03/09/11 10:00 AM ET
Bucs rally around ex-prospect in time of need
Johnson finds help in healing from baseball, family after car wreck
By Jenifer Langosch / MLB.com
He was headed west on University Parkway, coming to the point where one of Sarasota's main thoroughfares intersects with Market Street. The road veered slightly left. Johnson kept straight.
The green pole still wears marks of the collision.
A nurse was first on the scene and administered CPR to Johnson, who wasn't breathing. The speedometer had jammed near 50 mph; the brake pedal came to rest nearly in the driver's seat. There was not a salvageable piece of the vehicle remaining, and there was no assurance that Johnson would live.
A helicopter transported the once seemingly invincible athlete to Bayfront Medical Center in nearby St. Petersburg. Their son was en route when the phone rang inside Larry and Vicki Johnson's Franklin, Tenn., home. It was 1:30 a.m. ET, New Year's morning.
"When the phone rings at an hour like that, you just know it's not a good thing," recalled Vicki Johnson. "Your heart just starts racing. And I could tell by listening to Larry's conversation that it wasn't good."
Born Atlee Ryan Johnson, A.J. never knew what it was like to blend in. He quickly became recognizable across Florida's Little League baseball circuit, one of those kids whose ability immediately set him apart, the one opponents enviously pegged as the future Major Leaguer in the bunch.
He was hardly in the shadows on a Team USA club that claimed the Continental Amateur Baseball Association World Series title in 2001. This despite taking Euclid, Ohio's Memorial Field with teammates that included Chad Billingsley, Scott Kazmir, Evan Meek, James Loney and Clete Thomas.
Johnson, 15 at the time, batted .419 in the prestigious high school tournament and claimed a spot on the All-Tournament Team.
"He was an awesome player," remembered Meek. "He could play all over, had a great arm and always had great at-bats."
Success followed Johnson to Tallahassee Junior College, where he became the Eagles' first student-athlete to be named the National Junior College Athletic Association's Division I Player of the Year. The list of accolades hardly stopped there for the sophomore, who drove in 88 runs and batted .372 in the team's 2004 campaign.
The Pirates plucked Johnson from school that June with the team's sixth-round draft pick. Johnson signed quickly and joined the organization's short-season affiliate in Williamsport (Pa.) for the remainder of the Minor League season.
It was with the Crosscutters that Matt Capps first met Johnson. The introduction was a unique one, as Capps, now with the Twins, awoke one morning to find Johnson -- dressed in blue jeans, boots, a cowboy shirt and a camouflage hat worn to mask the fact that he was already balding -- strewn out on his living room couch.
And so began a friendship that remains very much real, a friendship now aided by the fact that a mere half-mile separates Capps' Sarasota condo from the one Johnson owns.
"He has always been a good ol' boy," Capps said. "A.J. is one of those people who would do anything for you and not ask why or any questions. If you tell him you need something done, he does it. If he's your buddy, he is going to live or die with you."
Johnson faced his share of adversity on the field that summer, though that was mostly to be expected in the jump up from junior college competition. The outfielder reported to Hickory, N.C., for low-A ball the following season, pulling up in his proud offseason purchase.
It was impossible to miss the new toy.
"Who the hell owns that yellow truck?" quipped Jeff Banister, then the Pirates' Minor League field coordinator.
"Who do you think?" someone answered back.
Banister needed just one guess.
Much remains unknown about what happened this past New Year's Eve night. Undisputed, however, is that Johnson would not have had a chance had he not been in that bright yellow Ford F-150.
A dozen or so photos -- pictures that Vicki Johnson vows she will never look at -- are all that remain of the truck. Those who have use the word "miracle" liberally.
"He's damn lucky -- damn lucky," said Meek. "It is a miracle that he ... It's a miracle."
"If he wouldn't have been in his truck, he would not be alive today," Larry Johnson added. "There is no question in my mind."
As the Johnsons scrambled to find a flight to Florida, A.J. was rushed into Bayfront's trauma unit. Doctors immediately sedated him to control the brain swelling. Johnson's jaw was shattered in two places. He had broken his left foot and sustained torn ligaments in the right one.
Remarkably, though, doctors found no internal injuries.
Capps and his wife, Jennifer, who at the last minute had decided to spend New Year's Eve in the Atlanta area rather than at home in Sarasota, were getting into bed when Larry Johnson called.
