Living a life that depended so much on the help of others, Dion Johnson sometimes longed for a little solitude. Every day the quadriplegic needed assistance bathing, dressing and brushing his teeth. After going through that morning ritual on Thursday, he was helped into his motorized wheelchair and then decided to go for a "drive."
Johnson drove from the Forestville house he shared with his parents, through their neighborhood of single-family homes and into a small park, his wheelchair leaving a pair of tracks in the wood chips near a swing set and slide.
"He needed to just watch the world . . . sit . . . to just get out and be," said Rich Daniel, executive sports producer at WJLA-TV (Channel 7), where the 24-year-old Johnson worked as a rookie reporter. "He needed to not rely on anyone. Those were precious moments for him."
But somehow Johnson's wheelchair became stranded in the park. He took a spill and died Thursday afternoon of heat exhaustion, officials said. The park, they said, was probably just out of shouting distance of any neighbors.
Johnson, once a star football player at Frederick Douglass High, had been paralyzed in a 1993 football game. Despite his disability, Bowie State granted him a full athletic scholarship. He earned a degree in communications with the hope of becoming a journalist and had worked at Channel 7 as a freelancer for about a year.
Yesterday, Johnson's family gathered inside their brick home, several blocks from where his mother had found him unconscious about 6:30 p.m. Thursday. His high school buddies spilled out onto the porch, sipping sodas and telling stories about their friend.
"We just cannot talk about this today, not today," said Johnson's stepfather, Samuel Washington. "It's too difficult."
At Channel 7 in Northwest Washington, reporters and producers, many of whom had just heard the news, huddled around television monitors and watched some of Johnson's recent on-air work.
"Imagine," Johnson said in a voice-over for a first-person piece he did on what it's like to be a young man in a wheelchair. "Imagine a life filled with dreams to play football, dreams of independence. But within seconds those dreams become challenges, challenges to live everyday life."
Daniel, who supervised Johnson when he was a sports intern at Channel 7, leaned against a door jamb and tried to hold back tears as he watched the report. "I've never met a finer young man," he said, crying. "It's extremely hurtful to know that he was out there and there was no one to help him."
Sportscaster Rene Knott said Johnson decided to go into journalism as a way to remain involved with sports. Knott took him to Redskins' training camps when he was an intern a few years ago.
"When he lost his ability to play sports, this was a way to stay close to it," said Knott. "It was a way of being part of a team and never really losing that."
Knott, who was a kind of mentor for the intern, said he was surprised by Johnson's journalistic daring.
"He was right out there, he had a total lack of fear," Knott said. "He was also genuinely curious about everything and had a drive to be successful despite his disability.
"And there was this storytelling ability he had that was unusual for a guy of that age."
Producers at Channel 7 spent the day trying to track down vacationing reporter Del Walters, Johnson's closest colleague at the station, finally reaching him in Florida in mid-afternoon.
"God must have some pretty important things going on in Heaven to call Dion home," said Walters. "Because Dion was a pretty big man."
Walters also said Johnson was "one of the most promising journalists" he'd ever known.
As Cindy Wright, executive producer for the I-Team at Channel 7, perused Johnson's work, she found a passage from an interview Walters did with him that never made it to air.
"I will walk," Johnson said. "Right now I'm walking. Not necessarily physically, but mentally. I'm walking in the minds of people. . . . God will bring me up to walk again, and if I don't I'll walk in Heaven."