There was a time when Dontae Johnson employed a robotic mindset – mechanically executing steps he deemed necessary to reach goals for his NFL career. That stopped about two months ago when the San Francisco 49ers cornerback met Will Randleman.
Johnson, entering his third season after primarily serving as a reserve from 2014-15, doesn't know yet what his role will be on Sundays this fall. But one way or another, he will be playing the game he loves. The same cannot be said for his new friend – a person who has taught the 24-year-old to live in the moment and enjoy the journey in addition to the destination.
"He's changed my outlook on life," Johnson said. "We take a lot of things for granted – just as far as waking up and rolling out of bed.
"He's taught me to value everything and cherish everything. And more so, to respect it. You never know when something is going to get taken away from you."
For Randleman, that something was football. And it was taken away from him in late March. While playing for a Bay Area youth football team, the 14-year-old sustained a neck injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down.
Randleman underwent surgery at San Francisco General Hospital within three hours of his accident. Doctors inserted metal plates to replace his broken vertebrae and rods to fuse the other bones together. Surgeons told Randleman's family that he may never walk or use his arms again.
Following the injury, the president of the youth football league reached out to Johnson's girlfriend, Kayla, whose younger brother played in the same league. Johnson soon made his first visit to the hospital to see Randleman, a lifelong 49ers fan.
Initially, Johnson expected the meeting to be somber. Instead, he was greeted with smiles and laughter.
"He was in such amazing spirits," Johnson said. "As soon as I walked into the room, he lit up and was excited. When I was talking to him, I saw his passion and love for football. He said everything he did was geared for playing football. We connected over that."
Randleman arrived at San Jose's Valley Medical Center in April to begin his rehab. He spent six weeks at the facility before being allowed to return home on May 20. In that time period, Johnson visited Randleman three times – bringing along signed footballs, cleats, socks and anything else to show his support.
Randleman has bad days. How could he not? But for the most part, the teenager has been upbeat and resilient. His father, Randy, credits that attitude to Will's competitive nature.
"You never know how somebody is going to react to an event that changes your life like this," Randy said, "but he has been incredible through this process. He's showed a lot of courage. But more so he's showed a lot of humor, which I think has been important.
"He's also used to pushing himself. I think football teaches you to work hard, and how to get through obstacles. He's taken that attitude and applied it to his recovery."
In the three months since the accident, Will has made significant strides in his rehab. He's regained some movement in his limbs, but no one knows how far the progress will go. Every spinal cord injury is different and doctors have told the Randleman family that the recovery process can linger for up to two years.
Young people tend to recover better, but at some point his progress is expected to plateau. At that time, the family will reassess his future needs based on functionality.
"We have to patient and continue the therapy," Randy said. "The body heals itself over this time, but nobody can tell you how much it'll heal.
"It's a tough process. The kid has to be patient and persistent. But when he sees the support of people like Dontae, I think it gives him even more encouragement in the difficult moments of recovery."
When Johnson visits Will, the two friends talk about the injury, yes, but the conversations go deeper than that. Topics range from favorite foods to the Golden State Warriors postseason run to memorable football stories.
"Whatever he has in his mind, he asks me. And same with me – there's no hesitation," Johnson said. "We're friends now. It's amazing that we've opened up to each other. Him not knowing me and allowing me to come into his life, it's been cool."
Will has received an outpouring of support from his coaches, teachers and friends. His parents and siblings have tirelessly been by his side since the accident as well. But for a 14-year-old football fan, there's just something extra special about the encouragement and camaraderie from a real life NFL player.
"Football has always been a part of my son's life," Randy said. "And now he's adjusting to the fact that it's not a sport he's going to play again. You could see some people coming out of this injury and being bitter about it, but he's not at all. When he's lying in bed, he wants to watch football videos on YouTube.
"So to not only meet a professional football player, but to become close with one, that is pretty fantastic for Will."
Johnson hopes that he'll be able to bring Will to a 49ers game this fall to meet the team. But even if that isn't feasible, Johnson plans to have his friend with him on the field in some form or another. Johnson is currently working to design custom cleats to honor Will on Sundays.
"I've honestly learned so much from him," Johnson said. "His attitude has really made me cherish and value the opportunity that I have.
"I just want to help any way I can and let him know he's not fighting this alone."