"I broke down a little bit and immediately started feeling bad that I wasn't there," said Capps. "I called my mom and told her. I called my in-laws and told them. I got my father-in-law on the phone and said, 'Happy New Year. I need you to start praying.'"
"I barely slept at all."
That 2005 season in Hickory had been an especially trying one for Johnson. After so many years of excelling, the outfielder found himself merely treading water. He showed flashes of power and solid defensive skills. Yet, it was becoming clear that Johnson's bat wasn't going to carry him up the Minor League rungs as everyone initially expected it would.
The Pirates bumped Johnson down to short-season ball the following year and tried to convert him to a catcher. By all accounts, Johnson worked exceptionally hard to make the transition. Ultimately, though, the lack of offensive production remained the long-term concern.
At the end of Minor League Spring Training in 2007, the Pirates released Johnson. He spent the next two years trying to resurrect his career in independent ball before finally knowing it was time to move on.
"He would never tell you that, but I know how difficult it was for him to give it up because that was something he was very, very passionate about," said Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, who was Johnson's teammate in 2004 and '05. "If he could have played forever, he would have."
The thing is, Johnson never actually said goodbye to his baseball family.
He sustained many of the relationships formed in the Pirates organization and used those connections to help jump-start his budding barbeque business.
After years of making racks of ribs at impromptu team gatherings, Johnson sought out to see if he could make a living serving barbeque around town. A local bar asked him to cater its Super Bowl party last year. Shortly after, Johnson invested in a bigger Lang smoker.
His company -- Big League Barbeque -- was subsequently born.
One of the first stops Johnson made with his new smoker was on 27th Street East in Bradenton. He pulled up to Pirate City -- the smoker trailing that yellow truck -- and tested out his brisket, barbeque and chicken on players and staff who were at the Minor League facility.
"It was outstanding," Banister attested. "We would love it when he came by."
Johnson made several stops at Pirate City last season and began picking up more gigs in the area. Gulf Coast League manager Tom Prince, who had managed Johnson years earlier, hired him to cook for his son's birthday. Steve Pearce was among the Pirates' rehabbing players who paid for Johnson to bring lunch to the complex.
The business grew considerably in the fall, as Johnson regularly catered football parties. He even enlisted Capps to help out a few times.
"I carried the baked beans from his truck to the table," Capps joked.
Capps had already promised Johnson that he would have him cook lunch for the Twins one day during Spring Training. Johnson was particularly excited, too, because Lang had just agreed to supply him with a bigger cooker. Little seemed in the way of Johnson soon transforming his word-of-mouth business into a full-service restaurant.
Forty-nine days. Forty-nine days Johnson had to wait before being cleared to wheel himself out of the hospital. What happened during those seven weeks, though, still humbles Larry and Vicki Johnson.
In droves, A.J. Johnson's baseball family had come to aid in his recovery.
The first person to arrive at the hospital was one of Johnson's Little League coaches, who sat in the ICU while Vicki and Larry were en route. Prince was there on New Year's Day, too, the first of a half-dozen hospital visits he made that month.
Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage, whose time as a coach in Williamsport and Hickory coincided with Johnson's, arrived on Jan. 2. So did Capps, who spent each of the next 10 days at the hospital, leaving only because he had to be in Georgia to close a house.
"Once you're a Pirate, you're always a Pirate," Searage said. "We take care of our own. People can be with us for whatever amount of time, they're still part of the Pirate family."
Walker and Meek were among the current Pirates players to visit Johnson, doing so while they were in Florida for the organization's January mini-camp. College teammates, high school teammates, old coaches, they all kept coming. And the ones who couldn't come asked for regular updates.
"It's really a family," Larry Johnson said. "A.J. asked me, 'So dad, who non-baseball came to see me?' I said, 'A.J., it's a pretty small list. A lot of people came to see you, but the people who were really dedicated to being here and making sure you were OK were the baseball guys.'"
Those who saw Johnson at the beginning stages of recovery still have a hard time shaking the images out of their heads.
Walking in the hospital room, they found the 27-year-old in and out of consciousness for days. Johnson's hands were in gloves so he wouldn't be inclined to pull out tubes or IVs. Both of his feet were in casts; his jaw, wired shut.
"It was tough to see him like that," Meek said. "It's hard to see people that you love and care about in that state."
"It felt so surreal," Capps added. "A.J. is one of those guys who is never sick. He's never hurt. He's a Superman kind of guy. He's not one of those guys who is supposed to be laid up in a hospital."
