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Ridgewater tackle has battles on, off the field

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson is stout with muscular arms and a thick neck, but you need to lean in to hear him. His gentle voice and kind manner belies the rugged game he plays.

The 6-foot-1 280-pound Twin Cities native plays defensive tackle for the Ridgewater Warriors. Since graduating in 2007 from Apple Valley High School, he's seen more adversity than most athletes deal with in a lifetime.

He started college at Southwest Minnesota State intending to play Mustang football. But an old basketball injury hadn't completely healed and required surgery. He transferred home, attended Normandale Community College, and had surgery to repair the posterior medial collateral in his right knee. His plan was to enroll later at Rochester CTC and resume football.

But high school teammate Alex McLauglin, a record-setting Warriors' running back, encouraged him to visit Willmar and see head coach Rob Baumgarn.

"I decided to come here," he said before practice last Friday. "I think it was because of coach Baumgarn. I liked his demeanor, just a lot of things about him."

He earned a starting spot on the defensive line. The Warriors opened 2008 with Itasca on a sunny Saturday on the turf at Husky Stadium in St. Cloud.

Enter more bad luck. In the second quarter, a player was shoved into his left knee tearing the left knee medial collateral ligament.

This time he didn't need surgery -- the rupture would heal on its own -- but his season was over.

He stuck with his studies, averaging grades around A-minus. He was back this fall looking to play his first full season since 2006.

Just before practice started, a friend noticed a lump on Robert's throat. He brought it up to his coach. Baumgarn told him he had to get it checked out immediately.

He went to Rice Hospital where it was recommended he see an endocrinologist at the medical clinic in St. Cloud. There, a biopsy was taken. Meanwhile, he continued two-a-days with the football team and started the first two games.

"They called me back (Sept. 8) and said It was consistent with cancer," Johnson said. "That was kind of hard to take. You're thinking, 'Why me?' "

He had the nodule removed, leaving a purple, three-inch lateral scar low on his throat. The procedure took "most of his thyroid."

Baumgarn picked up his defensive tackle in St. Cloud and brought him back to Willmar.

"I think this was all quite a shock to him," said Baumgarn. "He's a great student and a kid who does everything right, but he can't catch a break."

He returned for the win over Fergus Falls, playing half the game and, not surprisingly, suffered an ankle sprain. But he was ready to go the next week and started at Minnesota West on Saturday.

I asked Robert if his parents got to the games?

No, he said. "They don't have a car."

He explained his family, which includes an older brother, Vern, and a younger brother, Matt, has had some misfortune. The family currently resides at a Burnsville motel after Robert's dad lost his job and the family was evicted from their home.

Though he has another year of eligibility here, he's torn about returning. "I'd like to, but I feel the need to make progress on my major (exercise science) and get in the work force and help my family out," he said.

"It would be so difficult not to play," he said softly. "Football has given shape to my life."

Filipek choices

Willmar Cardinal senior Taylor Filipek, a 6-5 two-year starter in basketball, has narrowed his college choices to four. He will visit Minnesota State, Mankato this weekend and Eastern Kentucky over the fall break. He's already been to the South Dakota State campus. Samford, in Birmingham, Ala., is also on his list of finalists. Filipek said he received seven full-ride offers in all. As a junior, he averaged 16.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg and 3.8 assists.

On the fly

- It was noted here that Gretchen Dahl (WHS '02) is in her first year teaching and coaching varsity girls tennis at Faribault. The 2008 UW-Superior graduate recently was appointed Falcons' girls hockey coach. To correct an error earlier, Dahl's former Cardinal teammate, Elyse Dowdell, graduated in 2003.

- At the Fall Festival on Sept. 24, hats passed around the grandstand and pits collected $1,200 for Mary Ann Canon, wife of stock car racing's Roger Canon. She is recovering from an aneurism and was being treated at a Minneapolis hospital. The KRA Speedway donated another $200. The Canons have been an important part of Willmar racing since the 1970s.

Rand Middleton
Tribune photographer/videographer. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime news/sports beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 
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