UB senior N’Dea Johnson nets first-career goal on the road back
After years of surgeries and injuries, Johnson is ready to be back
It was just another victory for the women’s soccer team Friday, a seemingly routine 3-0 win over a nonconference opponent for a team many predict to win the Mid-American Conference East.
It was more than that to N’Dea Johnson.
Johnson, a senior forward who was sidelined for three of her first four years at UB between an ACL tear and illness, scored her first career goal in the game. At the 76:08 mark in the second half, senior midfielder Kassidy Kidd made a pass to Johnson, who gathered the ball and fired a shot into the back of the net.
Johnson, after four years of injuries, surgeries and missed seasons, finally connected again with the game she loves.
“It was unlike anything I’ve experienced in my life,” Johnson said. “I just kicked the ball and watched the entire thing happen. I saw the ball go into the back of the net, almost in slow motion. My parents were watching and they were excited for me. The entire sequence was unbelievable.”
Johnson’s road to recovery wasn’t easy. She missed her true freshman season with a torn ACL suffered before she even arrived on campus. After rehab and acquiring a redshirt, Johnson returned the following fall for her first real season and appeared in 17 games and had one assist.
But before her sophomore season began, Johnson caught a fever of 104.3 degrees that didn’t break for weeks and underwent a series of tests. She had a fever and pain in the pit of her stomach. It was gastritis, according to her doctors. As a result of surgeries to subdue the pain, Johnson missed the 2013 season.
“It was a tough moment for me,” Johnson said. “Laying in a hospital bed, getting surgeries and not being able to play the sport I loved. Being on the sidelines was tough for me because I already missed a previous season with the ACL injury.”
Once she was cleared to play, Johnson came back again for her junior season. She worked hard and even impressed in preseason. Then, she began to feel ill. This time, Johnson withdrew from UB and entered the hospital.
In summer 2014, Johnson found out she was suffering from Crohn’s Disease. Crohn’s causes inflammation of the bowels and affects the digestive tract, often leading to pain in the abdomen, fatigue and weight loss.
For the second time in two seasons, Johnson was told she had suffered a season-ending condition.
In missing the 2014 season, Johnson also missed a chance to be part of the Bulls’ first MAC Championship. The Bulls, with former assistant Shawn Burke at the helm as head coach, finished with an overall record of 16-3-3, won their first-ever conference championship and made their first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
And there was Johnson, watching the games from a hospital bed as her teammates celebrated in glory. Johnson was disappointed, but became the Bulls’ biggest fan as she cheered them on from afar.
Johnson called watching her teammates as they made it to the NCAA Tournament “difficult,” but never saw herself as an outcast or not a part of the team. The girls would often contact her and as a tribute to their injured teammate, the girls would wear purple wristbands with “NJ” on them, Johnson’s initials.
Johnson focused on getting back to the pitch. The road to return, as Johnson put it, “was tough because of the mental and physical aspects of being ready to return.”
But it was eventually worth it. Johnson was told she was finally able to compete on the field again – no more setbacks and no more delays. She looked to make her senior year count.
Mentally, Johnson said she had some doubt whether she could return to the game at full strength. The goal was always to return, but she debated whether it was something she was supposed to do and how hard she was going to push herself moving forward. The toughest part for Johnson was “becoming a person again.”
“It was a struggle to say the least,” Johnson said. “I had to work and relearn the game, like learning how to play in this system, where I’m supposed to be on the field and where I’m running. A part of it is the anticipation – waiting and preparing for the opponent’s next play. It was part of me becoming a person again.”
The mental aspect was draining, but it didn’t weigh on Johnson like the physical aspect of her return did. While Johnson was injured and recovering from surgeries, she wasn’t in playing shape and it had been a while since she was active and moving with a soccer ball.
During the offseason, Johnson returned to UB and fixated on getting back into playing shape.
“The difficult process was working back into ideal playing shape,” Johnson said. “I did some normal workout routine – running and exercising – but what really helped me was working with the UB strength coaches. They worked with me just my body back in order and prepared me for the upcoming season.”
While the getting back into physical shape is still a work in progress for Johnson, it was actually working with a soccer ball that frightened her. She said working with a UB soccer camp allowed her to practice and figure out what she could and couldn’t do and what needed time as she continued to make her return.
“I was coming along. I’m still coming along,” Johnson said. “Missing all that time means that it was a bit of a slow process – figuring out what you can and can’t do just yet. I still plan to be back to 100 percent, though. I think I’ll get back there.”
On Aug. 23, Johnson made her season debut, nearly two and a half years after her last appearance in her a UB uniform. In her fifth game back Friday, she got her first goal.
“My goal for the rest of the season is to score more,” Johnson said with a chuckle. “That and getting more playing time are my personal goals. For the team, I want to get back to where we were last season. Last year, they made the tournament and the NCAA first round. I want to get back there and this time, be a part of it.”