WASHINGTON – When D.C. United takes the field on Sunday night for their matchup with Chivas USA (8 pm ET, UDN), there will be the usual pregame pomp and circumstance.
The players will emerge from the tunnel, each one escorted by a local youth soccer player. Lineups will be announced. The anthem will be played, a team photo taken, the referees whistle will blow and the game will get underway.
There will, however, be something very different about Sunday’s pregame festivities: one of the youngsters escorting United’s starting XI onto the pitch will be a very, very special one.
You'd never know that 12-year-old Jordan Johansen has cystic fibrosis unless somebody told you. The freckle-faced youngster from Arizona is as full of life as they come, a bundle of energy and joy. On Saturday morning, Jordan brought that positivity to RFK stadium, part of a visit arranged by the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Johansen – an avid soccer player and MLS fan – spent the better part of the day with United right back Sean Franklin, and in just a matter of hours, he got a taste of what many pro athletes wait years to achieve.
Jordan’s day started on the field. The youngster walked the RFK pitch and learned about some of the venerable old venue’s quirks from United play-by-play man Dave Johnson before heading inside to the stadium’s downstairs conference room, where a collection of media members and team employees awaited him.
The young striker would have to sign a contract, of course, to truly be a part of the black-and-red, and he did just that, inking a one-day deal before posing for photographs alongside United head coach Ben Olsen and general manager Dave Kasper.
“I hope you had your agent look at that thing,” quipped Olsen, motioning at the contract. “We’re excited to have you here. We could always use more help up top.”
With the formalities over, it was time to get down to business. Jordan – alongside his parents Erik and Schura and his younger brother Nathan – strolled into the United locker room, where a stall had been prepared for the team’s latest addition. It was conveniently located right next to Franklin’s, and a matter of moments later, the two teammates met for the first time.
It wasn’t hard to see Jordan’s excitement.
He’d first noticed Franklin when the defender was a member of the LA Galaxy. One of Erik’s co-workers knew of Jordan’s condition and also happened to know Franklin’s family. He asked if Jordan would be interested in receiving a gift bag from the Galaxy, and days later made good on his promise, passing along a soccer ball and jersey autographed by Franklin himself.
Franklin’s personal touch earned him a fan for life. "After that,” Schura Johansen told MLSsoccer.com on Saturday, "Jordan just fell in love with Sean. When he transferred to DC, he became a DC fan. He’s going to follow him wherever he goes.”
Just days before arriving at RFK, Jordan didn’t even know he would be coming to meet his idol. Though the Make-A-Wish foundation does great work, serving every child they possibly can, there are countless children in need in the US, and Jordan is one of many.
"He saw on TV that someone with a chronic illness did Make-a-Wish, and he asked me, 'Mom, can I do Make-a-Wish?'” Jordan’s mom shared on Saturday. "I told him I’d find out for him. We had a doctor’s appointment at the hospital the next day and we asked a social worker. She said, ‘Sure.' They called me two days later and said they’d love to meet with us to see.”
Jordan’s request was approved, and his parents were eager to break the news to him. Earlier this week, the family gathered at a local eatery and spilled the beans.
“We went into the restaurant, and the entire staff of the place had gathered to greet us,” said Erik. "Jordan saw the Make-a-Wish people there and said, 'What are you doing here?' I think he was a little angry we didn’t tell him sooner.”
To say the youngster was looking forward to his day at RFK would be a gross understatement. On Saturday, Schura said that a wide-awake Jordan woke her up at 4 am with an excited inquiry.
“Mom, is it morning yet?”
Johansen is a top on the soccer field. After leaving United’s locker room, the wide-eyed rookie walked alongside Franklin to RFK’s training pitch, where he ran through a series of warmups and drills with his new club. For a child who’s lungs are currently operating at 75 percent of their capacity, Jordan displayed few symptoms. An occasional cough the only thing that served as a painful reminder of his cystic fibrosis.
“His pancreas doesn’t work at all,” his mother shared while Jordan pinged around the pitch. "He has to take enzymes for that – his liver is also struggling. But given the fact that his lung function is so low, it’s incredible that he runs a mile in six minutes and nine seconds. He long jumps 12 feet and 9 inches. I was trying to take a photo a few weeks back of him doing the long jump once and he went out of frame. I thought, 'Where did he go?'”
Treatment for cystic fibrosis, of course, is constantly evolving, and what was once a disease with a bleak outlook is now viewed as a more manageable condition. Watching Johansen knock the ball around with his new teammates was inspiring, and after the training session, many in attendance seemed moved by the experience.
“It’s emotional,” said Olsen. "I had a kid three days ago, so I’m sleep-deprived and emotional as it is. There are a lot of kids out there suffering like Jordan, and that’s heavy. If there’s anything we can do to ease things for him and his family, we’re lucky to be a part of it.”
"It’s a great feeling,” added Franklin. “It's not everyday someone wants to share a moment like this with me. To have Jordan come out with his family, it’s a very humbling experience. I’m just happy I have a job where I can do stuff like this, to have a great kid like Jordan out here. It was a fun day.”
Johansen himself wasn’t particularly verbose when describing his experience on Saturday. Perhaps he has a ways to go when it comes to dealing with a hungry throng of media members.
On Saturday, though, he needed just eight words to sum up his experience.
“This was the best day ever for me.”