Colangelo makes the call: Teacher/alum gets wish

By Theresa Smith
GCU News Bureau

When Jerry Colangelo dialed the phone number of teacher Nathan Johnson, congratulating the Grand Canyon University alumnus as a recipient of $5,000 in classroom supplies as part of Fiesta Bowl Charities Wishes for Teachers, ironies tripled.

After all, Colangelo is connected to GCU as a benefactor whose name graces the Colangelo College of Business. Moreover, Johnson teaches physical education – Colangelo’s passion as the former head of USA Basketball and former owner of the Phoenix Suns and the Arizona Diamondbacks. Finally, Johnson teaches at Westwood Elementary, a neighborhood school intertwined with GCU in numerous ways, including College of Education students embedded in a residence program and Lopes students tutoring Westwood students after school in the Learning Lounge.

“How cool is that -- here is Jerry Colangelo, who is so connected to GCU and our community, to pull a ticket of a P.E. teacher, no less," COE Dean Dr. Kimberly LaPrade said. "A sports legend pulls the ticket of a P.E. teacher and it so happens it is across the street from GCU at a school we are pouring so much love and resources around.’’  

Along with Colangelo, community leaders and sports celebrities such as Archie Bradley and Shane Doan, LaPrade was selected to pull the tickets of three teachers out of a plastic red apple. A record 4,100 teachers applied for $5,000 grants for classroom needs, and 200 teachers were selected in the third year of the initiative, which has donated $2.2 million, impacting 100,000 students since 2016.

Jerry Colangelo grants a teacher's wish via a phone call.

In the new, draft day format implemented this year, the names were drawn and the phone calls were made on Oct. 25 in a three-hour period at the Ziegler Fiesta Bowl Museum in Scottsdale. Johnson did not believe that Colangelo was really on the line when he answered the call while driving home from a P.E. conference.

“I’m about 150 yards out of the parking garage and I see a phone call from a restricted number and I’m like, ‘I am not answering that, this time of year there are so many phone calls coming in,’’’ he said of solicitors and election messages.

“Then, I’m like, ‘Well, I have a one-hour drive,’ so I went ahead and answered it. I put it up to my ear and I heard, ‘Nathan?’ I said, ‘Yes’, and he said, ‘Hi, Nathan, this is Jerry Colangelo, you won the $5,000 grant.’ And I was like, ‘Thank you, thank you. I’m not sure I really believe this is Jerry Colangelo.’

"At the same time, I was processing. If my friends were trying to pull a prank, how would they have this information? And I go, ‘But you know I actually do believe it is you, Jerry.’ And he said, ‘It is Jerry Colangelo and you won the grant from the Fiesta Bowl Charities.'"

Johnson thanked Colangelo, telling him that the donation is a blessing for his students, and he expressed appreciation for all of his contributions to the people of Arizona.

“I am aware of the man he is and the things he stands for," said Johnson, who will use the grant to purchase trapezoid mats, bosu balls, scooters and training hurdles.

Nathan Johnson pumps up his students before a race.

“It is just fantastic to be able to put out new equipment,’’ he said. “I look forward to putting all that equipment to use. It will really be fun for the kids I work with. It will bring our program to the next level.’’

A former student in the Alhambra school district, Johnson served in the Marines, then graduated from GCU in 2003. He has taught P.E. for the past 15 years at Westwood. He and his wife, Emily (nee McIlvanie), a Lope alum, are the parents of eight children.

LaPrade granted the wishes of three teachers, including Christina Ross, a kindergarten teacher from Anza Trail in Sahuartia Unified School District, south of Tucson.

“She was so excited," LaPrade said. “She was shaking; you could just hear it in her voice. She just couldn’t believe it, and she said, ‘Oh my gosh.’ It is not every day, especially for a teacher, that you hear that you have $5,000 to spend on the wish you wanted for your class."

Ross was standing in a Walmart checkout line with her 8-year-old son, Rockford, when her phone rang.

“I usually don’t answer with no caller I.D., but for some reason, the Holy Spirit prompted me," Ross said. “When I heard the words Fiesta Bowl, I said, ‘No way, no way,’ and I started crying in the middle of Walmart."

Ross plans to spend the money on Chrome books, replacing obsolete and inoperable technology. LaPrade can relate -- as an English teacher at Central High School she used her own funds to close budgetary shortfalls.

Dr. Kimberly LaPrade, Dean of the College of Education, grants a teacher's wish.

“Any way we can support our teachers is a blessing because they are digging into their own pockets to provide for the kids,’’ LaPrade said. “I can remember when I was teaching, we all did that. If it wasn’t in the budget to have enough pencils or paper or crayons or scissors or posters, that was part of what you did."

Along with the involvement of LaPrade, Colangelo and Johnson, GCU is tied to the event as a sponsor and via Jose Moreno, the Fiesta Bowl Senior Director of Marketing and Community Relations, and Community Relations Coordinator Kellie Schindler. They are both Lopes alums, and Moreno is a former GCU communications outreach manager.

“GCU is near and dear to my heart," said Moreno, who recently took time from his demanding schedule to speak to a GCU sports business event-planning class.

In college, Moreno studied Colangelo’s sports business practices; now he works with the Arizona legend on several projects, including Wishes for Teachers.

“To be able to be with Jerry and get to know him on a personal level has been pretty cool, and having him involved in a program such as this is amazing,’’ Moreno said. “It’s definitely something we’re excited that the whole community wants to stand behind, both Jerry and GCU as a whole.’’

In the past, Moreno and his team drove all over the state, to the site of each wish granter to pull teachers’ names. This year, they brought all the wish granters to a central location.

Nathan and Emily Johnson and their children.

“We took it up a notch,’’ he said, and the video attests. “We created the draft day and brought people to our house to see it firsthand. It is definitely emotion that you pull out of people that is hard to explain.

"When you get to call a teacher and you hear cheers on the other end of the line and you’re granting them $5,000, it is an amazing deal. We saw so many amazing calls. A lot of the people that called were in tears themselves. And to hear the teachers cry and be appreciated, it is so unlike anything out there.’’

Teachers are recognized on the field at halftime of the Cheez-It Bowl on Dec. 26 at Chase Field and are invited to march in the Fiesta Bowl parade on Dec. 29.

“The money is great, and that’s just half of it. The other half is continuing to appreciate and honor teachers,’’ Moreno said of the bowl-game related appearances. “The feedback we get from the teachers is that the best experience of their life is to walk on the field and to be recognized by 40,000 fans.’’

Nathan Johnson awaits that moment. After 15 years of coaxing children to run their laps, finish their pushups and show sportsmanship, all of his wishes are coming true.

Contact Theresa Smith at (602) 639-7457 or [email protected].


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