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Taking Aim

After missing two of her first three seasons, Johnson returns to campus refreshed and fully healthy

Senior Sports Editor

Published: Thursday, January 30, 2014

Updated: Friday, January 31, 2014 00:01

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Chad Cooper, The Spectrum

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.

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Courtesy of UB Athletics

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.

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Courtesy of N’Dea Johnson

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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.

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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.

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