Dr. O. Tom Johns, Jr., an orthopedic surgeon whose admiration for athletes was shown through the great care and attention he gave as team doctor for Middle Tennessee State University and Rutherford County Schools, died Sunday after an extended illness. He was 72.
A native of Murfreesboro, Dr. Johns was a fixture on the sidelines of MTSU and high school sports for 40 years, helping scores of young men and women perform to the best of their athletic abilities, grow in character and overcome adversity.
“My favorite place,” he once said, “is on any sideline.”
Civic and athletic leaders alike praised Dr. Johns for his devotion to those he served.
Former NFL quarterback and Blue Raiders Hall of Famer Kelly Holcomb said there were “many a time that he repaired my beat-up body but would always start with a prayer.
“Every time I was leaving, he would always say, “love ya, boy,’ and I always said, ‘love you, Doc.’ That’s who Dr. Johns was.”
MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee, who met Dr. Johns shortly after assuming leadership of the University in 2001, said, “It is difficult to express how much this wonderful man has meant to so many at our university, in our local schools and in our community.
“The entire Blue Raider community joins my wife, Elizabeth, and me in expressing our deepest sympathy to his family – and our love and gratitude to his service and mentorship to generations of athletes since 1979.”
Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association Hall of Fame football coach Gary Rankin, whose teams have won 14 state championships, worked with Dr. Johns while leading Riverdale High School to four titles.
“After walking the sidelines with Tom Johns for 16 years, he became more than a team doctor. His sincere care for all athletes was unmatched,” said Rankin, now assistant principal and head football coach at Alcoa High School.
MTSU Athletics Director Chris Massaro said Dr. Johns “always wanted everyone he touched to be healthy, happy and spiritual. He used his medicine as his ministry, impacting thousands of people with his love.”
After graduating Central High School in 1965, Dr. Johns attended MTSU, receiving a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1969 and his medical degree from the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center in Memphis in 1972.
After two years of post-doctoral assignments in Tampa, Florida, Dr. Johns joined the staff of Vanderbilt University Medical Center in 1974, ultimately serving as chief resident in orthopedic surgery.
In 1978, Dr. Johns came back home to Murfreesboro, where he opened up his own orthopedic practice. He knew then that he wanted to become a team doctor.
“The quote under my high school picture is, ‘I want to come back to Murfreesboro and take care of people,’” Dr. Johns told The Daily News Journal in a 2017 profile.
For four decades, Dr. Johns administered countless sports physicals and treated athletic injuries on the courts or on the fields.
His practice later became Middle Tennessee Orthopedics and Sports Medicine, which in 2005 joined Tennessee Orthopaedic Alliance (TOA), the largest surgery group of its genre in Nashville and Middle Tennessee.
The DNJ’s 2017 profile of Dr. Johns described him as “one of the most respected orthopedic surgeons around,” adding, “There aren’t many associated with athletics in the area who don’t know and revere him.”
Dr. Johns told family and friends that athletics breaks down all barriers for youth regardless of race or income, to achieve great things.
He received numerous recognitions and awards from the medical community, including the 2010 Thomas A. Brady Award from the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine for his dedication to excellence in sports medicine.
He also served as a physician for the U.S. Track and Field team in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
His alma mater MTSU named him a Distinguished Alumni in 1992.
Reflecting upon his career after turning 70, Dr. Johns told The DNJ, “Every year, I say to myself, ‘I won’t fool with this another year.’ It takes a lot of time. But then I’ll get out to spring ball and see all of those kids playing and I see how much joy still is in it. I keep on going.”
Reflecting back, Holcomb said, “What a man and what a legacy. Love you, Doc.”
Dr. Johns felt his profession was his mission field and sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with patients and athletes was his passion.
Dr. Johns is survived by his wife of 50 years, Betsy Coffman Johns; his daughter, Dr. Rebecca Johns-Wommack and her husband, Lane, of Murfreesboro; his son, Lt. Col. Tommy Johns of Fort Worth, Texas, and his wife, Lorissa; son Dr. Judd Johns of Boulder, Colorado; a sister, Betty Jean Engleheart of Marble Hill, Missouri and her husband, Dr. John; two grandsons (Oscar Thomas Johns IV and Omar Tucker Johns); and a granddaughter (Gracie Wommack).
He was preceded in death by his parents, Oscar Thomas Johns, Sr. and Betty Lucille Phillips Johns, and Betty Pauline Lester Phillips, known as “Muphup,” his beloved grandmother.
Visitation was from 4 until 8 p.m. on Thursday, April 4, 2019 at World Outreach Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. A service for Dr. Johns was held at 3 p.m. on Friday, April 5, 2019 at World Outreach Church, Murfreesboro, TN with Pastor Allan Jackson officiating. Speakers were Dr. Sidney A. McPhee, Butch Vaughn and Mark Pirtle. Burial followed at Evergreen Cemetery with Charles Perry speaking and music provided by Bucky Phillips. Pallbearers were Andy Englehart, Bob Englehart, Steve Hart, Rick Insell, Chris Massaro, Barry Reed, Britt Reed and Lt. Col. Tommy Johns. Honorary Pallbearers were Andy Adams, Billy Bryson, Dean Hayes, Deb Insell, Truman Jones, Dr. Michael Jordan, Andy McCollum, Elizabeth McPhee, Mary Esther Reed, Andy Soapes, Rick Stockstill, Louis Thompson, Diane Turnham, Rebecca Upton, Jack Weatherford and Tim Witzigreuter.
The family asks that in lieu of flowers for donations to be made to the Blue Raider Athletic Association and the World Outreach Church Character Quest Scholarship Fund for youth.
An online guestbook is available for the family at www.woodfinchapel.com. Woodfin Memorial Chapel (615) 893-5151