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A gas station meeting with Bill Walton changed this paralyzed young man's life forever

The Challenged Athletes Foundation was close to Bill Walton's heart and he helped so many adaptive athletes, but his relationship with a paralyzed young man really defines the legacy of Walton

NBC Universal, Inc.

At the end of the Challenged Athletes Foundation multi-day bicycle ride down the coast of California in 2010, Bill Walton said, "challenged athletes have changed my life, they've made my life, they give me my life. I've been very lucky, I have been part of the greatest teams in history of basketball, but this is the best team I’ve ever been on.”

At the time, Walton, in a rare occurrence for him, probably understated his role with the Challenged Athletes Foundation. Walton wasn't just part of the CAF team, he was the team captain for CAF. His larger-than-life presence was felt for years throughout the charitable organization.

"The reason Bill was so impactful for CAF was because Bill had had 36 surgeries; he was a challenged athlete," said Bob Babbitt, CAF Co-Founder. "So when he sat down with a person in a wheelchair, a kid missing a limb, he could identify with them and they were able to look him and go, 'he’s a star and he’s talking time with me.'”

One of those most impacted by Walton and his death on Monday was Mack Johnson.

In 2017, just a year after an accident in South Carolina had left Johnson paralyzed from the waist down, Johnson and his family were on a trip to California when they stopped in Dateland near Yuma for date milkshakes and gas.

Johnson recalls the day fondly, “and in walks this giant.”

The giant was Walton. Johnson, in a wheelchair, introduced himself, shared his story and then Walton said:

"We're going to ride down the coast of California!"

Knowing Walton from his basketball broadcasts, Johnson was skeptical and knew Walton liked to exaggerate, but he followed up on his promise and so much more.

Walton actually invited Johnson to move to California and live in-house. 

From there, Walton set Johnson up with the Challenged Athletes Foundation and all sorts of adaptive athletic gear. With Walton's help, Johnson became a standout wheelchair basketball player, even playing in college at Auburn University.

Johnson said before that gas station meeting he was in dark place, filled with self-destructive behavior, but Walton helped save his life.

"I had lost hope for myself, it meant a lot that someone like that could take you as individual and invest in you, especially at a gas station, I don’t invest in too many people I meet at a gas station," Johnson said. "But Bill did, that was his best quality, made you feel like most important person in room no matter where you were."

To this day, Walton remains a huge presence in Johnson's life. One his most prized possessions is a photo and message from Walton that still hangs on the wall in his room.

"It has a signed message from Bill, a poster above my wall that says 'nobody makes it to the top alone' and I look at that picture above my bed when I was alone and it gave me a lot of encouragement," Johnson said. "I thought it was just going to be a cool story about person I met in gas station, but turned out to be so much more and changed everything about where I could’ve been."

Johnson was one of many impacted immensely by Walton's larger-than-life presence.

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