Things were supposed to be on the upswing for Grantley Johnson.

Months before his sixth birthday, the West Fargo native was taken to the hospital after parents Jordan and Leah Johnson became concerned with a persistent rash he'd developed. Initially thinking he had mono, the diagnosis was much worse, as blood work revealed Grantley had Acute Myeloid Leukemia, defined by cancer.gov as "a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes abnormal myeloblasts, red blood cells or platelets."

Forced to return to the hospital that night, Grantley wouldn't leave for 98 days, as he was forced to hold his birthday party and kindergarten graduation ceremony in his room.

Grantley Johnson take the podium after competing in a January wrestling tournament in Barnsville, Minn. Photo submitted by Leah Johnson.
Grantley Johnson take the podium after competing in a January wrestling tournament in Barnsville, Minn. Photo submitted by Leah Johnson.

In April of this year, it appeared things would be returning to normal for the Johnson family. Not only was Grantley in remission, Jordan says doctors told him there was a 90 percent chance the disease wouldn't return. Given a clean bill of health, Grantley quickly returned to his favorite pastimes, watching superhero movies, playing video games, hunting and sharpening his skills in wrestling, his favorite sport, at a camp at West Fargo Sheyenne High School.

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But in three short months, the return to normalcy abruptly ended. After the same rash returned, Grantley's terrified parents took him back to the hospital where their worst fears were confirmed; the AML Leukemia had returned.

On July 3, just eight days before his seventh birthday, Grantley was admitted to the Sanford Medical Center in Fargo, where he's remained ever since.

"We really thought this was kind of behind us and we'd be done with it," Jordan said. "And then to get news it was back was pretty devastating. It was your worst nightmare come true again."

The seriousness of the situation wasn't lost on Grantley.

"He looked at me (the day of the second diagnosis) and said 'Today was a life-breaking day,'" Leah said. "This one hit him a lot harder because he knew it was going to take away so much of who he is again."

Fortunately, the family hasn't had to endure this setback alone.

Days into his stay at Sanford, Grantley got a visit from his friends in the Sheyenne wrestling program, as coach Lex Lunde brought along wrestlers Mekhi Dennis and Eloy Flores, who spent hours competing against Grantley on his Sony PlayStation.

Grantley's best day in the hospital was one he was initially dreading.

Knowing his son would be distraught spending his birthday in the hospital for the second straight year, Leah took to Facebook, asking if people would send cards "just to make his spirits higher."

Expecting a modest haul from friends and family, the Johnsons instead received over 1,000 cards, which continued to come in more than two weeks after his birthday. Leah says she's received items from more 20 states, Canada, and even had one come in all the way from Germany.

When the big day came on July 11, superhero enthusiast Grantley was treated to a 12-hour birthday party where several spectators visited dressed in various superhero costumes. By day's end, Jordan says his son had received so many gifts, he actually had to request a break from opening them.

"He went from having what he probably thought would be a terrible birthday back in the hospital to I bet he would say was one of the best birthdays he's ever had," Jordan said.

Perhaps the best gift Grantley got on that day was getting to see himself in comic book form.

Illustration by Emily Monson
Illustration by Emily Monson

Having visited several times during his hospital stays, Jack Haile, a trainer at CrossFit Icehouse in Fargo where Jordan works out, developed the idea for a comic titled "Super G," about a mohawk-sporting superhero based on Grantley. Working with illustrator and fellow Icehouse trainer Emily Monson, Super G's origin story was posted on the Icehouse website on Grantley's birthday.

From the beginning, Haile says Grantley has been enthusiastically involved in the creative process. A week after the origin story was posted, the two spent roughly an hour fine-tuning the details for future issues, such as creating a city for Super G to protect and a supervillain for him to fight.

Real-life Grantley has even taken on the look of his alter ego, sporting a red mohawk cut and dyed by his mom (Leah says the original plan was for Super G to have green hair, but she was unable to locate dye in that color).

Even before he started making story contributions, Haile says Grantley proved to be a strong source of inspiration.

"He is facing down real evil," Haile said. "The superhero mentality that he has and the toughness to endure the things most grown people couldn't even imagine, I think that in itself suggests that he's going to continue to fight and want to fight. He just identifies with that."

Grantley's fight with leukemia is a long way from over. As he waits for a bone marrow transplant, he's expected to be moved to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester on Aug. 7.

And though they both say it's unfair for a seven-year-old to be tested in the way their son has in the past 15 months, Jordan and Leah remain unshakably confident in Grantley's will to push through another grueling stretch.

"To get that much chemo and that much treatment and to be that sick for that long, if you (ask how he's doing) he'll look at you and go 'I'm fine, I'm doing good,'" Jordan said. "I'd be like 'I'm terrible, I'm miserable' and those are two words he'll never say."

"There's not enough words to describe how strong he is," Leah added. "He's a champ."

To get tested as a potential bone marrow match, visit bethematch.org.