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After accident, a son and a family begin long road to recovery

Courtesy of the Johnston Family. Joey Johnston, son of Times correspondent Joey Johnston, earned a spot on the Alonso High School varsity baseball team as a freshman this year. He\u2019s now recovering from debilitating neck and back injuries.
Published Jul. 27, 2018

My son has never been ordinary. But following a horrifying July 8 accident that left him with severe neck and back injuries, our life can be described only one way.

Extraordinary.

Gut-wrenching and hopeful, exhausting and exhilarating, tragic and joyful — all of that and more.

Joey, our 15-year-old hyperactive, athletic, whip-smart and unforgettable son, could have easily died. Somehow, he was spared. And now, we have never felt more alive.

Instead of being alone, we feel the strength of a growing community, cherished family, lifetime friends, co-workers and so many people we don't even know, all united behind a charismatic kid who knows how to lead a good parade.

Joey has always been a thrill-seeker, a daredevil, an adrenalin guy. Other kids stay inside, playing video games and watching movies. Not Joey. He's an outdoorsman. He climbs trees. He rides bikes. He fishes. He's an Alpha male.

This might explain why Joey and his buddies attempted to leap off a 65-foot bridge for fun on July 8. His friend went first and landed fine. Joey, of course, tried a backflip and he over-rotated. The injuries happened on impact with the water.

Even with that disastrous visual, there were immediate positives. Joey was alive (his friend saved him; had Joey jumped first, he almost certainly would've drowned). His head and brain were unharmed. He has movement in his upper body. There is no movement in his lower body — yet — but we are optimistic.

Look at all that has already happened. He has made it through two surgeries. His neck and back have been successfully fused. He's eating food. The halo and neck collar have been removed. He's out of traction. His spirits are generally great. I mean, his attitude most days has been truly inspirational. But the work has only just begun, and that will occur at a specialized rehabilitation facility.

I believe Joey is going to be awesome in rehabilitation. I really do. We are giving him the best possible chance to thrive. In typical Joey fashion, he's definitely the guy you want taking this at-bat — stubborn, determined, ultra-fit, goal-oriented, Mr. Clutch, tough.

Boy is he tough!

I don't know about your faith. I can only speak to mine. God is in charge here. He can fix this. And I believe He will — on His time and His schedule.

Entering July 8, Joey was a devil-may-care, somewhat reckless 15-year-old. He's scheduled to get his driver's license in October. We constantly have to watch him and remind him of safety and making good decisions. He has taken crazy chances — like a lot of 15-year-old boys — and mostly made it through. Now he has made a decision with huge consequences.

Here's my theory: God saw a kid who thought he was invincible and maybe untouchable. Could an accident be prevented from above? Yeah, sure. But a lesson had to be learned. Maybe that was the only way Joey could get back on the right path.

Clearly, Joey is meant to be here. Something special already has happened. We have noticed a softening, a sense of perspective, a realization that he got a second chance. He has spoken about helping people. He has spoken about helping his peers make better decisions.

These might be small things, but I see a glimmer of insight, empathy and gratitude that was not there before. I see a different path. I see hope.

I also see a potentially extraordinary life.

So far, baseball has consumed much of his focus, whether it was earning the skills-competition championship at the Rays Summer Camp (as a 6-year-old), becoming a key performer on the Keystone Little League All-Stars' three-time state championship teams or earning a spot on the Alonso High School varsity team as a freshman last season.

Oh, and let's not forget Rays player Daniel Robertson dedicating a walk-off grand slam to Joey, then hitting another homer for the kid the next game, while flashing the "Prayers for Joey'' wristband for the TV cameras.

RELATED STORY: Rays' Robertson visits injured player in hospital

I think I was more proud of Joey's 4.2 grade-point average, but certainly there was excitement about the baseball ahead of him. Now we take a bit of a detour.

The road ahead will be long and unpredictable. There will be more tears. There will be emotional chasms that probably teeter on depression. We're keeping the faith and hoping all of you can, too. We need positive thoughts, encouragement and friendship.

One day at a time. That's the only way to face this challenge. He must give the best effort of his life. The finish line is out there somewhere.

Joey's life has sometimes prompted frustration and exasperation for his parents (not unusual … right, fellow parents?). At the same time, it has provided rewards beyond measure.

I like to stare at him when he drifts off to sleep at the hospital. He still has that sweet little boy look. It's nice to see him at peace, if only for a moment, before the daily battle resumes. At these times, regardless of where this process leads, I just know he's going to find his purpose.

He's going to be all right. And we're going to be all right, too.

Follow Joey Johnston's progress atnfacebook.com/prayersforjoeyjohnston.

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