By Jason Pugh, Northwestern State Sports Information
At first glance, nothing seemed out of the ordinary about 9-year-old John Painter running around the Turpin Stadium field during Northwestern State football practice.
Aside from Painter’s presence and that of five of his family members, it was a routine day as the Demons prepared for Saturday’s 12 p.m. kickoff at Sam Houston State.
But Painter’s attendance at Wednesday afternoon’s practice made for a day no one in attendance soon will forget.
The Pineville native’s budding relationship with the Demons began with him walking along the railing in the west side stands during Northwestern State’s 34-13 victory against Lamar on Nov. 9. Toward the end of the sideline was sophomore defensive lineman Nathalohn Nanai, who wears No. 51.
“I remember getting on the (stationary) bike, and as soon as I started pedaling, he tapped me on my shoulder and said, ‘Hey, my number’s 51, too,’” Nanai said. “It kicked off from there, telling me how he wanted to play football and his plans for the future, playing here for one year and then transferring to LSU.”
What Nanai – and most at the game – did not know was Painter’s father, Ben, had died a month ago at 36.
It was not until Painter’s grandmother, Elizabeth Pearson, posted a photo to the NSU Parents group on Facebook of John speaking with Nanai, explaining how Saturday marked the first collegiate game John had attended and how John’s father had passed away.
Their interaction put into action one of second-year head coach Brad Laird’s tenets of his program regarding their visibility and the platform they have in the community as student-athletes.
“That’s a credit to our guys,” Laird said. “The way our guys handled the situation (Saturday) made his day. I talked to his grandmother, and we set some things up to spend some time with him as he goes through this tough time. You’re a month into losing your dad when you’re 9 years old. We wanted to get him around the things he loves, and that’s football.
“We put so much blood, sweat and tears and energy and effort between the white lines in a game we love, but the opportunity for the 115 players we have to make a difference in someone else’s life is there daily. You never know when it’s going to come, so you have to put yourself in a position to be a positive influence whenever you can.”
There was no doubt Painter, dressed in a full Northwestern State uniform with Nanai’s No. 51, was in a place he loved Wednesday afternoon.
Painter’s family brought him to Natchitoches under the guise of a sorority event for his aunt, a Northwestern State undergraduate. Instead, Painter and his family met with Laird, who kept the ruse going by telling Painter the team was off Wednesday and was unsure if any of the players were around.
At 2:15, Laird led the group into the Ready Room inside the NSU Fieldhouse where Painter unknowingly walked into the Demons’ daily pre-practice team meeting. His reaction to the surprise was, well, unsurprising.
“It was like seeing a kid walk into a candy store,” said Nanai, who connected with Pearson through Facebook Messenger and was Painter’s larger shadow for much of Wednesday. “He walked in and guys were cheering him on, and you saw his face light up. It’s where he wants to be in the future, and for him to be able to experience it was big for us.”
Painter’s conversation began with the youngster telling Nanai he also wore No. 51, a jersey number that belonged to Painter’s father as well. The number was prominently displayed on Painter’s helmet, along with a sticker that read, “Do it for Coach Ben,” a tribute to Painter’s late father.
While the past month has been a mix of emotions for Painter and his family, there was only one Wednesday – elation.
In between the team meeting and helping NSU Director of Strength and Conditioning Jared Myatt get the team ready for its pre-practice stretch, Painter simply said, ‘It’s been amazing so far.”
Before Myatt pulled Painter aside to walk him through the process of “breaking it down,” Myatt told Painter’s family Wednesday was his son Samson’s first birthday and, even more poignantly, this week included the fourth anniversary of the passing of Myatt’s father.
Myatt and Nanai were far from the only Demons clamoring to spend time with Painter. Junior linebacker Ja’Quay Pough and Painter quickly bonded and spent most of the pre-practice time running around with Pough willingly playing the role of tackling dummy for the effervescent 9-year-old.
“We just made eye contact, and I was like, ‘We’re going to play some football,’” Pough said. “It reminded me of being a kid and why I grew to love this sport. It was an eye-opener for me, and I know it was a big impact for him.
“It meant a lot to me. You never know what some kids are going through in life, and if I can make an impact to change that one life, it helps me feel better about helping the younger generation.”
Painter’s situation impacted each of the Demons players, coaches and staff members, but it struck even deeper with Pough.
“I have two little girls, so dealing with kids comes natural to me,” he said. “I’ll do anything for the kids. I love the kids. Losing a dad, that’s very difficult. I have my dad. I can’t imagine waking up the next day without him. I don’t even know what my little girls would feel like. Just to be able to make him feel better about what he’s going through, that’s a big deal. Nine is a very young age to lose somebody and to be aware of it. That kid’s very smart, and I’m very, very proud of him.”
Painter stayed for much of the Demons’ practice before heading back home to Pineville. After practice, Laird reiterated the importance of his visit.
Laird referenced the shirt Pearson wore, which was emblazoned with the slogan, “If tomorrow wasn’t promised, what would you give for today?” He reminded his team the impact it had on Painter and the mirror effect on the Demons.
“You never know the stuff you encounter day by day,” Nanai said. “The fact I was on that end (of the sideline) and I was able to have an impact on his family and his life, that’s a really good feeling that will stick with me for the rest of time.”
Painter and his family said they feel the same.
As Pearson neatly summed up their experience, “Best day ever.”