After missing two of her first three seasons, Johnson returns to campus refreshed and fully healthy
N’Dea Johnson, a forward on the women’s soccer team, stands in front of a collage of photos similar to the collage her father created for her while she was in the hospital this summer. Chad Cooper, The Spectrum
Junior defender Megan Abman (center) points to Johnson’s initials inscribed on tape on her wrist after scoring a goal against Youngstown State Aug. 31. Courtesy of UB Athletics
Pamela Johnson, pictured above with N’Dea Johnson, stayed with her daughter while she was in the hospital over the summer. Her commitment to her daughter helped Johnson stay strong mentally and recover. Courtesy of N’Dea Johnson
Wayne Johnson, shown with N’Dea Johnson, has been like a coach to Johnson since she was a little girl and put pictures on the wall in her hospital room over the summer to help keep her motivated. Courtesy of N’Dea Johnson
Johnson, left, pictured with her older brother Isaiah, center, and mom Pamela, right, relied on her family to help pull her through her struggles in the hospital over the summer. Courtesy of N’Dea Johnson
As a little girl, Johnson showed unusual aggressiveness on the soccer field, according to her mother. Her father attributed it to the time she spent with her older brother and cousins. Courtesy of N’Dea Johnson
N'Dea Johnson knew she was going to get better.
The more time she spent in the hospital, wondering what was wrong with her and when she would get better, the more set she became on her goals.
Her hospital bed was not going to hold her back - not after the redshirt sophomore had overcome a torn ACL and become the women's soccer team's leading goal scorer.
"I always knew I was going back to school and there were people there that loved me. And my parents loved me," Johnson said. "I just knew that one day I would get better. I didn't know when I was going to get better, but I knew I was going to get better."
Though she led UB in scoring in the spring of 2013, Johnson quietly battled stomach pain due to gastritis. When she returned home to Long Island for the summer, she got sicker than she had been all spring.
She wound up hospital bound for three months. She missed the preseason, and the Friday before classes started in August, her father told her she wouldn't be returning to Buffalo for school.
Every morning for the next week, Johnson cried when she woke up. Her family, friends and teammates rallied around her.
Wayne Johnson, her father, put up pictures of the girl who had proven she was worth a Division I soccer scholarship. Pamela Johnson, her mother, slept on a cot in her hospital room. Johnson's teammates Skyped with her every day and sent her care packages.
In June, when she first got into the hospital, a friend Instagrammed a picture with a quote: "An arrow can only be shot by pulling it backwards. When life is dragging you back with difficulties, it means it's going to launch you into something great. So just focus, and keep aiming."
Johnson left the hospital for good in November and says she's as mentally and physically healthy as she has ever been. She's ready, she says, to release her arrow.
Johnson has a theory.
Whenever she sets a goal, some obstacle blocks her from the finish line and forces her to prove her commitment. Before she can launch herself at her goal, she has to be pulled back.
She tore her ACL the spring before her freshman season started. Before she even arrived on campus, she had to call then-head coach Michael Thomas and tell him she couldn't play.
Her mother said it was like receiving a gift and then having it taken away.
But Thomas wasn't taking anything away. He said that revoking her scholarship would have been counterproductive to UB's women's soccer program.
Unable to play her freshman season, Johnson had to find new ways to help her team - she became their biggest fan.
Current head coach Shawn Burke, then an assistant, described her as everybody's best friend.
"I think that N'Dea is just different in an amazing way," said Johnson's close friend and teammate defender Natalie Jurisevic. "If that were me coming in, I would have been shy. It would have been hard for me to meet people. But with her, she's just N'Dea. She was always knownthat way."
Johnson has straight black hair and mocha skin. Thomas calls her sense of humor "rye" and says it's effective because of her timing and witty one-liners. Burke says Johnson is always upbeat and bright eyed - the first athlete to say good morning at 7 a.m. practices - regardless of whether she can participate.
By the spring of 2012, Johnson was back on the pitch with her teammates. She scored a goal in her first game back - a moment she describes as her favorite college soccer memory so far - and played her first fall season later that year.
By the spring of 2013, Johnson was showing that she was regaining the full potential of her athletic ability. Her athleticism had returned to her 5-foot-3 frame and she led the Bulls in goals that spring. Onlookers would have never guessed that she was still recovering from a torn ACL.
But despite her strong performance on the field, Johnson was dealing with new pain in her stomach. A doctor diagnosed her with gastritis, meaning the lining of her stomach had become swollen, and prescribed her medication to help with the pain.
Senior midfielder Courtney Gross, one of Johnson's best friends on the team, said Johnson didn't show it on the field. When Johnson got home to Long Island, though, it got worse. After she left work early one afternoon because the pain had become unbearable, her mom convinced her to go to the hospital. A CAT scan revealed she had an inflamed appendix.
The family scheduled an appendectomy for the next day, a Friday, and doctors told her she would be out of the hospital by Sunday. On Saturday, she had a fever of 104.3 degrees. The fever didn't break for three weeks.
Doctors weren't sure what was wrong with Johnson. Abscesses had formed around where her appendix had been, but doctors' first three attempts to drain them were unsuccessful.
Some doctors thought she had Crohn's disease. Tests for the disease returned negative.
"I was mad I didn't have Crohn's disease," Johnson said. "Not mad that I didn't have the disease, but I was just mad that nobody could figure out what was going on with me."
From June to November, a cycle formed. Johnson had catheter-like drains placed in her abdomen to remove the infected fluid from the abscesses. She would return home and feel better for a week, sometimes two, sometimes three. Then she'd get sick again and return to the hospital. The cycle repeated itself four times.
She entered the hospital June 6 expecting to be out June 8. She left for the last time Nov. 18.
