Commentary

Healing is a family affair for Johnsons

In an inspiring tale, daughter of Red Sox coach thriving after losing leg in accident

Updated: December 29, 2010, 4:05 PM ET
By Joe McDonald | ESPNBoston.com

MORRISON, Tenn. -- In the small, dimly lit Hickory Grove Baptist Church in the woods of this middle Tennessee town, a Christmas play is being performed and a beautiful 11-year-old girl makes her way onto the makeshift stage.

She sits on a bench, drops her pink and purple crutches beside her and speaks her line, finishing with a giggle. The 30 or so people in the audience look around at one another and smile, knowing life is back to normal for the Johnson family.

Bridget Johnson, the daughter of Boston Red Sox first-base coach Ron Johnson, had her left leg severed in an accident last summer. She has undergone 15 surgeries, and next month she'll be fitted for a prosthetic leg.

Everyone in this small town (population of just more than 700) knows Bridget's story, and she has become an inspiration for many.

"The courage that surrounds that girl is amazing," the church's preacher said. "She is amazing. Nothing is going to stop her."

Bridget lost her left leg -- and nearly her life -- on Aug. 1. She was 10 at the time. It was a hot, steamy Sunday afternoon, so Bridget and her 14-year-old sister, Cheyanne, asked their mother, Daphane, if they could ride their horses to a friend's house to go swimming.

[+] EnlargeRon Johnson and family
James Clark, Editor of Southern Standard newspaper (Tenn.)Ron and Daphane Johnson have been instrumental in the recovery of their daughter Bridget, right, as has sister Cheyanne.

The girls were given permission and were instructed to take their cell phones with them. They set off on a trail near the family's 15-acre farm for the short ride to their friend's house. At one point along the way, they had to cross Cooper Road. There's a blind spot there and Cheyanne was already across when Bridget began to make her way over. The girls didn't hear anything until a speeding car, a 1999 Chevy Camaro, came over the hill.

When Bridget saw the car, she and her horse, Rhonda, were already in the middle of the street. Bridget kicked the horse, attempting to avoid the car, but the vehicle struck her. There were no skid marks. The car hit Rhonda and Bridget at around 42 mph in a 35 mph zone, Daphane was told.

The impact sent Bridget and her horse flying over the vehicle.

Bridget lay in the middle of the road, her left leg severed. Her horse was 75 feet away. Both were in a fight for their lives.

A few yards away, on the left-hand side of the road, a sign read: "Please drive slow. We love our children."

Living a nightmare

At the exact moment of his daughter's near fatal accident, Ron Johnson, known as "RJ," was coaching first base as the Boston Red Sox played the Detroit Tigers at Fenway Park.

Daphane was at home when she received a call from Cheyanne, telling her of the accident about a mile from the Johnsons' driveway. The road is winding, and Daphane wasn't about to waste any time. She drove through backyards and over front yards to get to her injured daughter as quickly as possible.

She arrived at the scene within two minutes of the accident. She saw Bridget trying to stand up, so the mother grabbed hold of her daughter.

The driver of the car stood at the side of the road, according to the family. A neighbor, Bernie, was already on the scene.

Bernie had a life-saving grip on Bridget's wound and would not let go. He was wearing a belt and Daphane told him to take it off so she could use it to make a tourniquet. He told her he was not letting go of Bridget because if he did, she likely would die.

"All of sudden there was a belt, like it was sent down from God," Daphane recalled. The belt did not belong to Bernie, and Daphane says she has no idea where it came from.

Bernie, who asked that his last name not be used and declined an interview request for this story, instructed another man on the scene to tie the belt tightly around Bridget's thigh.

Once word came over the Emergency Medical Services radio of an accident involving a severed leg, a medical helicopter was called. It took only 13 minutes for the helicopter to land in a field near the accident site, the EMT on site told Daphane.

Bridget's older stepbrother, Christian Gonzalez, an 18-year-old senior at Warren County High School, also was home at the time of the accident. He drove to the scene, but says he doesn't remember doing so.

He was barefoot with no shirt, wearing only shorts. When he arrived, glass was all over the road. He ran through the glass to be with his mother and sister.

