College grant awaits paralyzed player A PROMISE TO KEEP

March 04, 1994|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun Staff Writer

Bowie State is a small, NCAA Division II school with a tight athletic budget. The football team usually has only 12 players on full scholarships. Two years from now, one of those scholarships could be reserved for a young man in a wheelchair.

Dion Johnson, a special teams player for Douglass High School in Prince George's County, was paralyzed from the shoulders down in a state playoff game against City College last November.

Several Bowie State coaches were in the stands that day, scouting a handful of players from Douglass and City.

They watched as Dion was carried off the field to a MedEvac helicopter. They followed his progress at the Washington Hospital Center, where doctors operated on his broken neck.

And several weeks later, Bowie State officials told him that if he kept his grades up, a full football scholarship would be waiting for him.

"When I took this position, I said I wanted Bowie State to get involved with the community," said Sherman Wood, Bowie State's second-year head coach.

"Everyone is at an advantage here. We want to help Dion, and we want to open people's eyes and let them know that we're not kidding about community involvement. Education is very important to me."

Said Dion's high school coach, Tom Glynn: "People were sending Dion all kinds of cards and footballs. The Redskins and [University of] Maryland sent people to talk to him. But I wasn't thinking this big. I was shocked."

So was Dion.

"It [the scholarship offer] has helped me a lot. It makes me want to work harder," said Dion, who intends to pursue computer science or communications in college. "I know I can't lose this. I'm not going to let it slip away."

Dion has had the dream so many times that he has lost count. Always, the dream unfolds on the football field, where he is focusing on an opposing ball carrier.

"I'm above the field looking down. I see me running toward him. All I see is me running into the crowd and not getting up," Dion said.

"Then, somebody lifts me up, and I fall back down. Then, I hear a loud noise, and I wake up."

And each time, he faces the same cruel realization. This is no dream.

Each time he awakens, Dion flashes back to the football field at Douglass, where his recurring vision connects with reality to form the most frightening moment of his life.

Douglass was playing host to City in the state playoffs. Dion lined up for the opening kickoff. He sped down the field, then dived into a pile of tacklers that converged on the kick returner.

Everyone got up but Dion. "It felt like my whole body was on fire," he said.

Sam Washington, Dion's stepfather, recalls the moment vividly.

"When one of the [Douglass] coaches walked over to the stands and waved us onto the field, I knew something was wrong," Mr. Washington said.

"I jumped the fence, and when I got there, he said, 'Dad, I can't feel my legs.' At first, I thought it was just a stinger. Then, they MedEvac-ed him. That was scary."

By the time Sam Washington and his wife, Wanda, had driven to the Washington Hospital Center, the doctors were ready with the chilling news. Dion's neck was broken. One vertebra was shattered. Another vertebra had bent his upper spinal cord.

That night, Mr. Washington talked with his stepson.

"I don't know where I got the strength from, but I told him to be thankful for three things," Mr. Washington said. "You didn't die, you don't have any brain injury and you're still Dion. You just don't have the movement."

'I need some muscles'

Watch Dion in his wheelchair at the National Rehabilitation Hospital, struggling to lift a 3-pound weight with his left arm, and witness a 16-year-old facing grim circumstances bluntly.

"It's only 3 pounds, and it's heavy," said Dion, who grimaces while asking that 1 more pound be added to the stack. He fails to lift it. "I need some muscles."

Dion vows to lift that 4-pound weight soon, then another pound after that, then another. Although he has been told he may never walk again, he is resolved to regain the full use of his body, one inch at a time, one limb at a time.

More than ever, Dion lives each day with goals in mind. He longs to regain enough control of his hands to allow him to write and draw again. He plans to return to school for the rest of his junior year in early April, so he won't have to keep relying on a tutor. And he is bent on maintaining or improving his B average in the classroom so he can qualify for that scholarship from Bowie State.

Dion has come a long way just to get to this point. That first week in the intensive care unit, he spent four days in traction, while doctors prepared to mend the break in his neck. After that successful operation, doctors attached a halo device to his head to keep it in place. He learned last month how close he was to dying from the injury.

Wanda Washington recalled those first days, watching her son, locked in a supine position, hooked up to tubes and machinery, knowing how close she was to losing him, terrified of letting him know the fear she was feeling.

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