“This is going to be the hard part.”
That’s how Taylor football coach Josh Ousley started off when he began talking about the things that he and the players and staff would miss about Johnathon McKoon, who died on Sunday morning.
McKoon died in a one-vehicle accident on Indiana 22 in Howard County early Sunday. The 16-year-old Taylor junior was a passenger in the vehicle. He wrestled as a freshman and sophomore at Taylor and was in his first season on the Titan football squad.
“John always had a smile on his face,” Ousley said. “Even when you’d get after him at practice he’d still be smiling. That’s just who John was. I heard it said many times in the last few days that John was the nicest kid in the building, John was nice to everyone. He was stubborn, but he was really sweet.”
Kyle Murphy had been an assistant wrestling coach with the Titan program in the 2010s, then returned to the school to take over as coach in 2019, McKoon’s freshman year.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Murphy said, pausing from time to time to gather himself as he spoke. “He just, he was family. Since I started the program, I’ve been trying to grow them and make sure they treat each other like they were family, and he definitely embodied that. He made sure everybody else did at times. Even our middle schoolers are hurting because they looked up to him like a big brother.”
For Ousley and Murphy, and all the people at Taylor who knew McKoon, news of his death was hard to accept and sometimes it was difficult to talk about.
“I think their emotional reaction tells you how much of an impact he had on our coaches and kids,” said Taylor AD Jake Leicht, who previously had McKoon as a student in class. “It’s never easy to go through loss, but when it’s a kid that gives you everything he has on a daily basis in the classroom or on the mat or field, it’s hard to put your emotions into words.
“Everybody handles their emotions differently, but to see an outpouring of love from the community tells you everything you need to know about Johnathon and the McKoon family as a whole.”
McKoon was a lineman on the football squad and a heavyweight on the wrestling team.
“Definitely isn’t the information that you expect to wake up to on a Sunday morning,” Murphy said. “The wrestlers have been a close bunch of kids for the last couple years.
“I came in and started the program [as Taylor’s new coach in 2019] and McKoon has been one of the kids at the forefront since we started the program. We definitely have been feeling it this week. I’m trying to make sure I’m there for everybody, but even I haven’t been able to really express as much, and vent as much, as I probably should. It’s definitely a shock to the system for our team. Definitely going to be having a big hole in it.”
Taylor held a vigil for McKoon Sunday night.
“The reaction I saw from our community was an outpouring of love and being there for one another. We had the vigil and Johnathon’s family came,” Leicht said. This is homecoming week and the homecoming festivities were dedicated to McKoon. “It went from a loving we’re-here-for-you on Monday and [Tuesday] it was celebrating his life. He was a great friend, a good athlete and someone that loved being around Taylor.”
Thinking about what the Titans will miss without McKoon, that’s hard. But thinking about the stories helps soothe the pain a little. Ousley said the team members were telling stories about McKoon on Monday and that reminded Ousley of a story from this fall when he had to put McKoon into the game at linebacker that instant to fill a hole.
McKoon was next to Ousley at the time, and was an available body, so Ousley threw him in there to play an unfamiliar position with no preparation. Ousley laughed as he said that as soon as McKoon could get off the field, McKoon went to the defensive coordinator and said, ‘Do not ever put me at middle linebacker again!’”
Ousley and Murphy had talked McKoon into joining the football squad this season.
“As soon as I took the job two years ago, I started talking to John about coming out for football,” Ousley said. “He played against Eastern and he did a lot of good things in that game. For someone who hasn’t played football, he played hard, he’s very physical because he’s so big. He was a project for us a little bit, but the other side of that was there was a big payday waiting because he was going to be a really good football player.”
He was brand new to football but already a veteran in wrestling. That’s how he came to be a football player in the first place.
“As a football player, he was learning. He was learning how to play,” Ousley said. “I kind of had to come at it a different way. I told him, ‘Playing football will make you a better wrestler.’ And once I told him that, I had an in with him.
“I think he really enjoyed it. I do.”
Murphy picked up the story from there.
“I actually talked him into playing football for the same reason,” Murphy said. “He lived and breathed wrestling for us as long as he was a part of it. I actually had the opportunity to take him to Nebraska for a tournament this summer and all he wanted was more mat time. He definitely loved the sport. He had a passion for it.”
McKoon’s death will hit hardest with his family and closest friends, the people who expect to see and talk to him every day. Teammates became part of that group too.
“It’s been hard,” Ousley said. “It affects different people different ways. The kids that are closest to him were affected the most. There’s several kids on the team that he not only played football with but also wrestled with. It’s hit those kids harder. But all the kids are cognizant of the gravity of it.
“[Monday] when we met as a team for the first time … I said, ‘Guys this is new for me too. All throughout high school I never lost a classmate, or a teammate, I never lost anybody when I went to college. I’ve lost family members but your family is important to you, but it’s different than when you see someone every day and you’re at practice with him every day and you spend so much time together and they’re just gone. It’s really hard. I think it’s hard for a lot of us to fathom that he’s really gone. I keep waiting for him to walk through the door.”