The beard and the years can’t hide the trademark smile that made teachers at Lawrence High recognize John Novotny, the once-mischievous, hard-nosed student-athlete, now coaching and working in the English as a Second Language department and the baseball program.
“They just shake their heads and say, ‘Boy, have you changed,’” Novotny said with a smile from the home dugout of the LHS baseball diamond.
He has transformed from teenage boy to man, all right. How couldn’t he have grown into a different person, given all the curveballs life has thrown him?
Novotny, 28, spent two years going to school and playing baseball at Coffeyville Community College.
“Nobody wanted a 6-foot first baseman who hit doubles,” he said.
At that point in his life, school without baseball didn’t appeal to him.
So a few months after leaving Coffeyville, he was sitting in an Army recruiting office in Lawrence. Shortly after that, he was on a bus bound for Fort Benning, Ark., the site of an infantry camp.
A single parent who recently celebrated daughter Kennedy’s fifth birthday, Novotny, 28, credits her with “probably saving my life, in a sense, going through the PTSD stuff, and she kept me from dwelling on things.”
The source of the post-traumatic stress disorder can be traced to a battlefield in Southern Kandahar, Afghanistan, where Novotny was stationed as a member of the U.S. Army’s 101st airborne division.
“Lived on a mountaintop with about 30 recon guys,” Novotny said. “Surrounded by sandbags for eight months. Little bit of cold showers. Got the full experience, so to speak.”
And then it ended.
“Long story short, we were walking through this Taliban graveyard and next thing you know, I’m in Germany, medically discharged out of the Army and looking for work,” he said. “Nine of us ended up in the hospital.”
Only six of the nine soldiers sent to the hospital by the detonation of an improvised explosive device survived. Three never made it out of the hospital.
Novotny said he went through the return-to-duty medical process three different times, “and my body just wasn’t able to hold up to it.”
The obvious question had to be asked: After a brush with death, why did he want to return to duty?
“Just a sense of loyalty,” Novotny said.
The scars were too deep for him to gain clearance.
“The PTSD was very strong in the beginning,” he said. “A lot of what could I have done differently? A lot of knowing what happened to the other guys, because there was a long period of time where you get sent back and they’re still over there.”
After that, he worked for the Wounded Warrior Project in Jacksonville, Fla., where his daughter was born. Six months later, Kennedy’s mother died. Novotny then worked for the Veterans Administration in Knoxville, Tenn.
From there, Lawrence called him home.
“It just got to the point where I wanted my (parents and grandparents) to see their granddaughter and there was so much family help there,” Novotny said. “It has worked out really nicely.”
Upon his return to Lawrence, Novotny worked for his former high school baseball coach, Brad Stoll, in spring of 2015.
“Once he got back, kind of back to life, so to speak, he asked if we could go to lunch and we sat down and he said he wanted to get into coaching,” Stoll said. “I told him I’d help him however I could.”
That summer, Novotny worked at Kansas baseball coach Ritch Price’s camp and Price offered him a position as a student-manager for a year.
“I think he would be a fabulous high school coach and I have so much respect for him as a person,” Price said. “He’s paid a huge price serving our country. It’s awesome seeing him be successful, and I’m proud of the dad he’s been too.”
Novotny spent the following year as an assistant baseball coach to LHS graduate Ryan Goodwin at Baker University.
A spot on Stoll's coaching staff opened up before this season and Novotny, who also played basketball at LHS, was brought on as hitting coach.
“The kids love him,” Stoll said. “He’s got a ton of energy. He has that personality that people are drawn to. Unbelievable smile. I talk about how good a player he was and how tough he was and how ornery he was and the kids are drawn to that. I’m thrilled with the person he is today and how far he’s come.”
Stoll remembers exactly where he was when he received the phone call with distressing news from Novotny’s father.
“I was on 23rd, taking a left onto Alabama, heading to Lawrence High,” Stoll said. “I remember it very vividly. My heart hit the bottom of my car. It shook me to the core. It was a long day and a long couple of weeks until I realized he was going to make it.”
Back in uniform, Novotny sees similarities to the uniform from his past.
“It’s exactly like being on a team,” he said of being in the Army. “It’s a brotherhood and that’s why I love it and wanted to get back into coaching. A barracks is a lot like a locker room. There are hundreds of guys fighting for the same thing, fighting toward the same purpose, and everybody’s on the same page.”
Novotny hopes the story of his life will include a chapter on his career as a head coach.
“Hopefully, I can stick around long enough and coach Stoll won’t coach until he’s 80,” Novotny said. “If I’m going to coach high school baseball, this would be the job I’d want. It’s where I’d want to be. I'm a blue-collar type of kid and it’s a blue-collar kind of crowd around here.”