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19-year-old providing Hawley a boost from the bench

Jesse Johnston gets a lift from Hawley High School seniors, from left, Devon Pekas, Zach Filler, Brandon Sellin, Jacob Crompton and Logan Stoa. Johnston, who has Down syndrome, can usually be found watching each game from the Nuggets bench. Photo by David Samson, The Forum

The Hawley boys basketball team has a secret weapon. His shoes barely scrape the court from his seat on the Nuggets bench, where he has been for the past six seasons with this current group of seniors. He's a 19-year-old senior, and he isn't on the roster nor has he played a minute, yet he is the last one to speak to the team before games and the first one out of the locker room after games.

Minnesota Class 2A's sixth-ranked Nuggets - sitting at 10-1 on the season, going into tonight's game versus top-ranked Pelican Rapids - don't think twice about calling Jesse Johnston their secret weapon. More importantly, they don't think twice about calling the boy with Down syndrome their friend.

"He's one of us," Hawley senior forward Devon Pekas said. "Ever since I can remember, he's been on the bench with us. There's nothing really he does specifically, but he's there for moral support. He loves being around us and we love being around him. He's just one of us."

The bench is usually a place of doom, a representation of punishment for any athlete, but for Johnston, there's no place he'd rather be than next to his friends. The idea of separating Johnston from this group of seniors in class gave Vickie Carlson - a special education teacher at the Hawley elementary school and Johnston's teacher for seven years - the thought of getting him as close to them as possible with a sport he loves.

"All through elementary school he's gone through with the same group of kids," Carlson said. "These guys took him under their wing and were great for him and he was starting to get separated from them in the classroom. This was a good way for him to stay with this group and he loves basketball. He's their biggest fan and all the credit has to go to the team and his classmates for letting him do this. It's very cool."

At first, Johnston was a little frightened, so Carlson sat behind him. Soon enough, Johnston was giving pregame talks and in the huddle with the team. Now, as a senior, Johnston has begun traveling with the team, although he's taken a more professional approach with this being his senior season.

"Seeing him in the huddle was so funny because they were skyrocketing over him," Jesse's mother, Kathy Johnston, said. "He used to do a lot more when he was at the younger games, but has gotten more serious now that they are seniors. He feels like he's part of the team."

Liking the bench is one thing, but Johnston shares in everyone's annoyance of practice.

"It's not like he's helping them," Kathy said with a laugh. "He doesn't go to any practices, he doesn't do anything but sit there. He doesn't even get water bottles. I've been trying to get him to go to practice, but he won't. I think it's so great they let him do it. He just wants to be part of the team."

He's more than part of the team, and he does more sitting on the bench with a smile he can barely hold back than some do in a lifetime.

"He makes us realize how good we have it," said sixth man and senior center Logan Stoa, who goes all the way back to kindergarten with Jesse. "He always has a smile on his face and that's what I admire most about him. He always makes us realize life is good. A lot of schools don't have the opportunity to have a kid like Jesse on the bench cheering them on. We're lucky."

Jesse was the first one out of the locker room after a 74-24 win over Moorhead Park Christian at Hawley earlier in the season, and was welcomed with cheers from different students in the Nuggets' student section, which he responded with his patented ear-to-ear smile.

He didn't score a point. He didn't grab a rebound. He didn't make a pass, force a turnover or step foot on the court. His name was nowhere in the boxscore, but his presence was all over the victory.

"He's a big part of the team," Hawley coach Jed Carlson said. "It's awesome to see. He's a special kid."

And the Nuggets are more to Jesse than just a team.

"They're my friends," Jesse said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Chris Murphy at (701) 241-5548