Commentary

Visions of return inspired wounded player

Updated: October 26, 2009, 12:24 PM ET
By Mike Loveday | ESPNRISE.com

Andre JohnsonAP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Curtis ComptonStray bullets cost Andre Johnson his left eye and best friend but didn't take his will to survive and thrive.

It is 9 p.m., and George Washington Carver (Atlanta) defensive end Andre Johnson is running faster than he ever has. But instead of chasing a quarterback, Johnson is running for his life and leaving a trail of blood behind him.

Johnson was spending Sunday, April 5, with his half-brother Nicholas in the Atlanta suburb of Peoplestown when a car rounded a corner and the sound of gunshots shattered the joyful mood.

Johnson was only a few months removed from his sophomore year of playing varsity football, of earning defensive newcomer and defensive player of the year honors for his team. A bullet that day costs him his left eye and his half-brother and almost ends his football future.

Now 16, Johnson has returned to the field with a glass eye and is using football to heal his physical and mental wounds.

"We were just outside, and a group of cars rolled by," he recalls. "They started shooting in the air and pulled off. Some more cars came and turned down our street. Someone jumped out of the car and started shooting.

"I fell and I was bleeding, and I knew I had been shot, but it didn't feel like it. I didn't even know where I'd been shot. I just knew I was bleeding. My eye went blank for a second, and then everything came back together. I saw a lot of blood and I was trying to call the ambulance on my phone, but I couldn't because I was shaking so bad."

The bullet shattered Johnson's jaw and exited through his left eye. Doctors were not sure he would survive. Nicholas died a day later.

It wasn't until the next morning, after her son underwent surgery, that doctors told Alison Johnson her son had a chance. They said Andre's muscular 230-pound frame, carved from summers of running wind sprints and weightlifting, may have been what saved him.

Where's Nicholas?

Peoplestown is a working-class neighborhood about a 15-minute walk south of Turner Field, home of the Atlanta Braves. Johnson says gangs are common in the neighborhood, but he remembers his old stomping ground with mixed emotions.

"[Living in Peoplestown] was tough, but it was fun at times," he said. "It was tough because there were a lot of fights and a lot of shootings and a lot of gang violence. It was fun because we played basketball against each other, football. We did a lot of things together as a neighborhood, but my mom was always telling me to not end up in the wrong crowd. So when they started doing something, I would just walk the other way."

As Andre lay in a hospital bed with his left eye heavily bandaged and his jaw wired shut, doctors told Alison her son would never play football again.

"They would not allow him to play because of the pressure in his right eye," Alison said. "I knew that it wasn't a choice -- that he had to play football for him to recover. For his emotional recovery more than anything else, there was never a doubt in my mind that he was going to play this year."

But playing again was not going to be easy, and there were hurdles Johnson would have to clear before football even became a consideration.

I was on Facebook and I saw pictures of him that said 'Rest In Peace.' I was angry. Why didn't somebody tell me? Afterwards, I just wanted to have another chance to talk to him.

-- Andre Johnson

He awoke five days after the shooting. As he became more alert, Andre started to realize a couple of things: His left eye had a patch over it, and Nicholas never came to visit.

Doctors told him he'd lost the eye. When he asked his family what happened to Nicholas, he never got an answer he thought made sense.

"I would ask questions, and people would change the subject," he said. "People would say he was out of town when he ain't ever went out of town before. I knew something was up."

He eventually found out.

"I was on Facebook and I saw pictures of him that said 'Rest In Peace,'" said Johnson, who would later see it confirmed on the news. "I was angry. Why didn't somebody tell me? Afterwards, I just wanted to have another chance to talk to him."

Nicholas was 16 -- a year older than Andre.

"We did everything together," Johnson said. "We talked about girls, school. We told each other everything. There was nothing that we couldn't tell each other."

Mother knows best

Johnson would spend a month in the hospital. During that time, doctors continued to tell him football was no longer an option, but not playing was never part of his plan.

When he first woke up in the hospital, his jaw wired shut, Andre scribbled a note to his mother.

"The first thing he wrote down was, 'Please tell coach [Darren] Myles not to be mad at me because I'm missing practice,'" Alison said.

"At that moment, I almost broke down," Myles said. "Here's a kid that's fighting for his life, and the first thing he thinks about is, 'Tell Coach … ' I told [Alison] that is the farthest thing away from my mind. Tell him to stay strong and recover."

As time passed and Johnson left the hospital, he said he started to accept the idea that football might not be part of his future. But Alison pleaded with doctors to allow her son to return to the field. She told the doctors football would be her son's therapy, that "his soul is injured so bad, the only thing that is going to help him is playing." Eventually doctors told her they'd allow Andre to play if he agreed to wear protective goggles or an eye shield.

In June, a month after being released from the hospital, Andre received a package in the mail. When he opened the box, a synthetic eye stared back at him.

That package was the signal that life was beginning to return to normal. Andre and his mother had moved to a new neighborhood and football practice would start soon.

It was bittersweet. I was very emotional and very scared. I didn't want anything else, physically, to happen to him. I was happy that he was ready to move on with his life.

-- Alison Johnson

Johnson's return to the team was a bright spot in a tough offseason for Carver. On May 13, the team's defensive coordinator and Myles' best friend, Joseph Polk III, died of a heart attack. Myles canceled the remaining spring games, and the team did not practice again until July.

"For Andre to come back, it added to the team, it eased the pain of going to work without a coach and a player," Myles said. "It brought a sense of relief."

Still, Johnson had work to do. He had lost 30 pounds in the hospital, and he could not see out of his left eye.

"I learned to keep my head on a swivel," he said. "The first scrimmage, I was nervous. I had never been scared to play before. When I hit the quarterback [the nerves went away]. It was a great feeling. My spirits were lifted up, my confidence was back."

"It was bittersweet," Alison said. "I was very emotional and very scared. I didn't want anything else, physically, to happen to him. I was happy that he was ready to move on with his life."

'I'm back happy'

By the time Carver lined up for its first game on Aug. 9, Johnson had proved to coaches that he was in shape and ready to start his junior season. Still, Myles worried -- not about how Johnson would hold up, but about his emotional state. Would he hesitate?

His answer came during Carver's homecoming game on Oct. 9, when Johnson assisted on a tackle and his synthetic eye fell out.

"I saw him picking something up off the ground, and I thought it was his mouthpiece," Myles said. "Once of the coaches said it was his eye, so we ran a sub in. Andre had already picked his eye up and put it back in, and he pushed the kid we ran in back to the sideline. He wouldn't come out of the game. He popped that thing right back in and kept playing."

Nowadays, Andre's goals are modest ones: recording more tackles and sacks this season than last, earning a captain's "C" on his jersey.

It's just as Alison says: He hasn't missed a beat.

"Before I got back to football, I was down," Johnson said. "When I got back on the football field, it was like nothing ever happened. I'm back. I'm back happy. Football helps me in a lot of ways."

Mike Loveday is an editor for ESPNRISE.com and can be reached at Michael.Loveday@espn.com.