Newberry's Nutkins named Gil Heard Courageous Athlete Award winner

Newberry's Johnny Nutkins (7) is the Gil Heard Courageous Athlete award winner. Nutkins received the honor from the U.P. Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association.
Newberry's Johnny Nutkins (7) is the Gil Heard Courageous Athlete award winner. Nutkins received the honor from the U.P. Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association.

NEWBERRY — Think about the pain and agony of breaking your back. How would you feel? What would be going through your mind? How would your life change? Maybe most importantly...What would you do next? For Newberry’s Johnny Nutkins, The answer to that was always an easy one.

“I always knew that I wanted to get back,” Nutkins said. “When I was first told what had actually happened, I guess I had a hard time coming to terms with it. I thought I still had a couple years of hockey left and my senior year for football. There was a lot of disbelief and I was being forced to come to grips with the possibility that I might not ever play again. But I knew I had to get back if I could, so I took a couple of months and really started working on coming back and being able to play.”

Johnny knew he faced an incredibly tough challenge if he wanted to play competitive sports again. Fighting through the pain, frequent doctors visits, multiple months in a painfully uncomfortable brace that wrapped around his entire upper body. He was lucky just to be walking.


It’s an incredible and inspiring story that has resulted in Nutkins being named the UPSSA’s 2021 Gil Heard Courageous Athlete Award winner. The award is presented annually to an Upper Peninsula athlete who demonstrates perseverance in overcoming a handicap to participate in athletics. The award is named in honor of the late Gil Heard, who was a Sports Information Director at Northern Michigan University for 23 years and is a member of the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame.

Let’s go back to September 2020. The Indians are locked into another intense matchup with Munising in their annual rivalry game for the Axe. Nutkins was preparing to “shoot the gap” as part of his defensive assignment as the starting Linebacker. As a Munising player blocked him, a player behind Nutkins ran his helmet directly into his lower back. It was a violent collision, with Nutkins body twisting and folding in different directions. It hurt right away. But for a kid who was a team leader, always at practice and rarely missed a play, he thought it was just another bump or bruise that comes with contact sports.

Johnny had no idea then how severe the injury was.

“It honestly just felt like regular soreness or a muscle strain,” He said. “I played in two more full games and part of a third when I finally came out. I could barely stand. I could barely walk. I knew it wasn’t good.”

After a trip to the ER the next day, the bombshell was dropped. Johnny Nutkins, just a kid who loved the game, a great friend, and teammate, had broken his back. The official diagnosis was a bilaterally broken L3 Vertebrae, He would have to wear a brace and the best case scenario was that he wouldn’t need surgery right away. Sports however, were out of the discussion. It looked like his career was over. Forced to hang up his cleats and skates, Nutkins would probably never play sports again.

“I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it,” he said.

After months of battling and wondering what would come next, Nutkins finally got good news in January. He returned to the doctor to have his brace removed. It was a big milestone in his recovery. Not only would he not need the surgery, there was a chance he could get back on the field. X Rays showed that the injury had “healed broken” and couldn’t get any better or worse based on playing. There would be some pain and discomfort, but for Nutkins, it was all worth getting back on the field again.

The comeback is now complete. Johnny Nutkins, the kid who could barely walk and was a fraction of an inch from being paralyzed, was back on the ice this winter with the 18U Hidden Estates Hockey Team. They reached the MAHA JV State Championship game and he was their captain. This fall on the football field he was the Great Lakes Eight East Division Defensive Player of the Year and an All UP Dream Teamer. He is also now suiting up for the new high school hockey co-op between Manistique, Newberry, and Munising.

After graduation, Nutkins will enlist in the US Army, where he spent last summer going through boot camp before returning for fall practice. It’s an incredible feeling to be back doing what he loves.

“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “I wish I would’ve never quit playing.”

Now Nutkins is focused on being an inspiration to others.

“At the end of the day, I just want to be a great role model and mentor for others,” he said. “Even if it feels like all hope is lost, I would tell people to just keep showing up and give their best. Keep a positive mindset. But always have hope.”

Editor’s note: Dan Hardenbrook is sports director and play-by-play announcer for M-123 FM.

This article originally appeared on The Sault News: Newberry's Nutkins named Gil Heard Courageous Athlete Award winner