Tuesday, April 29. 2008 | Alexis Johnson is the granddaughter of the late Deron Johnson, and that’s a name that is San Diego sports royalty.
Deron was a 1950s San Diego High legend who turned down a Notre Dame football scholarship to sign with the New York Yankees. He played 15 years as a big-leagues slugger, including a 1973 World Series championship with the Oakland A’s.
But that’s not why Poway High’s baseball team — ranked No. 1 in the CIF San Diego Section and No. 6 in the state — has dedicated its season to Alexis, a Poway sophomore affectionately known as “Ya Ya.”
It’s not why the school’s on-campus blood drive April 21 collected 109 pints, a total well above the San Diego Blood Bank’s goal of 70 for the day.
And that’s not why Poway’s baseball players recently gathered after school outside the gym for haircuts that featured buzz jobs with “AJ” cut into their remaining bristles.
It’s all about supporting Alexis, the daughter of Poway pitching coach Dominick Johnson, as she undergoes chemotherapy treatment for a rare form of cancer: osteosarcoma.
“Our team loves Alexis and Coach Dom,” said Austin Wynns, Poway’s senior catcher. “She’s someone that’s always been around our team and made you smile and laugh. She’s used to giving to others and now we’re giving to her. It’s hard for her, but she’s a tough girl. She’s fighting and making the best of it.”
When Dominick isn’t with Alexis at Rady Children’s Hospital, father and daughter are bunking at the old Poway ranch house Deron bought in 1963.
DJ Ranch, where Dominick’s mother Lou still lives, is a Poway registered historical landmark. The 40 acres Deron purchased when there was only one road in and out was part of the Kent Farm from the 1880s.
Dominick hasn’t been coaching with the team since his daughter was diagnosed on March 26. He’s been providing her 24/7 attention until spending his first night away from her to join a Poway team outing for a Diamondbacks-Padres game Friday night at Petco Park.
He said Alexis, who was playing for Poway’s softball team, had been telling him she was having knee problems. They scheduled a doctor’s appointment, suspecting a cartilage injury.
“It was so out of the blue when they said it was cancer,” Dominick said. “I hope no other parent has to go through this, but the team and the Poway community have been so great with their love and support. I get teary-eyed when I think about it.”
Alexis is midway through a 10-week stage of chemotherapy treatments that will be followed by surgery sometime after June 10. Her right knee and femur will be removed, requiring a knee replacement and inserting a rod. Depending on how successful surgery is at eradicating the cancer, she faces another 30 to 42 weeks of chemotherapy.
“It’s a rare and aggressive form,” said Dominick, who added doctors told him only two out of a million U.S. children get it. “It’s going to be a long haul, but when a child you love so much is in pain, you rally around her.”
During stays at the hospital, Dominick says his daughter is sometimes the one keeping him going.
“Her spirits are good, and she tells me there are kids in the hospital that have it tougher than her,” Dominick said. “She’s always asking me how the others are doing with their treatments.”
Dominick is himself a Poway sports legend.
In basketball, he starred for Poway’s three-time CIF championship teams from 1984-86 coached by former UCLA player Neville Saner. The Titans, including future NBA player Jud Buechler, were the first San Diego team to win a state playoff game in the large-school division.
Poway upset Pasadena Muir and future NBA player Stacey Augman in 1986. Dominick’s father, then a coach with the California Angels, flew in from spring training in Arizona to watch the game.
In baseball, Dominick signed as a pitcher with the San Francisco Giants and advanced to Triple-A with the Angels’ system.
Dominick’s older brother, Deron, also is a Poway alum and Titans assistant, serving as head coach Bob Parry’s hitting coach. Parry, in his 14th season, and Deron played minor league baseball after their careers together at Palomar College and San Diego State.
“Dominick and Deron started coming around and giving the kids lessons,” Parry said. “They’re homegrown Poway kids, and like a lot of coaches, once you get a connection with kids, you keep coming back.”
Alexis is Dominick’s oldest of four girls, and it wasn’t long before she was tagging along as a young girl to practice and games and earning a place amongst the team.
“She was always around,” Parry said. “She’d always ask the pitcher how many strikeouts he had or the hitters how they did.”
Some San Diegans will remember that Alexis’ grandfather died of lung cancer in 1992. After 15 years as a player and then as a coach, Deron Johnson decided to live out his final days at the ranch without undergoing chemotherapy treatments.
Deron, the oldest sibling, explained it is a coincidence his father and his niece have both faced battles with cancer.
“My Dad lived a great life, and if that’s what he wanted to do, we left it up to him,” Deron explained. “But with Alexis, we caught it early and the family has dug in its feet on this one. We’re helping her fight through this, and she’s going to win it. She’s a tough kid.”
Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at email@example.com. Or send a letter to the editor.