The hardest part for Johnson was not getting better. The most encouraging part was her family's support.
Johnson hated that her family had to see her in a crippled state. She didn't want people to worry about her. Jurisevic said that when she felt scared, she drew strength from Johnson's determination to get better.
"My parents were the greatest over the summer," Johnson said. "They did everything they could to make sure my head was OK and assured me everything was going to be OK and I was going to get back to soccer eventually."
It wasn't just her parents. Her 23-year-old brother, Isaiah, who works as an EMT and volunteer firefighter, visited often and sometimes spent the night with her. Before Johnson got sick, the two fought the way siblings fight. Now they don't. Johnson thinks something in that hospital room changed their relationship - they matured together.
She also had other relatives visit her. All the support made her feel loved and determined to heal.
Wayne, who played football in college and had been a coach to Johnson since she was little, didn't want his daughter to forget who she really was. That was the motivation behind putting the pictures on the wall.
The girl in the hospital bed was so much different from the daughter he had raised, the terror on the soccer field with the insatiable appetite for success. He didn't want her to forget what she was once capable of - what she would one day be capable of again.
Johnson had several options for playing college soccer.She had to choose between UB, Rhode Island, La Salle and Long Island. The last college visit she made was to Buffalo.
It wasn't just the campus and the academic programs the school offered that swayed her. It was the way Thomas spoke to her. She said he spoke to her like a human being and didn't make any promises he couldn't keep. Most importantly, she believed in him and trusted that the program believed in her.
"I have the best teammates in the entire world," Johnson said. "I think if I went to any other school, I wouldn't be in the place I am now. I am still here because of my coaches and my teammates, especially coach Thomas."
The day before Jurisevic found out her best friend would not be returning to Buffalo for the fall semester, she had spoken with Johnson on the phone. Things were getting better. Johnson was pretty sure she would be rejoining the team soon.
The next day at practice, Thomas told his team she wouldn't be returning.
"I just bawled," Jurisevic said. "I called her later and I remember we just sat on the phone in silence because she didn't know what was going on."
Johnson felt like she was missing out on everything. Soccer, friends and school were all being taken away from her and she didn't know what to do. Her teammates did.
Jurisevic and Gross began taping their wrists and writing Johnson's initials with a heart on the tape.
On Aug. 31, Johnson was watching the Bulls play a game against Youngstown State online. When defender Megan Abman scored a goal, Johnson watched on as her teammates celebrated. The camera then caught a glimpse of the tape on Abman's wrist on which Johnson's initials were inscribed.
When Johnson saw that, it made her feel like she was included. As much as Johnson was missing Buffalo and her teammates, they were missing her.
They missed her presence on the field - Burke said her goal-scoring ability would have been a huge help for a team that struggled to score in 2013 - but also in the locker room.
"We had a lot of struggles this year," Burke said. "N'Dea is a kid we can count on to keep the spirits up, keep everybody going and keep a positive attitude. And that is clearly missed when you are going through a hard time."
Just talking with Johnson helped Jurisevic. She said having Johnson's initials on her wrist was as much motivation as any buzzword she could have written there.
"You could say '90 minutes;' you could say 'perseverance,'" Jurisevic said. "But her story was more ammunition than anything or any word I could put."
Despite missing her physical presence, Jurisevic never felt like she was without Johnson because of their constant communication. The team sent Johnson a care package with individual gifts from each player, including freshmen who had never met her.
When the team Skyped with Johnson, the freshmen asked to meet her because she was included in so many of the team's stories. Johnson came to visit for a practice during the season. It was an experience she said helped her, and one Jurisevic said motivated her teammates.
Johnson started playing soccer at age 5. It was her first sport, and she was hooked.
Pamela recalls seeing a different kind of aggressiveness in her daughter from the other kids, something Wayne attributed to her spending her childhood around older brother Isaiah and their cousins.
Johnson hasn't stopped playing soccer since she started. She dabbled in other sports - playing basketball, lacrosse, volleyball and track & field in middle school and early in high school - but after her ninth-grade year, she decided to devote her time to soccer.
While she was in the hospital last summer, she contemplated the likely end of her career in a few years when she graduates. Once Johnson got out of the hospital, she started taking better care of herself and vowed to take advantage of the opportunities she had left on the pitch.
"I kind of looked at it like a second chance," Johnson said. "I thought it was a second chance for me to really, really think about what I wanted to do with my life and take the soccer thing seriously. Not that I didn't take it seriously before, but take it more seriously because it's going to be over soon and while I'm at school I want to win a [Mid-American Conference] Championship, I want to score lots of goals and I want to be remembered as somebody who was great."
As a teen, Johnson jumped around club teams until she landed with the East Meadow Express. The Express was the highest-level team she had played on up to that point, and due to the high level, the cost was a burden on her family.
Before her junior year of high school, her parents asked her if she wanted to play soccer in college.
"That's when everything changed because it was serious," Johnson said. "And I had to play soccer in college because I couldn't see myself doing anything else."
Johnson said she's ready now for the season. She got out of the hospital in November but doctors are still not sure exactly why her body reacted the way it did. Little things have started going her way - she worked a job for the two months before she returned to school and got her driver's license.
When she talks about soccer and her teammates, a smile creeps along her face and there's a steady confidence in her voice. Being back in Buffalo has put her at ease.
Jurisevic said she has no doubt Johnson's skills will return to what they were before her illness, because "she knows how to recover." And Johnson doesn't doubt it either. She knows her body is going to push back at first, but she is excited to work out with her teammates again.
"After the whole hospital fiasco, I think I appreciate my life and things a little bit more,"
Johnson said. "I am making better decisions with my health because I know that I am not invincible."
She also knows her time is limited and this is her moment.
Johnson is ready to launch.
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