An unexpected opponent


Forest Park graduate Orrin Johnson and his Coast Guard family have only lived in this area two years, so the outpouring of support they have received in the last three months has astounded them.

Orrin, 18, has been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He is nearly halfway through a series of 12 chemotherapy treatments scheduled to end in November. Throughout the summer, he has remembered a favorite saying of Forest Park football coach Jerry Williams and the players in the two-year-old program: “Finish Strong.” That saying has been on numerous cards and letters during Johnson’s recovery, and the well wishes have come from all angles.

The college football coach who offered Johnson a spot on the team continues to do so. His church community has shown tremendous support, as have his friends from Alaska. And the Forest Park family has showered him with prayers, visits, gifts and even a fundraiser last weekend.

“The thing that really touched me is that some of those kids were working so hard and they’ve never even met me,” Johnson said at his home on Monday. “I walked up to a group of them and asked what they were doing. They said, ‘We’re raising money for a kid in our school who’s sick. His name’s Orrin Johnson.’ I had to tell them that I’m Orrin Johnson.

“I’ve seen stuff like [the fundraiser] on TV. Now it’s all for me. It’s just weird.”

After a series of painful tests, several scares (including one in which his temperature skyrocketed to 105.9 degrees) and eventual surgery, Orrin’s on his way back. He has returned to his job and expects to begin weightlifting again soon. Unlike most chemotherapy patients at this stage, he still has all of his hair.

Saturday morning, Johnson’s father, Keith, was happy to report more positive results from this week’s CAT SCAN and chemotherapy. “We got some really good news,” he said. “All but two of his lymph nodes are down to one centimeter, which is normal. He’s going to continue with his chemo cycles and the doctor thinks all of his lymph nodes could be normal in another month.”

Before Dr. Chris Gallagher of Washington’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center could even plan Johnson’s surgery, a team of 15 doctors worked to pinpoint the disease.

When Johnson was 6 years old and his family was living in Mobile, Ala., he was taken to the hospital because his neck began to show lumps. At the time, the Johnsons were told their son was an Epstein-Barr virus carrier a status that is now known to increase the likelihood of having Hodgkin’s Disease.

The Lymphoma Information Network describes Hodgkin’s as “a malignant (cancerous) growth of cells in the lymph system.” In Johnson’s case, the disease is isolated below the diaphragm on the right side of his pelvic area. About 7,000 cases of Hodgkin’s are reported each year in the United States, with men and women in early and late adulthood at the most risk.

After going into the hospital on Mother’s Day, Johnson spent eight days in a haze prior to surgery. Prior to the operation (a procedure in which he was not fully anesthetized), he made it through a biopsy, a colonoscopy and a bone-marrow procedure that he called the most painful experience of his life. “They wouldn’t even let me see the needle, it was so long,” he said.

Doctors discovered he had lymph nodes as large as 5 centimeters (up to 10 times larger than normal), but all of them were near major blood vessels and isolated to one area.

Orrin’s parents remember more about that staggering week than the patient does. For Orrin, he said it was like “being outside my body.” His mother, Dee, said, “When he was in the hospital, the people who saw him at his worst know it was a pretty rocky road. Every day, it was something new.”


Throughout Orrin Johnson’s senior year at Forest Park, he had trouble sleeping. Normally a “B” student, his grades were suffering. He complained of cramps on the football field, but chalked his pain up to the fact that the Bruins’ practices were rigorous. Looking back, he now knows why he was so fatigued, why he would have night sweats, fevers and bouts with insomnia.

“We thought it was too many late nights on the computer, too many late nights with friends in Alaska,” Dee Johnson recalled. “As a matter of fact, he spent about two months being grounded.”

Orrin’s parents had what they affectionately called “bed checks,” in which Dee or Keith an assistant contracting officer for the Coast Guard who was previously stationed in Juneau, Alaska, for eight years would check on him. His teachers would e-mail his parents with concerns. He was constantly visiting the school nurse’s office and complaining about a fever.

“Since January, we had been going back and forth to the doctor’s,” Keith Johnson said. “They told us we’d have to wait and monitor him and let something rear its head and that’s what happened.”

On May 10, the Friday before Mother’s Day, Orrin started to feel chills during his last class of the day. He visited a friend, but had to be taken home. With his parents out of town, he couldn’t eat and he slept through his work shift on Saturday. His parents returned home and took his temperature it was 104 degrees. By the time he could get treated at Fort Belvoir’s DeWitt Hospital, he blacked out and fell to the ground. He soon was rushed to Walter Reed, where doctors were finally able to stabilize him.

As he recovered at the hospital, Johnson received a prayer wheel from friends at Forest Park. The wheel let him know that someone had him in their thoughts each hour of the day. His fellow churchgoers at Hope Aglow Christian Center in Woodbridge also kept him in their prayers. And his new coach, Shenandoah University’s Paul Barnes, told Orrin that he’ll have a spot on the team whenever he’s able to return.

“Coach Barnes and Shenandoah they are a class act,” Dee Johnson said of the college in Winchester. “The coach said, ‘He committed to us, so we’re committed to him.’ ”


Orrin has returned to work at Penderbrook Golf Course in Fairfax County, though he is still unable to work outdoors as much as he would like. He works with his friend, Michael Patterson, whose family also moved from Alaska to Prince William County.

He plans on watching Shenandoah games from the sidelines this fall and perhaps enrolling as a student for the spring semester. His grades were good enough for him to be given a Forest Park diploma in June.

The 6-foot Johnson has nearly gained back the 19 pounds he lost as his weight dipped to 141. A football and baseball player at Forest Park, he looks forward to playing defensive back and left field at Division III Shenandoah. Orrin’s sister, Monique, is a 21-year-old student at Chatham College in Pittsburgh, but his top choices were in Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland. Eventually, he was won over by Shenandoah. “I just liked the atmosphere, it kind of reminded me of Forest Park,” he said.

Barnes, entering his first year as Shenandoah’s head coach, said, “Orrin’s a very, very good person. He has good character and that’s easy to tell when you meet him and his parents. I saw him on film and Coach Williams spoke highly of him. He has character, discipline and projects a good image. That’s what we look for first.”

Those are all features that Williams saw in the past two seasons at Forest Park.

“What was most shocking to all of us was that Orrin was able to go through an entire season without whimpering at all,” Williams said. “That character has allowed him to battle this illness. There’s no doubt in my mind that many, many people would not have gotten through this.”

A nimble athlete, Johnson also took part on the Forest Park cheerleading team that finished second in the Cardinal District. To a football coach like Williams, seeing one starting defensive back cheering and another [Alvin Parsons] dressed up in the Forest Park Bruins’ mascot suit was certainly a challenge to his sensibilities.

“I had a couple of coaching friends sitting with me at a basketball game, and they asked me what my guys were up to in the offseason,” Williams said as he rolled his eyes. “I told them, ‘Well, there’s one cornerback cheering and the other one’s in the bear suit.’

“On the serious side, I can’t tell you what I’d really like to say. But that took some courage on their part.”

Orrin, his parents, Patterson and the coach all had a good laugh over the memory. And they’re looking forward to many new memories to come.

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