried about him. They were just hoping he was interested in the Eagles, who were coming off one of their worst seasons (7-23) in recent memory. It was a team lacking depth, athleticism, and size.

The hire seemed to make sense. For everyone.

“I think they had seen me be able to come through it and still be able to do it and, in a lot of ways, hopefully turn it into a strength — a strength of the program, a strength of the players and the staff and everything,” said Johnson.

That was how BC saw it, too. Handling his grief showed how much of a “whole person he is,” as Mooradian put it. The hiring committee could see how he cared for his players, for his family, and how that would translate to their program.

“I think when he opens himself up so quickly and honestly, you could just see a genuine fondness developing,” Mooradian said. “He works them hard. He’s a strong person, but he’s such a caring person. I think he also probably just wants to be completely honest and open right away. It’s who he is. It’s his past. It’s his story.”

When asked what made him want to return, Johnson slides quickly through the experience at BC, saying it was an amazing time, personally and professionally.

“Our son was born here,” he says. It is where his mind goes, always.

In some ways, it has been more difficult than they anticipated to return to this place. In some ways, it has been easier, too.

They know him here, in Chestnut Hill. He understands this place and, he believes, they understand him, even if they weren’t there when the unthinkable happened.

“He is different,” Mooradian said. “He’s matured. When he was here, he was a younger, go-get-em type coach with probably a little more tunnel vision. Now he just seems to have grown into his own.

“There’s a process we all go through as we grow, and I really think he’s much more settled and strong.”

Hawkins puts it a bit differently.

“I’ll tell you what, he’s a lot grayer,” she said with a slight sigh.

One day at a time

It’s harder with people who never met Davis. Johnson is never sure if they know. There is comfort in knowing that others know. He isn’t certain how that would have gone had his next coaching stop been somewhere unfamiliar.

And yet, he said, “I don’t think we realized how intense the memories would be.”

The family went through it in Denver, with Davis’s favorite park, his preschool, his morning walk. There’s the hardware store. There’s the grocery store where he used to pull things off shelves.

“Those things were so raw for a while,” Johnson said. “Moving back here, that was like we started that over again.”

The memories flooded back. The tough days grew tougher. Emotions they thought had ebbed returned.

“But they’re good memories, right?” Johnson said. “So even though you might cry and you might feel sad and you miss him, that’s the good stuff. You don’t ever want to forget those things. So it is a good thing.

“But it’s been more intense and more difficult than I think we gave it credit for.”

The Johnsons have found a home here, a place that fits them, a team that fits him. When the coach talks about his players and his school, there is a sparkle, almost a wonder at the fact that they wanted him, that a place that he loves, loves him back.

Johnson’s energy and enthusiasm — things he feared were gone after Davis’s death — are palpable. Nearly everyone who speaks of him uses the word “positive.”

“This is a dream job [for him],” said Hawkins. “He said, “The only place I’d leave Denver for is Boston College and then, boom, it happened.’

“It’s a big deal to them to know this is where their son was born, it all started here. Coming back to Boston was a really natural move. It was a good thing for them as a family, even though it still brings some hardships, some heartaches.”

So Johnson runs, to the tree, stretching by the memorial to his son. He takes each day as it comes. His wife helps. Though they know that losing a child can cripple a relationship, they believe it can also strengthen it. They’re a couple that still holds hands, no matter who can see them, no matter how many of his players are around.

His daughters help, too. After all, as he said, “Every day they need a bowl of cereal poured and a book read. So it’s not a choice.

“You get up every day and — what’s the line from ‘Sleepless in Seattle’? — you breathe in and out. You put one foot in front of the other, and you focus on doing your thing.”

More than two years later, there are times when it still cripples him. Hawkins notices it, though his players say they haven’t seen it. On a staff that has been together through four years in Denver, and some years before that, they know the signs. His face changes; he grows quieter. They do what they can, knowing it’s never enough.

“I wish I wasn’t in the club, but it’s an important part of who I am,” Johnson said. “It is who I am now.”

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.

Correction: Because of an editing error, Erik Johnson’s first name was spelled incorrectly in the headline of an earlier version of this story.

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