"I was freaking out," Christian said. "Bridget's laying there and I couldn't see her leg. I thought she was lying down with both legs bent behind her. I had no idea. Then I saw something that was covered up with blood all over it down the road a little bit. I didn't realize it was her leg.

"My mom got up because some lady was trying to get her to settle down for a minute, so I lied on the ground with Bridget. I was lying there, looking at her, and she won't look at me. It was freaking me out because she was looking straight up in the air. I was like, 'Hey, baby. I'm here. I'm here.' She was just looking up, then she said, 'Hey, bubby. I love you. I love you.' I was crying so hard, but I'm trying not to because she's trying to be strong. It was tough, real tough."

There were a few times when Daphane thought she was losing her baby girl.

"Every time she'd close her eyes, I'd yell, 'Bridget!' She'd go, 'What Mommy? What? I'm right here.' I was so scared."

Once the EMTs were able to stabilize Bridget, it took only 17 minutes to airlift her to the Vanderbilt Children's Hospital in Nashville. Daphane had remained calm at the scene, but once the helicopter left, she lost her composure.

During it all, Cheyanne was standing on the side of the road in shock.

"It was awful. Terrible. The worst day of my life," Cheyanne said. "... Almost having her taken away like that, it was awful. Because, it was like, you don't know what you have until it's gone. It was so awful and scary."

Later, Cheyanne told her mother she couldn't understand why she wasn't the one who got hit.

'Is she going to live?'

While all of this was unfolding, RJ was in his Red Sox uniform doing his job, unaware his youngest daughter had lost 80 percent of her blood. Daphane kept calling Johnson's phone, but he was on the field. No one was answering the phone in the clubhouse, and she became so desperate she called 411 and asked for the main number for the Red Sox.

Bridget Johnson
Joe McDonald/ESPNBoston.com Ron Johnson didn't leave his daughter's side for 34 days while she was hospitalized.

Finally, she reached the team's traveling secretary, Jack McCormick.

Whenever the Red Sox win a game, McCormick waits by the clubhouse door and high-fives everyone coming in. Red Sox manager Terry Francona walked in after the club's 4-3 victory over the Tigers and put his hand up, but McCormick blew him off because he was waiting for Johnson. Francona remembers joking that he was upset that McCormick didn't perform the ritual, but McCormick had something far more important on his mind.

When Johnson arrived at the clubhouse door, McCormick pulled the coach aside.

"I said, 'RJ, call Daphane right away.' I didn't know what was wrong, but I knew it was something, just the way her voice was," McCormick recalled.

RJ called Daphane and learned of the accident.

"Is she going to live?" RJ asked his wife.

"I don't know," was the answer.

When RJ got off the phone, he told McCormick what had happened and that he needed to get home immediately.

"He was pale," McCormick said. "Something like that makes you pale."

The scene became so graphic in the coaches' room, Francona had to leave because he thought he was going to get sick.

While McCormick and Johnson scrambled to get RJ to Logan Airport for a flight through Detroit to Nashville, Francona, general manager Theo Epstein and other members of the baseball operations staff sat in the manager's office devastated by the news that one of their own family members was in the midst of such a major crisis.

Torturous trip

Back in Nashville, one of the biggest issues facing Bridget once she arrived at the hospital was cleaning all the debris, including glass and particles of horse and road, from her wound before doctors could attempt to reattach her leg.

Meanwhile, Daphane had to drive an hour to the hospital. When she finally arrived with Cheyanne, Christian and a family friend, Bridget was in the midst of a surgery that would save her life.

Within 45 minutes of learning of the accident, RJ was on a flight to Detroit to catch a connector to Nashville. At the time, it was the quickest route, but there was a delay when he landed in Detroit and he was stuck.

"It was awful. The worst day of my life," he said.

While he was at the airport, RJ couldn't bear to think about what he was going home to. At 9 p.m., he was still stuck in Detroit. He began to talk to the only other gentleman near him as the two sipped on coffee. It turned out the man was a close friend of Rick Allen, the Def Leppard drummer who lost his left arm in a car accident in 1984.

"What are the chances of me meeting this guy, and he's friends with one of the most famous drummers in the world, who happens to only have one arm?" RJ said. "It was a weird coincidence. Maybe it wasn't."

