Coach Jim Johnson’s mantra, “dreams really do come true,” came to life Feb. 15, 2006, as the bleachers of Greece Athena High School exploded into cheers after Johnson called in number 52, Jason McElwain, to the final game of the season. Jason — A.K.A., J-Mac — was a student at Greece Athena High School who had a burning passion for basketball, but because of his autism, he had never been able to play.
Throughout Jason’s high school career, he tried out for multiple sports teams but never made the cut. But things started to change for Jason when he met Coach Johnson. A coach of numerous high school teams for more than 33 years, Johnson saw Jason’s passion but was unable to land him a spot on his team. Instead, he appointed Jason team manager, a role he gladly accepted. Johnson knew this would be Jason’s best chance to be a part of the sport he loved so much.
With Johnson as a mentor, Jason became an integral part of the team on the sidelines for several seasons. But Johnson knew there was one goal Jason wanted most to achieve — the chance to play in a varsity game. Seeing Jason’s persistence and dedication to his sport and to the Greece Athena team, Johnson couldn’t let Jason’s goals be crushed again in the midst of his senior year. The decision Johnson had to make was a tough one; there could be objections from parents and possible ridicule if things went badly. But one thing loomed most in Johnson’s eyes: to get Jason into the last game of his senior year.
The game was against Spencerport, a bitter rival, and with four minutes left in the last period, Johnson stood up and pointed at Jason to sub in. The entire crowd erupted in jubilant cries as Jason stepped onto the court. And, to everyone’s surprise, Jason scored 20 points, eighteen of which were three-point range, leading Greece Athena to the division title. The fans proceeded to rush from the bleachers onto the court, lifting Jason up in celebration. Johnson could only stand and watch in awe as Jason embraced his moment of glory, realizing his dream had finally come true.
In December 2013, Greece Athena held a ceremony retiring Jason’s jersey. In 2014 Coach Johnson retired from teaching and retired from coaching in 2016 to concentrate on speaking full time. Coach was named All-Greater Rochester Coach of the Year in both 2014 and 2015 and Greece Athena ended their last season by reaching the Class A State Championship in 2015.
Today, Johnson is a sought-after keynote and workshop speaker who shares not only the amazing story and his remarkable journey with Jason, he shares valuable leadership lessons with audiences all over the country. He is also the author of the book “A Coach and a Miracle: Life Lessons from a Man Who Believed in an Autistic Boy.”