Triton College's Matt Johnson Plays With Gratitude and Grace - NBC Chicago

Triton College's Matt Johnson Plays With Gratitude and Grace



    The Triton College Trojans in suburban River Grove have won 24 of their 25 games this season, and head coach Steve Christiansen points to one player as the reason for that overwhelming success: point guard Matt Johnson. NBC Sports' Mike Berman shares his incredible story. 

    (Published Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017)

    Every day at Triton College in suburban River Grove, head men's basketball coach Steve Christiansen holds practice - and practice is paying off.

    The Trojans have won 24 of their 25 games this season, and Christiansen points to one player as the reason for that overwhelming success: point guard Matt Johnson.

    "Our win total – that’s directly tied to him making winning plays," Christiansen said. "Guarding the basketball, getting the ball to the right people, making free throws, clutch plays, handling pressure. We wouldn’t be here without him."

    And if wasn't for the incredible generosity of two families, Johnson wouldn’t be here either.

    Five years ago, Johnson was living with his mom Tony Rene and sister Lieryn in Batavia. But in early 2012, doctors diagnosed his mom with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, shattering his world.

    "Her just getting sick broke my heart," he said. "Seeing a tough lady like that be hurt was sad. I never thought she was going to pass, because she was the toughest person I knew. At that young age, I guess I just didn’t believe she could pass."

    But eight months later, Tony Rene did pass away, leaving 15-year-old Johnson without a mother.

    "She was my best friend," he said. "Everybody knew that. I was always with her."

    Johnson moved in with his dad in Buffalo Grove, but he says they didn't connect. Suddenly, as a sophomore at Stevenson High School, he was looking for somewhere to live. That's when the Green family stepped in.

    "I had all my stuff in my car and she was like, ‘Why do you have all this junk in your car? Put it in my house,'" Johnson recalled. "One day, I put it in her house and just started staying over there. It wasn’t even like a planned, arranged thing. I just moved in."

    For two years, Johnson lived happily with Sandy Green and her children Cameron and Hailey.

    As a senior, he started on Stevenson's state championship team. But when high school ended and Sandy took a job in Atlanta, Johnson found himself once again without a home.

    This time, the Newman family stepped in.

    "I remember my husband calling me that day and telling me what was happening and we were both going, 'Oh my gosh, oh my gosh,'" Christy Newman said. "He said, 'I'm going to call Matt, I'm going to contact him and tell him he’s welcome to live in our home.' He said, 'Are you good with that?' and I said, 'Absolutely.'"

    "Mr. Newman, he said, 'Hey, where are you living? You should come live with us,'" Johnson said of that phone call. "I said, 'That sounds great.'"

    Since May, Johnson has called the Newmans' house his home. Christy cooks for him just as she does her two boys, Jordan and Mitchell, and she and husband Jack attend his games.

    "Not too many people can afford to bring in a teenage kid who’s going to eat all their food and all that other stuff, extracurricular activities," Johnson said. "I’m so thankful and blessed to know there’s beautiful people like that in this world.”

    With his sister living outside the country, Johnson has no blood relatives nearby that he can turn to - but that doesn’t mean he can't turn to family.

    "I can say they’re family, I can say the Greens are my family," Johnson said. "Jordan Newman, who’s their son, he’s my brother. Cameron and Hailey Green, they’re my brother and sister. We call each other that and I treat them just like it and they treat me like that. So it’s great."

    Life is great for the Trojans freshman. He has a place to live, people who care about him and a starting role on a team chasing a national championship.

    And he’s achieved it all clinging tightly to the memory of his beloved mom.

    "My mother was the toughest lady I’ve ever met," he said. "I would like to think she instilled that in me. Those tough times I went through, everybody goes through them, I just happened to go through them earlier."

    "I never had the pleasure of meeting or knowing his mother, but I can only tell you she must have been one of the most wonderful people on earth to raise him," Christy said.

    "She handled everything with grace, and everything I go through, I think, ‘What would she do?'" Johnson said. "I would like to think she’d be happy."

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