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Family unity

Accident involving daughter of Red Sox first base coach Johnson brought them closer

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By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / December 17, 2010

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MORRISON, Tenn. — He peeled open the cigarette paper, in a desperate attempt to satisfy his craving. As Ron Johnson sat in the Delta terminal at the Detroit airport — waiting to return to his Tennessee home after a frantic call from his wife hours earlier — he couldn’t comprehend anything. All the Red Sox first base coach could do was long for the taste of his Copenhagen.

It had happened on the connection, as he flew from Boston to Nashville. In his frenzy, Johnson had left behind his calming agent, perhaps the thing most needed at a time like this, reducing him to fear and withdrawal.

The nightmare began not long after 2 p.m. in Johnson’s adopted town in rural Tennessee. A call had gone out to an empty clubhouse in Boston. The players were on the field, in the process of stealing a win, and there was no one to answer the phone. Ron’s wife, Daphane, panicked. She had no way to reach her husband, no way to tell him the unthinkable. It wasn’t until after the game that the message got passed.

“I’ll never forget looking at [traveling secretary] Jack McCormick as I was going into the clubhouse,’’ Johnson said earlier this week. “He was just pale as a sheet, and he’s looking around. You ever have a situation where you’re going, ‘Man, I hope he doesn’t look over here.’ And he looks at me and calls me over, and it was just a sick feeling.

“He goes, ‘You need to call Daphane.’ And I knew right then something was bad.’’

Johnson’s baby, youngest daughter Bridget, 10, had been riding a horse along the side of a road in Morrison, not far from their barn. The driver never saw her, focused only on her sister, Cheyanne, riding alongside her, and smashed into horse and rider, flipping both over his car. Bridget’s left leg was ripped from her body.

And now the flight crew was missing. So, after scouring the rapidly closing airport for chewing tobacco, Johnson had to make do for three hours with what he could find, a package of cigarettes with nowhere to smoke them. He didn’t know if his daughter would live. So he sat in the airport, dipping the cigarettes, waiting to take off.

A horrifying scene It still haunts Daphane sometimes — as she pulls up to a stop light, as she sits in her house. She sees what she saw then.

“When I drove up, it was like a nightmare,’’ Daphane said. “It was a bad movie. It was awful. I started screaming, ‘No, no, no.’ That’s all I remember.’’

She had, reluctantly, given permission for the two girls to ride over to a friend’s house that bright, hot August afternoon. They rode bareback, going just down the street, only allowed because of the limited traffic expected on a post-church Sunday. Daphane told them to take care, to look out. They got within a city block of their destination, just before the hill crests, a spot they always knew was trouble. Cheyanne was riding on the right side of the road, but Bridget was on the left. She started to cross back to her sister.

That was when he hit her.

Of that, Bridget remembers little. Just kicking the horse to make her jump out of the way, the car nearing. Cheyanne remembers screaming, remembers grabbing the face of her younger sister, seeing Bridget’s eyes open. The rest blurs.

The driver was traveling, the Johnsons say, at 42 miles per hour in a 35 zone, on a day with no reason for an accident. His car T-boned the girl and the horse, severing her leg, and flinging her up in the air. Blood spurted out of the wound, a prelude to death had another car not stopped.

Bernie, a neighbor then unknown, dropped to the ground, leaving his kids and wife in his car. He put Bridget’s leg in a chokehold, stemming the flow of blood. That was the scene that greeted Daphane. This man, called an “absolute hero’’ by Johnson, had kept her daughter alive.

“I just jumped out of the car, and I ran to her and on purpose didn’t look at the leg, where it had been torn off,’’ Daphane said, her eyes filling. “I didn’t look at that part of it. I had to concentrate on her face. I remember looking over and I was talking to her and she opened her eyes, and she goes, ‘Hi Mommy,’ and starts smiling.’’

Daphane positioned her body so her daughter couldn’t see the broken and mangled horse, Rhonda, on the ground, as the horse kept trying to rise. She had Cheyanne call a family friend, to put the horse down, and turned her focus back to Bridget. The ambulance came. Then the helicopter. She was airlifted to Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, where she would remain for 35 days full of surgeries and pain and attempts to reattach her leg.

For 10 days, doctors tried to restore blood flow to the leg, as more and more of the limb died each day. Then, on Aug. 10, the day before her 11th birthday, Bridget’s leg was amputated above the knee.

“We make jokes about it now,’’ said Johnson, who slept at the hospital in one pair of jeans and CVS-bought T-shirts for the entire month. “We cried about it a lot. We don’t do that no more.’’

Getting back on the horse It is cold at the barn, temperatures in the teens, a rare snowfall having covered central Tennessee with an inch-thick blanket. Cheyanne sits in a chair in the enclosure with their eight horses, while Bridget is left to stand on her crutches in the snow, as the family’s six dogs circle. She is adept with them, eschewing the wheelchair that is growing dusty under the wooden stairs at home.