Johnson I don't even know how to say thank you to the Red Sox for everything they have done for me and my family. It's not about the gifts. It's about taking care of my family completely. It's really hard to explain to people. To have such a massive support group -- and you always want to feel like the people you're working for care for you, not only for what you do for a living but as a person. I am living testimony that these people care about you as a person.

-- Red Sox first-base coach Ron Johnson

Johnson left the airport in Detroit at 9:30 and finally arrived in Nashville at 11 p.m. With all the time spent thinking about Bridget, he had tried to convince himself that when he got home it wouldn't be as bad as he thought. But it was.

Bridget was in intensive care and hadn't woken up since she arrived at Vanderbilt. The next morning, around 5 a.m., Daphane and Ron were allowed to see their daughter. At that point, doctors had tried to reattach Bridget's leg and there was blood flowing through it, but the ligament damage was too severe and only the artery was connected.

When Daphane and Ron walked into the room, Bridget was still asleep. Daphane was told by a nurse to talk to her daughter.

"I told her, 'I love you, and you're going to be OK. Your daddy is here.' And as soon as I said, 'Your daddy is here,' her eyes were wide open. I looked at Ron and I got all choked up. He said to her, 'I'm here. I'm here.' Her eyes were wide open and she was looking at him.

"Every day, she would say, 'Do you have to leave today, Daddy?'" Daphane said. "He would say, 'Not 'til you leave, baby.' He never left."

For a total of 34 days, RJ stayed at the hospital. He never left his daughter's side. He did not return to the Red Sox for the remainder of the season.

The doctors' attempts to save Bridget's leg failed. It had to be amputated right above the knee on Aug. 10, nine days after the accident and just one day before her 11th birthday.

"Had I had to do it over again, I would have said to someone to grab some ice and put her leg on ice [at the accident scene]," Daphane said. "But at that point, you don't think of that. You're just thinking about her being alive. That's all we concentrated on was her face and keeping her awake."

One of the Good Samaritans, Bernie, later told Daphane one of the reasons Bridget lived is because Daphane talked to her and kept her awake in the middle of Cooper Road.

Bridget's hospital room was filled with pictures, flowers and balloons. RJ drew a bull's-eye on the window and the two of them would shoot suction-cup darts at it from the bed. It didn't matter if nurses or doctors were in the room, those darts would be flying.

Hospital personnel knew it was all in good fun, and they promised to get their playful revenge on RJ, telling him they would videotape him at night because he would sleepwalk and wander around the halls.

The Red Sox paid for the family to stay at a hotel next to the hospital. Daphane stayed in the hotel every night and told her husband to get a good night's sleep.

"I'm not leaving [the hospital room]," RJ told his wife. "If she wakes up and sees me gone, oh no, I can't let that happen."

RJ never left the hospital until they all left together on Sept. 4.

A lifesaver

Bridget Johnson was born on Aug. 11, 1999. She's intelligent. She has a tough shyness about her and is not afraid to speak her mind. When she lets her guard down and breaks out a smile, her kindness is genuine.

It was nearly stripped away.

"It was the worst thing ever," Daphane said of the accident. "The only thing worse would have been if she died."

Bridget Johnson is very much alive.

She loves baseball and basketball and is your typical 11-year-old girl. She listens to country music and can't get enough of Jason Aldean, perhaps because the country music star sent her an autographed guitar, CD and poster, wishing her well.

Pop sensation Justin Bieber also sent Bridget a personalized autograph picture. Bridget's other older stepbrother, Chris Johnson, is a third baseman for the Houston Astros. His jersey hangs in her room.

[+] EnlargeTerry Francona
Michael Zagaris/Getty ImagesRed Sox manager Terry Francona calls one team meeting per season. In 2010, he called it to help Bridget Johnson.

The Red Sox sent her an autographed home-white jersey with No. 11 (representing her age) on it. Next to that one is a road-gray Darnell McDonald No. 54 autographed jersey.

And Rick Allen, the one-armed drummer from Def Leppard, called her.

Of all the autographs and all the heroes in her life, one of the most cherished is her neighbor, Bernie. He is her savior.

Bernie was driving home from church with his wife and kids when he came across the accident immediately after it happened. He told his family to stay in the car as he quickly attended to Bridget.

