When San Francisco 49ers CB Dontae Johnson first visited 14-year-old Will Randleman, he feared a conversation with someone down in the dumps over an injury.
A couple of months later, and it’s Johnson who’s learned alot from the multiple meetings with Will. Johnson, who is working to obtain a starting position in his third season in the NFL, has now learned to count his blessings, live in the moment and be happy for everything he has.
“[Will] He’s changed my outlook on life,” Johnson said. “We take a lot of things for granted – just as far as waking up and rolling out of bed. He’s taught me to value everything and cherish everything. And more so, to respect it. You never know when something is going to get taken away from you.”
Randleman, a youth football player in the Bay area suffered a terrifying neck injury in late March — one that took away the game he loves, and left him paralyzed from the neck down.
In early April, Randleman entered Valley Medical Center in San Jose to begin a six-week period of rehab. “You never know how somebody is going to react to an event that changes your life like this, but he has been incredible through this process,” said Will’s father Randy Randleman. “He’s showed a lot of courage. But more so he’s showed a lot of humor, which I think has been important. He’s also used to pushing himself.
“I think football teaches you to work hard, and how to get through obstacles. He’s taken that attitude and applied it to his recovery.”
Enter Dontae Johnson, who learned about Will and his injury though his girlfriend who has a young brother that plays in the same league.
When Johnson finally visited the lifelong 49ers fan, he saw something he didn’t expect — a young person in high spirits despite a gruesome injury.
“As soon as I walked into the room, he lit up and was excited,” Johnson said. “When I was talking to him, I saw his passion and love for football. He said everything he did was geared for playing football. We connected over that.”
During Will’s time in rehab, Johnson paid three visits — bringing support, along with some other special gifts like cleats, socks and signed footballs. Johnson, on the other hand, earned himself a new good friend, and the two can talk about anything and everything.
“Whatever he has in his mind, he asks me. And same with me – there’s no hesitation,” Johnson said. “We’re friends now. It’s amazing that we’ve opened up to each other. Him not knowing me and allowing me to come into his life, it’s been cool.”
The timetable for Will’s recovery is unknown, as doctors say every spinal cord injury is different, and some could take up to two years. Fortunately, Will has made improvements since he first entered rehab; he has now regained some movement in his limbs.
And Will has received support from every family member, every friend, every coach, every teacher. But support from an NFL star has really been a benefit, according to Randy Randleman, as it helped ease the pain of not being able to play football anymore.
“Football has always been a part of my son’s life,” Randy Randleman said. “And now he’s adjusting to the fact that it’s not a sport he’s going to play again. You could see some people coming out of this injury and being bitter about it, but he’s not at all. When he’s lying in bed, he wants to watch football videos on YouTube. So to not only meet a professional football player, but to become close with one, that is pretty fantastic for Will.”
Johnson hopes to earn a starting role on the 49ers and bring Will out to a game. But if nothing else, Johnson’s turned a fan into a friend and learned an important life lesson all at the same time.
“I’ve honestly learned so much from him,” Johnson said. “His attitude has really made me cherish and value the opportunity that I have. I just want to help any way I can and let him know he’s not fighting this alone.”
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