But there were signs, albeit small ones, in the immediate weeks that suggested Johnson would eventually be OK.
When Capps would talk, Johnson would flicker his eyes -- an indication, Capps believed, that Johnson recognized him. Johnson's reactions to commands were often late, but a delayed response was absolutely viewed as progress.
Slowly, Johnson began to put sentences together. He talked incessantly about ERAs and batting averages, about his grandpa and about that 2005 Hickory team. He rattled off the roster and complained about the exercises and drills that manager Jeff Branson used to make him do.
When Prince came to visit, he resumed the role of coach. Rather than baby Johnson, Prince quizzed him. He would ask Johnson about former coaches and teammates. If Johnson didn't remember a certain detail, Prince gave him multiple choices until he got the answer right.
During these discussions, something remarkable happened.
"His memory just popped right out," Vicki Johnson said. "It was all right there."
It was the 10th day of Spring Training workouts for the Pirates, and a group of pitchers were headed over to Pirate City's small field for fielding practice. They passed Johnson, who, still confined to a wheelchair and having only been out of the hospital for four days, was watching practice for the second time that week.
Among those who shuffled by was pitcher Brad Lincoln. He tapped Johnson on the shoulder, asked how he was doing.
"Rolling," Johnson deadpanned.
Yes, Johnson's sense of humor is still very much there. So, too, is most of his memory. Johnson's parents estimate that their son already has 75-80 percent of his cognitive ability back. Doctors tell them that he will eventually push that percentage all the way back to 100.
Johnson recognizes everyone he should, and he understands just about everything, too. He can be unfiltered in what he says and sometimes hard to follow as he unintentionally jumps from one topic to another. But those who knew Johnson before see little difference beyond a few scars and weight loss.
"He is the same spirit and there is the same excitement in his eyes," Walker said. "I know how great it is for him to be able to get out [of the hospital]. He was as restless as ever when I saw him in the hospital, and that was just two weeks out. He's certainly not a person that sits still by any means."
As Johnson watches practice on this sunny Bradenton day, he shows off how sharp his memory truly is.
He spits out names of former teammates and gives you a brutally honest scouting report on each. He'll tell you about the time he met Brett Favre when he was 11 years old. And about how well he connected with Prince and Bruce Tanner, his two favorite coaches.
He's legitimately perturbed by the fact that he is unable to play in the adult softball league he had already paid for this spring. And Johnson is concerned about the future of Big League Barbeque, though he need not worry about having anxious customers when he is ready to pull the grill out again.
The recent memories are more difficult, though. Johnson remembers meeting Capps and his mother, Kathy, at a place called Folks as he was passing through Georgia on his way home from a low-key family Christmas in Tennessee. He always made it a point to stop at the southern-kitchen restaurant to stock up on peach muffin mix. On this day, Johnson loaded 10 quarts into his truck.
Capps said Johnson left about 5 p.m. on that 26th day of December. That's where Johnson's memory stops.
Johnson doesn't recall driving home or any of the activities he was involved in over the next five days. Pictures show that he went to dinner at Lee Roy Selmon's on New Year's Eve, joined there by some friends. They moved to an old sports bar next, before Johnson quietly left to go see another friend who had just learned that she was pregnant.
He never made it to the celebration. And recollection of what happened on University Parkway will never return, as it is the body's way of concealing the trauma.
"Parts of it doesn't make sense that it could have happened," Johnson said. "Little things they found, it doesn't make sense that that would have caused the wreck. Nobody knows.
"When they told me what was wrong with the car, it's hard to believe that that's what happened to the car and that's what was wrong with me. I would have figured it would have been worse with me."
He has yet to look at the photos.
"People ask me about it, and I say, 'I don't know,'" Johnson said. "I don't know when I'll know, but it's not going to be right now. I'd rather wait until my head feels ready for it."
Known to his friends as the ultimate fix-it guy, Johnson is anxious to relearn how to walk and how to drive. Doctors -- who say that Johnson will eventually enjoy a full physical recovery -- have been astonished by how fast he has already progressed, certainly a tribute to how good of shape Johnson was in at the time of the wreck.
For now, going out to watch Spring Training baseball remains a part of the healing process -- a process that doesn't concern Johnson alone.
"For us, too," interjected Banister. "To know that things are going to be OK is a benefit for us."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.