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Insect bite knocks athlete to his knees

Dan Johnson, who was known as Dan Carlson when he was an all-state wide receiver in 1987, rates among the top all-around athletes in Willmar High School history. But for the last six weeks, he hasn't been able to tie his shoes, play catch with hi...

Dan Johnson, who was known as Dan Carlson when he was an all-state wide receiver in 1987, rates among the top all-around athletes in Willmar High School history. But for the last six weeks, he hasn't been able to tie his shoes, play catch with his children or give his wife Tabby a firm hug.

The husky 6-foot-3 self-employed construction worker flattened many a defensive back during his playing days with the Cardinals and later Willmar Community College. This enemy he didn't even see.

Sometime during a camping trip near Sioux Falls, S.D., the last weekend in August, he was bitten by an infected mosquito. Several days later, a bright rash developed on his upper arm. Back home in St. Cloud, he had chills and fever and loss of balance.

An urgent-care physician treated him for an inner ear infection. His condition continued to worsen. He felt miserable. His temperature peaked at 104.6 degrees.

He was admitted to the hospital where he spent two weeks. He had multiple tests, including several MRIs. Finally, a spinal tap and laboratory testing revealed the presence of the West Nile virus.

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He's at home unable to work. He goes to physical therapy three times a week to work on range of motion and maintain some muscle tone. He's lost 40 pounds.

He can't hold a phone, but uses a head set connected to his cell phone.

"I should be getting better, but the doctors are surprised I'm still getting weaker," he said, his voice still as strong as it was 18 years ago. In high school, he played hockey on Willmar's most recent conference champion, was a power-hitting outfielder for Willmar's state champion team and played on a football team that won a section championship when he kicked a field goal to beat Elk River.

His athletic outlets the last decade have been high-division slow-pitch and more recently playing in a touch football league.

"I don't feel sick and I can't get let myself get down," he said, "but I can't raise my left arm and my right arm I can only raise a little."

Since the infection is in his spinal column, there's a chance the paralysis could spread to his legs.

Going by published accounts of the disease, Dan has been very unlucky. Most of those infected by the West Nile virus do not get ill -- as few as 20 percent according to the Center for Disease Control website. And even fewer are inflicted as much as Johnson. Most who do are the old or young, not men in their prime.

Dan has been detected with viral meningitis and motor neuron disease, according to fliers that announce two upcoming benefits, one of those today in St. Cloud.

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He has medical insurance but didn't take out disability insurance when he started his home-repair business. Tabby works full time, taking time off to get her husband to therapy and appointments. Dan's mother, Linda, in Willmar and sisters, Lori Knutson of Willmar and Krista Jans of Grove City, travel to St. Cloud to help out.

"Lot's of people are helping," said Dan, who changed to his biological father's surname after college.

Former teammate, Doug Doering, a Willmar assistant football coach, is trying to gear up a local fundraiser.

"Dan, along with Todd Bouman, is the best all-around athlete I ever played with. Each is a fierce competitor," said Doering who was a senior running back at St. Cloud State when Bouman, a quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, was a freshman quarterback.

There are no medicines to treat the virus. The affliction must run its course, which could be up to a year. The doctors in St. Cloud see very few cases (Minnesota has had 38 reported cases this year compared to 230 in South Dakota and 771 in California).

He's headed for the Mayo Clinic this week for more extensive testing. "If it's good or bad news, I just want to know which direction I'm headed," he said. "Am I going to end up in a wheelchair or what?"

A benefit fund has been established at a St. Cloud bank, but the family requested that cards or donations be sent directly to the Johnson's home so that they may respond. The address is Dan Johnson, 625 10th Av N., St. Cloud, MN 56303.

On the fly

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n Disc golf on the wooded interior of Robbins Island is under preliminary study by the city. A nine-hole course, expandable to 18 holes, would include cement tee pads and galvanized steel baskets. Disc golf, also known as "Frisbee golf", can be found in about 50 Minnesota communities.

n Sophomore Philip Hedlof is the second-leading tackler on the St. Cloud State football team, which is 7-2 after losing 38-21 at Nebraska-Omaha. Hedlof had 12 tackles from his right cornerback spot.

n Area athletes on the men's basketball roster at the college are Tim Mattern of Willmar, Isaac Brehmer of Lac qui Parle Valley and Geoff Nelson of MACCRAY, all freshmen.

n Despite the 4-5 record, Coach John Vraa feels this Warriors team was very close to past teams that were 6-2 or 6-3 with a playoff loss. Injuries and missed tackles hurt in the last-second loss at Fergus Falls Saturday. Linebacker Blake Hagert (ribs) was lost in the first half, cornerback Montae Bailey (ankle) early in the second half and cornerback Tony Kley had a gimpy knee. Vraa liked his team's chances in overtime since the Spartans couldn't stop Louie Pirrotta (24 carries for 196 yards), but a 46-yard field goal with no time remaining ended that.

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