Chapter one: 'That's the type of kid he was'
For the past 15 years, fans of the Northside Eagles couldn't spot the number 96 on the field. The jersey number was off limits with good reason.
It was the team's way of honoring the late Chris Johnson, a dedicated athlete and scholar who died in 2007 following a battle with leukemia. This season, the Eagles honored Johnson in a different way, with his number making a comeback.
In 2005, Chris Johnson played defensive lineman for Northside High School. The freshman shared a lasting moment with assistant coach Chad Alligood, who was heading to Wilkinson County for a new coaching opportunity. The two didn't know each other well, but Chris made a connection.
"He walks in my office and says, 'Coach, I just want to shake your hand and wish you luck and know I'll be rooting for you,' and I'll never forget that, and for a freshman to do that and I wasn't his position coach or really didn't have a relationship, but that's the type of kid he was," Alligood said.
During the time that Alligood was gone, Chris was forced to resign from the game he loved after a diagnosis of leukemia, a diagnosis that ultimately took his life. The team unofficially retired Chris' number 96 jersey, in honor of Johnson's loyalty to the program.
Alligood said, "The community and kids rallied around him. The coaches were encouraged by his encouragement."
Now, Alligood is back, this time in his first year as the Eagles' head coach.
"I was talking to the kids one day and I said something about Chris Johnson, and the kids said, 'Who?' And then I thought about it and the seniors we have now were 3-4 years old in 2007," Alligood remarked.
They didn't know Chris Johnson or about his dedication to Northside football. That's why the coach decided to bring number 96 back.
Chapter two: 'It's almost like he's still here'
"Anybody would know that's a big thing when no one else can wear your uniform or jersey, and when he called me, I had to think about it," said Chris' father, Ovie Johnson.
Ovie Johnson said he and his wife Pat initially took issue with Alligood's request, but it didn't take long before they agreed -- this honor would keep Chris' spirit alive.
"I thought about it, Marvin, and his legacy will live on because the player that's wearing it, and it might give them some guidance to do good in life, and not just on the team, but in life and the classroom," Ovie Johnson said.
PHOTOS: Remembering Northside's Chris Johnson
Tyler Williams is the sophomore that will continue the legacy of number 96 for the Northside Eagles.
Alligood said, "Tyler is a kid that reminds you of Chris. He's always smiling, he's kind of quiet. He does really good in the classroom and he's going to be a really good player, and when I told him we chose him to wear that number, he smiled and lit up."
Williams said, "I was like, 'It's an honor.' He picked me out of everyone on the team. It's motivation. Not everybody got a chance to have that number, so you have to ball. You ain't got no choice after that."
After meeting Tyler, Chris Johnson's parents approved of the jersey's return this season and into the future.
"Even if they aren't a super football player but having some of Chris' attitude because Chris was a fighter, and if they learn to fight like that, I'm happy about that," Ovie Johnson said.
The Eagles make an announcement before every home game reintroducing the jersey and number 96 to a new generation.
"You want a team full of Chris Johnsons, and we're just trying to remind our kids of who he was," said Alligood.
Ovie Johnson said, "It's almost like he's still here. He's still here with us, seeing that number, because when you see that number, you know that number belongs to Chris Johnson."
There is one clause to the jersey's return -- the player selected must exhibit the same positive attributes of Chris in the classroom and on the field or the jersey will return to the shelf.
Chapter three: The Chris Johnson Scholarship Fund
Johnson is an alumnus of Northside High School who played football until the summer of 2005 when he was diagnosed at the age of 15 with acute lymphocytic leukemia, requiring him to undergo extensive chemotherapy. He achieved remission while still receiving chemo and supported his teammates on the field although he was not able to play.
Trouble came again when his cancer recurred in April 2006, but he remained determined to beat cancer, achieving remission again in June 2006. Despite a courageous fight, he succumbed to the disease in June 2007 at the age of 17.
In 2019, Chris Johnson was inducted into Northside High School's Hall of Fame.
The Johnson family has worked to keep Chris' legacy alive through the Chris Johnson Scholarship Fund. The scholarship was established through Northside High School and awards a senior athlete with $500 to help with college expenses. Monetary donations of any amount can be made to the Chris Johnson Scholarship Fund and sent to Northside High School at 926 Green Street, Warner Robins, Ga. 31093.