"He saved her life," RJ said. "If he doesn't do what he does, I'm not looking at her right now.

"I can't put it into words. I can't measure it. Anybody who has children knows how invaluable your kids are. You can't put a price tag on them. This guy, I mean, we have a deep love for Bernie because of what he did for our family."

'I'll never know'

The man who was driving the car that hit Bridget was a neighbor of the Johnsons'. He was not charged with any crime, nor was he issued a field sobriety test at the scene, according to a Tennessee Highway Patrol spokesperson. The man and his wife, who was a passenger in the car, have neither visited nor called the Johnson family since the accident. The only communication was a card.

And every time Bridget is at the family's barn, which is her favorite spot, she has a clear view of the man's large brick house a few hundred yards away.

"I've never had any hard feelings toward him," Daphane said. "But the only thing that will eat at me is I'll never know [if he was legally drunk]. I thought it was normal procedure to do some kind of blood alcohol test. The highway patrolman did nothing. Nothing."

The highway patrol spokesperson said no test was administered because there was no indication of alcohol use.

The day of the accident, the man told police he was looking at Cheyanne and didn't know what he hit.

"This was an accident," Daphane said. "Do I think the man did it on purpose? No. Do I think he was negligent? Yeah, probably."

Remembering a friend

Bridget's horse Rhonda was seriously injured and Daphane asked a family friend to put her down. After Daphane informed Bridget of Rhonda's fate, Daphane left the hospital room. Daphane's mother, Phyllis, was in the room and explained to Bridget it was OK to cry.

"She did not cry a tear until she was told her horse died," Phyllis said. "She got it out and then slept for three hours."

Of the eight horses the Johnsons own, there's a small, beautiful filly named B-B, who is Rhonda's offspring, and Bridget can't wait until B-B is big enough to ride.

"She's excited that [Rhonda's] legacy will live on," RJ said.

Support from the Sox

While Bridget was recovering at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital, there was an outpouring of support back in Boston from the Red Sox.

Francona explained that he holds only one team meeting per season. He doesn't set a time for it; he lets the season dictate when it's needed. After Bridget's accident, Francona felt it was time.

Youkilis We've all done our separate things, but the one thing I'm doing is getting her a brand-new horse because she lost hers. I told RJ that's the least I could do because he's a huge part of why I'm in the big leagues today. He's been a great manager and has taught me the game and how to play the right way. He's not only a great coach, but he's a friend.

-- Kevin Youkilis

The manager told the players that money wouldn't fix the problem, but it would certainly help. The players passed the hat around the clubhouse, and later spring training coordinator Rob Leary hand-delivered the monetary gift to RJ and his family.

"I've been fortunate to know him longer than anyone here," said Kevin Youkilis, who played for Johnson in the minor leagues and is very close to him. "He's a great guy, and what he went through was pretty much unimaginable to everyone. He's got a great family, great wife and great kids. They're fun people to be around. For what he went through with his daughter, having her in the hospital for so long and all the medical treatments and the bills, we've done a pretty good job collecting money and helping him out."

The club also sent along fully loaded iPads for Bridget and her sister, but Youkilis wanted to help in his own way.

He decided he'd buy Bridget a new horse during the upcoming spring training.

"She'll pick it out, and I'll buy it," he said.

Youkilis works with a charity called Lovelane, which is a special-needs horseback-riding program that provides therapy while fostering confidence and independence for children with disabilities. He has witnessed firsthand the relationship between a child and a horse.

"When these kids get on these horses, they're in a whole new world," Youkilis said. "Their energy goes up. This will be her horse. Hopefully, I'll get to see the horse someday, but I just want her to have the best time of her life."

When RJ told Bridget what Youkilis promised, her spirits lifted and she immediately went online to look at horses.

"I've known Bridget since she was 3, so to hear about the accident was so sad," Youkilis said. "It was heartbreaking. The great thing is she survived it.

"It's tough to imagine. I don't know what I would do if that happened to my child. I would be a wreck."

Youkilis didn't want any publicity for his gesture, noting that many have helped Bridget since the accident.

"We've all done our separate things, but the one thing I'm doing is getting her a brand-new horse because she lost hers," he said. "I told RJ that's the least I could do because he's a huge part of why I'm in the big leagues today. He's been a great manager and has taught me the game and how to play the right way. He's not only a great coach, but he's a friend.

