A former Douglass High School star athlete who was paralyzed in a football accident in 1993 died of apparent heat exhaustion yesterday after he was stranded in a Forestville park, his wheelchair mired in a pile of wood chips, officials said.

Dion Johnson, who worked as a freelance reporter for WJLA-TV (Channel 7), was found unconscious about 6:30 p.m., said Mark Brady, a spokesman for the Prince George's County Fire Department. Neighbors said they saw Johnson, a quadriplegic, riding his motorized wheelchair into the park about 10 a.m., Brady said.

"Apparently, it was an isolated area of this neighborhood park," Brady said. "He was out of the view of any passing citizens."

"It appears that heat exhaustion and exposure to sunlight are more than likely the cause of death," Brady said. "As is the case with any unattended death, an autopsy will follow to determine the exact cause of death."

Johnson's body temperature was 108 degrees Fahrenheit by the time he reached the hospital at Andrews Air Force Base, and he was officially pronounced dead a short time later. People with spinal-cord injuries are more susceptible to the effects of heat because their bodies lose the ability to regulate temperature.

Brady passed on news of Johnson's death to his Channel 7 co-workers when they called to ask him about the discovery of the unconscious person in the park.

"We're all pretty dumbfounded by this," said James LeMay, the station's vice president of news. "He was a terrific reporter, a sharp mind."

Johnson was a high school junior in 1993 when he injured his spinal cord from the chest down during a playoff game against City College High School of Baltimore.

Bowie State University, which had been courting Johnson before the accident, followed through and offered him a football scholarship. He went on to graduate with a communications degree. He started working at Channel 7 as an intern in the sports department.

Johnson took on the challenge of his job the way he did his injury. He persevered, even filing reports for Channel 7 about how people treat and should treat the disabled. Johnson had been working on a story about the lack of ramps and other facilities, LeMay said.

"He was just the sweetest person; the whole newsroom is just devastated," said a WJLA staff member, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Here you have a kid who was paralyzed in high school and went on to do what he wanted to do."

Johnson was eulogized last night by WJLA anchorwoman Maureen Bunyan as a "dear young friend" who lived out the definition of courage. The station ran a story Johnson filed for the station earlier this year in which he talked of the troubles of being disabled, how people looked at him "like I was a drug dealer or a member of a gang" and assumed he had been a gunshot victim.

A year after his accident, Johnson told The Washington Post that he was happy to have a second chance at life.

"I get down every once in a while," he said. "But friends and parents bring me back up. I go on from there."