Chad Johnson, 'unsung hero' in quadriplegics experiment


Alana Baranick
Plain Dealer Reporter

North Ridgeville

- Chad Johnson, 28, a former Olmsted Falls High School football standout, suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury during a fraternity tug-of-war at Kent State University in 1995.

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The following year, he had an experimental electronic device implanted in his chest and arm, which enabled him to grasp small objects. He wound up on television and the pages of People magazine.

Johnson appeared to have died in his sleep Friday at his home in North Ridgeville. He was taken to St. John West Shore Hospital in Westlake, where he was pronounced dead. His family believes he died as the result of a breathing or sleeping disorder. The Cuyahoga County coroner will rule.

Johnson, a Cleveland native, was an all-Southwestern Conference defensive end with the Olmsted Falls Bulldogs and one of his high school's top weight lifters before graduating in 1993.

He exhibited a flair for singing and dancing as one of the singing sailors in a school production of "South Pacific." He joined classmates in a lip-sync-and-dance routine to the Village People's hits, "YMCA" and "Macho Man," at a community talent show.

As a teenager, Johnson worked hard to overcome dyslexia, a learning disorder. He took special education classes at the high school and attended Polaris Vocational School to learn a trade in case he could not get into college. He became a Polaris spokesman, addressing students at various schools on the subject of overcoming adversity.

He entered Kent State University with hopes of becoming a physical fitness trainer. A few weeks before completing his second year of college, he participated in a tug-of-war fund-raiser for the American Red Cross. He slid head first into a muddy pit and damaged the vertebrae in his neck, which left him a quadriplegic.

In recent years, Johnson attended many medical conferences and appeared on a Discovery Channel program to demonstrate his electronic implant, activating the muscles of his hand to grab a pen, a fork or a cup. He also counseled other people with disabilities.

"Chad was an unsung hero," said his father, Russell of North Ridgeville. "He worked with people, like the quadriplegics he wanted to help, in a small way. If many more of us did that, all of our collective lives would be so much better."

In addition to his father, Johnson is survived by his mother, Joyce of North Ridgeville; brothers, Sean of Chicago, Marc of Hackensack, N.J., and Russell Jr. of Dayton; and sister, Heather of North Ridgeville.

Services will be at 10 a.m. tomorrow at the Kacirek Funeral Home, 29060 Lorain Road, North Olmsted.

Donations may be made to the Functional Electrical Stimulation Institute, 11000 Cedar Ave., Room 230, Cleveland 44106.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-4828

© 2002 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.

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