"It's great the way all these guys have stepped up big-time and have helped support him through these tough times. [RJ and Bridget] are two great people to be around."

Epstein and the Red Sox also would like to keep the organization's involvement private, but the team has done everything it can to help out.

"RJ and his family are part of our bigger Red Sox family," Epstein said. "In a time of need, you reach out and support them. It's nothing RJ wouldn't have done for us. It comes naturally for anyone with the Red Sox to reach out and help. We're just doing what he would do for us."

RJ has been with the Red Sox for 11 seasons and he considers himself lucky to be a part of the organization.

"It's hard for me to explain it," he said. "I don't even know how to say thank you to the Red Sox for everything they have done for me and my family. It's not about the gifts. It's about taking care of my family completely. It's really hard to explain to people.

"To have such a massive support group -- and you always want to feel like the people you're working for care for you, not only for what you do for a living but as a person. I am living testimony that these people care about you as a person.

"With the care and the level of concern we got from the Boston Red Sox, I'm not that good of a coach. It is a family here, and anyone who wants to dispute that with me, I'll have a filibuster with them until the end of time. I have living proof here of the care and concern and love these people have. I know that doesn't happen everywhere."

'A big-time inspiration'

Many people describe Bridget as courageous. She's become an inspiration and a source of motivation, especially for the Johnson family. RJ, who dealt with a leg injury all of last season, decided to get in shape in preparation for spring training.

Bridget Johnson
Joe McDonald, ESPNBoston.comBridget Johnson was back on a horse only a month and a half after her accident.

Every time Cheyanne rides her horse in competition, she has her sister in mind.

"You can't explain it," Cheyanne said. "I would have probably milked it a little more; she doesn't want any sympathy at all. Just because she has only one leg doesn't mean anything. She's a big-time inspiration.

"Even when she was in ICU, she never really changed. She still had that smart-alecky [way] to her. Even when she was all drugged up with morphine, she was still a smart aleck. With or without a leg, she was still going to do what she was going to do before. It's going to be a little harder for her, but she's still going to do it."

Christian is hoping to play college baseball next year, maybe at the junior college level. If he's able to reach that goal, he'll need to play well for his high school team in the spring. While Bridget remained in the hospital, Christian and his teammates began their workouts.

On the first day, Christian gathered his teammates before they started their running drills.

"I said, 'Most of you guys have heard about my little sister. If you go out there and you're running and get tired, just picture my little sister wanting to be out there and wanting to run. But she can't. Use that as motivation because that's what's getting me through right now.'

"It's easy to say, you don't want to do anything because you're tired and feel bad for yourself. You can't do that, especially now, with our family. It's easy to get up and go now because of her."

None of his teammates were dogging it that day because Christian wouldn't allow it.

"It kind of kicked everybody in gear," he said. "It has affected so many people, people we don't even know."

'The same old Bridget'

Bridget left the hospital on Sept. 4 and returned home. She was missing her leg from the top of the knee down, but the thing she missed the most was horseback riding.

It was only a month and a half after the accident before she decided to get back on a horse. Bridget and Cheyanne figured out that if they took the left stirrup and connected it to the horn on the saddle, it would fit tightly enough around Bridget's thigh that she would be comfortable when riding.

The day Bridget got back on a horse -- even though doctors didn't want her to -- RJ and Daphane knew it would be the perfect rehab, both mentally and physically. Bridget saddled up Peanut, her dad's horse, and she was off.

To watch Bridget ride again also meant a lot to Cheyanne.

"It was great. Just because she has no leg doesn't mean anything to her," Cheyanne said. "When she got back on for the first time, she said it felt normal. From one side, she looked perfectly normal. When she turned around, it was weird, like, 'Whoa. You OK, Bridge?' She rode my dad's horse for a while because it was easy-going, but then she wanted to get back on hers, and she did. She's pretty great -- big-time."

Bridget's rehab also consisted of wheelchair races up and down the driveway and wrestling matches with her father and siblings.

When the accident occurred and Daphane was finally able to comprehend what had happened to her baby girl, one of the biggest fears she had was what Bridget's life would be like moving forward.

