Amid football's sound and fury, tragedy can strike at any time

NFL games Sunday featured a staggering array of head injuries on helmet-to-helmet hits.
By Mike Wise
Friday, October 22, 2010; 9:08 PM

On a football field in Prince George's County during a November afternoon in 1993, a 16-year-old boy lay motionless. Sam Washington rushed onto the field when his son, Dion Johnson, didn't get up after making what appeared to be a routine tackle.

"Dad, I don't feel anything," Dion said.

After Johnson's limp body was taken by medevac to Washington Hospital Center, his family piled into a red Nissan Maxima for what Washington called "the longest ride of our lives."

At the hospital, the attending physician told Sam and his wife, Wanda, that Dion was paralyzed. He never walked again; he died six years later.

"I second-guessed myself right after it happened, you know, 'Should I have had my son play football? Was this partially my fault?' " Washington said. "I had that soul-searching moment every parent would have."

In the middle of the NFL's disturbing brain-jarring week, many parents are questioning whether they should let their kids put on a helmet and pads. Others have resigned themselves to the risks.

That's the reality for Leslie Daniels, the wife of Redskins defensive end Phillip Daniels and mother of DaVaris, a Notre Dame-bound wide receiver. Phillip Daniels called the current furor over violent hits "ridiculous," saying, "This ain't no cupcake league."

Leslie Daniels has learned to live a life in which her husband and sons voluntarily put themselves in harm's way.

"It took me a while, but I had to understand that's what he signed up for if it ever happened," she said.

"My 6-year-old DaKendrick was asking questions about the Rutgers player who was paralyzed last week. He's already playing tackle football with older kids because of his size. When I told him what happened, I said, 'You still want to play?' He said, 'Yeah, I won't get hurt. I'm on defense, Mom.' I used to tell DaVaris to lay down after you get hit when he was that age. But I eventually accepted the risk."

Sam Washington, almost two decades later, is fine with his decision too. He is now the junior varsity defensive coordinator at Douglass, where he once coached Dion's younger brother, Derrick. And he knows what you're thinking.

"How does my younger son want to play football when he saw his brother get paralyzed? I mean, Derrick was in the stands that day," Washington said. "But it didn't stop him from playing. It didn't stop me from coaching.

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