Ballplayer continues despite concussions

by Melanie Klucznik / Beacon Correspondent • April 19, 2017

Emerson baseball senior Danny Johnson looks as healthy as ever. Though anyone who has been following his story is watching his health very closely.

Johnson is batting .254 going into Thursday’s game against MIT, but he’s also suffering from severe, permanent brain damage from seven concussions.

“People always make up their own stories about how it all went down,” Johnson, a senior journalism major said. “At this point I’ve become more of a folklore.”

Twenty years of sports and seven concussions later, Johnson is now a case study at Boston Children’s Medical Hospital for brain damage caused by contact sports.

“I can’t succeed in school if I’m not focused on a sport,” Johnson said. “Sports are my only peak. They’re the only thing I’ve got.”

The Mashpee, Massachusetts native has been plowing through season after season since childhood. Playing football, hockey, baseball, and golf by the young age of eight, Johnson knew sports would be significant throughout his entire life. He tells stories of discussing football statistics with family and friends at Super Bowl parties in his younger years, and following sports religiously with his family.

Football became a priority two years later, as he began attending St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers, Massachusetts. His junior year of high school, however, he had to cease all athletic activities due to his fifth and most serious concussion yet.

After taking a shoulder to the head in an early November game, Johnson said he drifted in and out of consciousness, speaking “gibberish” as his father drove him to the hospital. He was in severe condition for nearly five months after, but began training again the moment he was cleared to return to daily activities. 

With college in sight, Johnson found hope for his collegiate athletic career when he was cleared medically at the University of Alabama to attend walk-on football tryouts. His tryout was unsuccessful, though it proved fruitful in the long run. Emerson College coaches began to reach out to him.

Concussions are not the only injury that Johnson faced repercussions from after nearly 20 years playing sports.

“I’ve done terrible things to my body because of sports,” Johnson said. “I’ve always had a reckless way of going about playing, and I have a high pain tolerance. I don’t like to take myself out, so I’ve played through a lot of injuries.”

His most recent injury occurred last fall during an Emerson baseball fall ball scrimmage. Johnson dislocated his thumb on a slide into second base in the second inning. By the ninth inning, he had returned from the hospital, and resumed play, batting second with a cast on his hand.

“I didn’t even notice it. I was readjusting my batting gloves, and I looked down and my thumb was bent straight in the other direction,” Johnson said.

Johnson feels as if he’s made the most of his athletic career, though he acknowledged that his parents’ point of view is much different.

“If I was a parent, I don’t think I would let my son get as far down the rabbit hole as I did,” Johnson said. “No knock on my parents though. I refused to let them stop me. I went kicking and screaming because no neurologist would clear me to ever play [football] again.”

Even injuries so medically severe haven’t stopped him from doing what he loves. Johnson even said he would do it all over again.

Johnson was recruited to play baseball for Emerson after applying to Boston schools shortly after deciding to leave Alabama. 

Head Athletic Trainer Mandy Nicoles worked with Johnson from the beginning of his Emerson athletic career.

“Danny’s history of concussions was what we were most worried about,” Nicoles said. “He knows what the symptoms are, we told him, ‘Don’t be stupid, and don’t hide them from us. If something does happen, tell us.’”

Johnson, though passing all of the medical examinations and compliance forms that Emerson athletics requires, was kept on close watch due to his medical history.

Johnson was eventually cleared medically by the trainers to play because of the lack of contact, and lower risk for concussions or head-related injuries in baseball.  

“Someone like Danny who had a history of injuries, most of his injuries were related to football,” Nicoles said. “I just ask that he tell me about these injuries, if they still hurt him, and what can we do to help.”

Johnson’s athletic career has been steady at Emerson. However, he doesn’t look to continue playing sports after graduation. He is hoping to follow the path of sports broadcasting.

“My parents have always said ever since I could speak, I was going to be talking about sports my entire life,” Johnson said.  

Los Angeles is his scheduled destination after college; he has applied to various journalism internships in the area, and is using connections he’s made at Emerson to further his career.

His history of injury will always follow him, though.

“I have no regrets,” Johnson said. I would’ve done the same thing all over again. Because I needed football—that was my one true love.”