"Am I going to have my same little girl? Is she going to wake up and be different?" Daphane said. "She's not different. She's the same old Bridget."

Daphane also believes her daughter's perseverance is directly linked to RJ.

"He's so opposite of me," Daphane said. "I'm more serious and want to be very careful with her, but he's the opposite with her. They have gotten so, so close through this whole thing."

On the morning of Dec. 17, Bridget had another doctor's appointment and was given a clean bill of health. She spent that night Christmas caroling with members of her church. The next step in her rehab process will be to get fitted for her prosthesis.

Life has returned to normal for Bridget. She gives new meaning to the old saying about getting back on your horse.

'People will look up to her'

Saturday, Dec. 18, was a typical day for Bridget. As the family was preparing to leave for the hourlong drive to Cheyanne's horse competition, RJ sat in a chair with Bridget in front of him on an ottoman. He gently rubbed what remains of Bridget's left leg before he began to wrap it in gauze.

"Give me a kiss," he said to her.

She leaned over and kissed him gently on the head.

The Johnson family has all sorts of nicknames for Bridget, the kind only a close family member affected by the accident can call her.

"It crushed us," RJ said. "But now we can joke about it."

Bridget and Cheyanne headed off to the barn to get the horses ready. As Bridget brushed one of the horses, a large meadow was visible over her right shoulder. On the other side of it is that large brick house.

Bridget talked about what it was like when she finally returned to school, and said she can't wait to return to riding horses in competition.

"I could right now, if I wanted to," she said.

Throughout the day, RJ glanced over at Bridget.

The girls were loading the horses into the trailer when RJ asked Bridget if she needed any help.

"Dad, I've got it," she said.

Once the family arrived at Winchester, Tenn., for Cheyanne's competition, Bridget jumped on one of her horses and took off galloping. She's a natural.

"I can't even ride with two legs," Daphane said.

Bridget spent the entire afternoon on the horse.

After the competition was over and Bridget was leaving the building, she passed two young girls having a conversation. "That's disgusting," one of the girls said.

The comment infuriated Daphane. Bridget blew it off because she's confident that once she's able to return to competition, she'll embarrass those girls.

"She's going to live a good life," RJ said. "We're going to make sure of it. She's a special kid. I told her there will be people and kids who look up to her."

After lunch at a burger place, the Johnsons headed home.

As the family's Ford F-350 pickup, with Bridget's pink and purple crutches hanging over the side, turned onto Cooper Road, Bridget reminded RJ to drive slowly. It's the only road to the Johnsons' house, so there's no way to avoid the spot.

As the truck approached the scene of the accident, RJ explained where his daughter was hit.

"Right … here," he said.

Bridget, fully aware of the location, was sitting in the backseat of the truck playing with her cell phone and fooling around with her sister.

The Johnsons are proof that the family that rides together, stays together. It's gotten to a point where they don't think of Bridget having a disability -- because she doesn't.

Back to normal

A few weeks ago, Epstein and Francona checked in with RJ to make sure he was comfortable returning to work. If not, the Red Sox were prepared to give him an entire year off with pay so he could stay with his family. RJ, who reached the big leagues for the first time as a coach last season, will return as first-base coach for 2011.

He's hoping Bridget will be comfortable with her new prosthesis by then. She's scheduled to receive it by the end of January. Bridget is the master when it comes to bailing hay when he's not around, since the family doesn't own a tractor.

When RJ arrives at spring training, he hopes he'll be able to focus on baseball and his job because that will mean his family is back to normal.

Never looking back

The "Miracle at Bethlehem" play is in its last act at Hickory Grove Baptist Church. It's the scene in which the Three Wise Men approach the manger and baby Jesus. Ron Johnson is one of the Wise Men, playing the role of Balthasar. He speaks his line. Bridget is in the back of the church, smiling.

He did this for her.

When the play concludes, the churchgoers enjoy a potluck dinner in a back room. Bridget, Cheyanne and all the other children eat before scurrying off to play. The day is almost over for the Johnson family, and it was as normal as could be.

"Something like this tears families apart," RJ said of the accident. "There will never be a day that was worse than that. It will never go away. We'll never forget, but we ain't never looking back. We're moving forward. This made us stronger."

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Joe McDonald

Reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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