She won’t ride on this day, from a combination of weather and shyness. Instead, she scrambles around, mostly by the horses, letting the rest of the family chatter.

“It was about a month after she came home, she wanted to get back up on her horse, you could just tell,’’ Daphane said. “She was eaten up with wanting to get back up on a horse. We put her up on this horse and she just kind of sat there. I said, ‘Well, how does it feel?’ She said, ‘Oh, it doesn’t feel any different.’ ’’

So they drifted back to the barn, back to where they feel most at home, without the go-ahead from her doctors. They drifted back to their horses and to the wooden structure that most of the family say they would save over their home, should a natural disaster strike.

The sisters studied the problem, the left leg shortened by more than half, the saddles, the horses. They realized that throwing the stirrup over the horn makes a cone-shaped opening, one sized for her leg. She could ride.

“Oh my God,’’ Bridget says. “It was torture sitting at home.’’

She was, really, only following what one of her doctors wrote to her, “Get up, get going, and don’t look back.’’

‘She’s really inspiring’ Even with the dirty towel slung on the floor by the back entrance, some wetness has made its way onto the slick surface. The plastic knob on the end of the crutches slips, just slightly, but Bridget rights herself. Her mother notices, takes a rag, wipes the floor, anxious to ease anything she can. Not that Bridget seems to want that.

“She’s really inspiring,’’ 14-year-old Cheyanne said. “ ’Cause if it was me, I don’t think I could cope with something like that easy, like she did. We always, always said she was a brat, and she’s a baby and stuff, ’cause she is the baby. But she’s a tough little baby.’’

She still has to wrap her leg, miles of gauze and bandages sweeping around it. There remains an open wound on the bottom, which still needs to drain. Once that heals, Bridget can be fitted for her prosthesis — perhaps in January. Until then, Johnson sits in front of her, doing her wraps on the couch.

He has done it three or four times every day, with few exceptions, remaining by her side since that trip home. He didn’t return to the Red Sox last season, staying instead at home with his family, with the aid and gifts piling in from Boston.

And that, he said, “changed my feeling on the good in people.’’

There is the iPad for Bridget, and iPod nano for Cheyanne, delivered to the house from the Red Sox. There is the statuette of Bridget’s horse, Rhonda, that was a gift from friends. There are the autographs from Justin Bieber and Jason Aldean, jerseys from the Red Sox, from Darnell McDonald, from half-brother and Astros third baseman Chris Johnson. There is the promise of a new horse from Kevin Youkilis.

Even more importantly, there were the doctors who made their way into Bridget’s room day after day, so many that Johnson turned to his wife, and asked why no one else’s room was so crowded. There was the Red Sox’ offer to bring Bernie up to Boston for a game. There were the fans that greeted him with kind words and concern at the Sox caravan last week in Boston, even though they were the ones visiting sick kids.

“I saw that [newspaper cover] the other day with Theo [Epstein] with the Superman suit,’’ Johnson said. “To my family he was Superman before he signed anybody. I’ve never been prouder to work for somebody than I was after going through this, because there’s so much care about the person.

“I even told [manager Terry Francona] one day, ‘I’m mostly embarrassed,’ I said. ‘I’m not this good a coach.’ Nah, he goes, but you’re a pretty good guy.’’

Bitter reminder The house in Morrison, home for half a dozen years, has allowed the Anaheim, Calif.-born coach to live out his cowboy dreams. But now, even as the family does its best to gently mock the situation, to find laughter where they can, a slight bitterness creeps in.

Out the kitchen window, as both Ron and Daphane point out, is a new brick house. The man who ran into their daughter lives there.

It’s a reminder that he never even received a ticket.

“I have to look at this man’s house every day,’’ said Daphane, who has never met him. “It’s right there. And he has never been over to see her, never. They say, at the point of impact, he was [driving] 42 miles an hour. Never was there any brakes hit, never. There were no skid marks, nobody heard anything, he didn’t hit the brakes.

“If it were me, I’d be at the hospital sitting there waiting to make sure this child’s all right, whether it was an accident or not. But the thing that’s going to eat me until the day I die is the highway patrolman here never did a blood alcohol, never did any kind of testing on him, didn’t give him a speeding ticket.’’

Those thoughts, though, don’t linger. They can’t.

“There will always be questions,’’ Johnson said. “Your initial reaction is you want to wring somebody’s neck. But that doesn’t do us any good. She needs to grow up, and it just takes you back to that place and we don’t really want to go there.’’

Instead, he stands in the frosted-over barn and looks at his children, Bridget, Cheyanne, and older brother Christian Gonzalez.

“It makes you look at things differently,’’ Johnson said. “You don’t sweat the little things as much. They don’t matter as much. This is what matters to me, hanging out with these guys, listening to them laugh, throw things at each other. One night Daphane and I were sitting in the house, all three of them were wrestling. I said, ‘Listen to that.’ I said, ‘I can’t imagine a world where we don’t have that.’ And we were close to almost getting it.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmalieBenjamin.

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