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A New Perspective

Nov. 10, 2014

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By John Crumpacker, WCC Columnist | @CrumpackerOnWCC

STOCKTON, Calif. -- There's a definite hitch in Gena Johnson's giddy-up these days. That she even has a giddy-up is more than a little remarkable.

"I call it my `Pimp Walk' because I lean all the time," she said.

That's because, on June 28, 2013, this point guard on the Pacific women's basketball team sustained life-threatening injuries from a head-on collision while driving on a two-lane highway toward her home in Sacramento.

A Chevy Silverado pickup truck had veered into oncoming traffic while passing a slow-moving tractor on Highway 113 near Dixon, Ca., and slammed into Johnson's 2002 Mustang. It took paramedics 40 minutes using the Jaws of Life to extricate Johnson from her mangled Mustang before she could be air-lifted by helicopter to UC Davis Medical Center.

There, emergency personnel took stock of Johnson's many injuries. It's a laundry list of horror:

Both hips, broken.

Right hip, dislocated.

Pelvic bone, broken.

Left femur, broken.

Both ankles, broken.

Right knee, split open.

Left forearm, broken.

Jaw, broken.

In what is rightly being called a miracle, Johnson did not sustain damage to her brain or her internal organs and there was no significant internal bleeding. These days, screws and pins hold her left ankle together. Her left leg was repaired with a titanium rod. Her right knee required a skin graft.

"As soon as it happened, I remember being really calm,'' Johnson said. "I called for my mom repeatedly. I was in a confused state. I was more concerned about the car. I was never in a panicked state. There was this random guy talking to me, keeping me calm. I remember being calm the whole time, wondering where my parents were. I wouldn't let them touch me until my mom was in the (emergency) room."

Johnson's mother, Veletta Johnson, said doctors could not at first give her daughter anesthesia because they did not know the full extent of the damage. That meant they had to reset her dislocated right hip without giving the patient a pain-killing injection.

"She did not yell, she did not scream, she did not cry," Veletta Johnson said. "That gave me the strength to help her get through the other things, all the surgeries. When I saw her bravery, I couldn't believe it. She was conscious, so she knew everything that was going on. She's a strong kid."

The Gena Johnson who was so damaged as a 20-year-old that day is now a 22-year-old redshirt senior, rehabilitated sufficiently enough over the past 16 months that she has rejoined her teammates for the start of the 2014-15 season.

"That's my little miracle in motion," Gena's mother said. "As a parent, to see her at this moment, to be honest, she makes me want to be a better person."

Funny, that's a lot like what one of Gena's teammates said when asked about her amazing recovery from ruined to ready to go. (Johnson played 12 minutes in Pacific's exhibition win over San Francisco State on Saturday and scored two points on a field goal to go with four assists. She figures to be on the court for the Tigers' opener vs. Cal State Stanislaus on Friday morning at the Alex G. Spanos Center in Stockton.)

"It's something that's inspirational for me," guard Hailie Eackles said. "It makes me want to wake up every day and be nice to people because you never know what can happen. She's nice to everybody. She doesn't take anything for granted. She's thankful for everything."

While no longer a player known for explosive athletic ability and instinctual play, the 5-foot-9 Johnson will have a role on coach Lynne Roberts' team this season, a role that will be defined as the season progresses.

At her best, Johnson was a 12.0 points-per-game scorer for Pacific in 2012-13 as she became the 19th woman in school history to score 1,000 career points. She also had 3.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game that season, as well as one block per game.

"All my athletic ability went bye-bye," Johnson said. "It's a lot different. I used to be pretty quick. I used to be really fast. Running and jumping were my main things. The hip injury slowed me down a lot. I'm looking forward to playing my role. It's only going to be minutes at a time. I actually have to follow directions. I have to be more fundamentally sound. It makes me think more, which is a good thing."

Once she arrived at UC Davis, Johnson spent four days in intensive care and two weeks total at the hospital before she was cleared to go home and begin the long, and unprecedented for a Division I college athlete, process of rehabilitation. She spent three months in a wheelchair and said she had eight medical "procedures" and four surgeries to fix all the damage.

"I didn't know if she'd make it," Roberts said when she first saw her all-conference point guard in the hospital. The coach meant make it, as in live to tell the tale, not make it back on the basketball court.

"At that point, basketball was so irrelevant," Roberts said. "I wasn't thinking about that at all. It's funny how perspective hits so quickly. Gena and I have a special relationship. She's been here five years now. We've seen her grow up. It's like a family member. I really honestly wasn't thinking `Will this kid play again?'"

The kid will, thanks to a veritable village of people helping her along the way, from the paramedics to the emergency room personnel to the surgeons to her primary care doctor to Pacific's athletic trainers, Chris Pond and Sara Vargas, to Roberts and her teammates.

"The support I get from people is much-needed," Johnson said. "It keeps me motivated to keep going. I had my days when I wanted to quit, of course, countless nights of thinking, `Why me?' Now I think, `What can I do?' I want to let people know life can throw obstacles at you but you can make it through.

"I broke about every bone in my body and I'm still able to get out there and play again."

After she was released from the hospital to recuperate at her father's home in Sacramento, Johnson's first goal was to return to school as a student in the fall of 2013. To facilitate that, the left-handed Johnson taught herself to write right-handed so she could take notes in class.

(Your left-handed columnist had Johnson write "Go Tigers'' and sign her name using both hands and the result was it's hard to tell which is which.)

Johnson took one class that semester, Spanish, while getting around campus in a wheelchair.

"It was weird at first,'' she said. "For me to go to class in a wheelchair, I was a little discouraged. People didn't talk as much to me. As I got better, they talked to me more, telling me what an inspiration I am. That's what keeps me going, as clichéd as that sounds.''

Johnson progressed from a wheelchair to a walker and then to a cane by this spring's semester, when she took three classes toward her degree in Sports Pedagogy. She's on course to graduate in the spring of 2015 and pursue a career in teaching and coaching.

"There was a lot of conversation with the surgeons and doctors involved,'' athletic trainer Vargas said. "We wanted to take it one step at a time, try to get her better every day. Gena is an incredible person. She wanted to approach every day and do everything she could. She's a selfless person. She wanted to get better for her teammates and coaches, the school and her family.''

While Johnson is fine talking about that traumatic day 16 months ago, she is bothered by the fact the driver of the Silverado that hit her head-on, a man in his 70's who sustained nothing more than a lacerated hand, according to Johnson, has never made contact with her to see how she's doing and wish her well, or even to apologize for his role in the collision.

"If it was the other way around and he had been badly injured, I'd be reaching out,'' Johnson said.

Johnson said hearing from the driver of the pickup would give her closure for that awful day in June of 2013 but one thing she has not done, and is not likely to do anytime soon, is to return to the scene of the accident on Highway 113.

"I try to stay away from two-lane highways,'' she said.

John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards.