Johnson emerged from seven hours of complicated surgery conscious and cognizant, but unable to speak, communicating through writing and hand signals. He is expected to remain in the hospital for a while and will likely miss the rest of this season.
So, where does that leave his career? And how does USC move forward without its most effective short yardage runner since LenDale White? In the short term there's tremendous uncertainty for both although each has unusual resources at their disposal that could make for a special reunion if the parties can individually clear particular hurdles.
The best news, blunt as it is, is that Johnson's alive. From the first moment the news broke and it was clear he'd been hurt in the throat and neck area, Johnson's situation was made particularly serious. How serious was only later revealed, as reports indicated he had needed medical assistance to simply breathe.
Equally serious, even with breathing assistance his survival was no sure thing. Said Dr. Gudata Hinika, trauma director at California Hospital Medical Center:
Crazy.Had that been any one of us, meaning me, I would not have survived. His neck was so solid and so muscular, that actually helped maintain his airway. And the discipline one learns from being athletic also really helped him to calm down and just do what he needed to do. He took instruction really well. He's a brilliant guy who understood his situation and handled it well.
Most reports out there point towards his eventual recovery and the doctors are sounding positive, but Conquest Chronicles writer Jim Wyzard, sounds skeptical of a return to football.
Remember this was major surgery. The next few weeks are going to be critical just to get past the complication stage then he will have months of rehab to learn how to breath and swallow in as normal fashion as possible.So 2010 is up in the air, but that doctor's quote is stirring. If he can somehow return to football, who wouldn't want to be in the trenches with a guy like that who could keep his cool in such dire straits?
I would be ecstatic if Stafon got on the field again...
But after talking to a few MD's I work with here in NYC, I just don't hold out much hope due to the nature of the injury, the apparent extensive reconstruction and the nature of Stafon's position as a running back. He takes a lot of pounding as it is.
Football is the least of Stafon's worries.
The praise came from other corners as well, including USCFootball.com reporter Dan Woike.
Johnson is more than a name or a number. He's not an anonymous guy with a helmet carrying the football. No, Johnson is a person with a huge personality, and he never let anyone forget it.
He's always gracious with his time after practice, even after jokingly telling USC sports information that he's too busy.
He didn't flinch when USC coaches reduced his role this season, asking him to sacrifice carries in order to serve as the team's short-yardage specialist.
No, Johnson put his team before his own goals.
This wasn't the same kid who struggled with his playing time as a freshman. This was a grown up. This was a father. This was what Stafon Johnson had become.
Johnson's eligibility is a concern, having participated in four years of football that clock is set to expire once the season ends. However, USC's official blog asserts he has a case for a 'medical hardship' redshirt with the NCAA. Mechanics below:
According to NCAA rules, players can apply for a "medical hardship" to receive an extra year of eligibility if they play in 30 percent of the team's games (fractions are rounded up) during the first half of the season and then suffer serious season-ending injuries.
So, in the cases of Johnson, [defensive tackle Hebron] Fangupo and [safety Marshall] Jones, all played in either three or four games, which qualifies them for a hardship since 30 percent of a 12 game season is 3.6, which is rounded up to four games. A bowl game would make the season 13 games, and 30 percent of that is 3.9, which is again rounded up to four games. Either way, all three players meet the criteria for a medical hardship under the NCAA rules.
As for USC, they will most certainly miss Johnson's uncanny skills in goal line and short yardage situations. Johnson may not have had Joe McKnight's burst and explosiveness, but in the last year he developed an uncanny, unteachable ability to find the end zone and gain tough yards under pressure. Whether that can be replicated is unknown, but if any team can summon those skills from its roster, its USC.
The obvious beneficiary here is McKnight, already the Trojans' featured back as the gap between him and his backfield mates just widened. Johnson had been little used so far between the 20's, those carries going to McKnight and powerful, speedy Allen Bradford. What little he received, will now likely go to C.J. Gable who has seen his role shrink in 2009.
Once inside the 20's, the obvious choice might be the 230-pound Bradford but I have my doubts. His one cut skills could come in handy in power looks, but he's never shown the ability to gain yards on plays where patience and instincts are needed. Little-used but plus-sized Marc Tyler could be an answer, but his health has held him back. Once again that task might fall upon McKnight or an outsider: fullback Stanley Havili.
Havili has seen his workload, particularly carries, increase in recent games. He is a legitimate offensive force who has shown he can get into the end zone during his career. Whether any of those options is enough to replace Johnson is unknown but likely to be settled very soon as USC enters a dangerous stretch at Cal, at Notre Dame, home against Oregon State, at Oregon and at surprising defensive standout Arizona State.
USC is fortunate to have the backfield depth it does, but outside of raw speed, no skill is harder to find or teach than the ability to make plays in short yardage situations and inside the red zone and at the goal line.
As for how this affects the team, its clear from the support he's received that Johnson is an outspoken team leader type. He'll clearly be missed by a team facing great expectations still finding its way. Perhaps they'll slump in the shock of what's happened, or perhaps they'll come together, similar to the publicized Lean On Me song incident. Who knows.
What a reunion that might be, a guy capable of commanding immediate respect for what he's gone through. Something similar happened when USC welcomed back defensive back Antuan Simmons in 2001. Simmons nearly died in 2000 when doctors discovered a benign abdominal tumor that required a pair of dangerous surgeries that had clergy reading him his death rites several times.
Before the ordeal he was an All-America candidate, but he never quite recovered. He rallied enough to make it onto the field his senior year as a solid free safety and made a spectacular between-the-legs interception he returned for a touchdown in USC's 27-0 stonewalling of rival UCLA that kickstarted the program late in Pete Carroll's first season at Troy.
Johnson doesn't need to make as spectacular a return, simply being on the field would be inspirational enough.