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Sunlake LB Xavier Johnson makes steady progress in rehab

Sunlake football player Xavier Johnson, who was seriously injured in a jet ski accident in the spring and spent a month in a coma, has come a long way in his rehab and was part of Sunlake's homecoming court recenlty with escort Katelyn Ortiz. (Photo courtesy of Ross Johnson)
Sunlake football player Xavier Johnson, who was seriously injured in a jet ski accident in the spring and spent a month in a coma, has come a long way in his rehab and was part of Sunlake's homecoming court recenlty with escort Katelyn Ortiz. (Photo courtesy of Ross Johnson)
Published Oct. 20, 2015

Xavier Johnson's life has changed drastically since he sustained a traumatic brain injury in a tubing accident May 16. But the Sunlake High School linebacker's Friday nights look much the same.

For the past five weeks Xavier has been part of an inpatient therapy program at Tampa General Hospital. He goes through daily physical and speech therapies to help him get back to the level of functioning he had before the accident.

On Friday afternoons, though, his parents check him out for a little relaxation at home before heading to the football field.

Xavier's father, Ross Johnson, said they've been to every Sunlake game this season except the road one at Lakewood Ranch. The Seahawks (7-0) are one win from clinching a playoff spot.

And if you ask linebacker Cris Galdos, his teammate and friend is the reason for the success.

"Every time we see (Xavier) at the game, honestly it's the biggest motivational factors you can probably have. It's the X Factor, that's what we all like to call it," said Galdos, who leads the Seahawks with 51 tackles, 11 for loss. "When we get the win, he's all jacked up."

Following the accident — he was tubing from a jet ski on Lake Ann when the tube he was riding on hit a dock — Xavier spent two months in the ICU as doctors waited for pressure in his brain to be alleviated. In mid July he was transferred to Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital in Jacksonville, where his progress defied doctors' expectations.

Ross Johnson said the family expected Xavier to be part of an outpatient therapy program at Tampa General, but when they went for an evaluation in September, they were offered an opportunity for a more rigorous, inpatient form.

"As soon as they met X, they were blown away," Ross said.

Xavier's improvements have continued to come flooding in.

When he left Brooks, Xavier was working on his ability to swallow, but was only able to drink Gatorade on his own. Now he eats mashed potatoes, puddings and other pureed foods. Physically he's also turned a corner. Ross said X is able to get out of his wheelchair on his own and stands with just a little help from physical therapists.

They've seen even more drastic improvements cognitively, Ross said. Xavier is now solving two- and three-step algebraic problems, and can read and identify definitions for words on a 12th-grade level.

And while Ross Johnson and his wife, Lisa, are antsy for even more progress, it's not lost on them just how far Xavier has come in such a short time.

"There's times where we look at it and it's like, 'Good grief, man, how much longer? It's taking so long,' " he said. "But the reality of it is, it was only five months ago, and in talking to doctors and therapists and even others that have suffered (traumatic brain injuries), we're talking years before (others) get to where X is."

As for life outside hospital walls, Xavier still enjoys the perks of being a high school junior.

He looks forward to the games on Friday nights, his dad said, and recently was voted to the junior class homecoming court and recognized at midfield of Sunlake's game against Pasco last week. Every Thursday, a group of Xavier's teammates head to the hospital to hang out with him after practice.

"He was at homecoming with us. A couple months back, you wouldn't imagine him dressing up in his purple bow tie and all that stuff," Galdos said. "It's awesome, seeing his progress."

As a pastor at Gathering Point Church in Land O'Lakes, it's Ross Johnson's job to speak and lead others. There are times during the past five months, though, where the father of three has found himself speechless.

Trying to express his gratitude for a community that continues to stand behind his son, he said, is one of those times.

"They haven't forgotten him," Ross Johnson said. "It really is just so hard to put into words how much that means to us."

Contact Kelly Parsons at kaparsons@tampabay.com. Follow @_kellyparsons.