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USC's Stafon Johnson Hopes to Take Recovery to Next Level

Jan 28, 2010 – 10:00 AM
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Chris Harry

Chris Harry %BloggerTitle%

Stafon JohnsonMOBILE, Ala. -- The tailback took the handoff, ducked into a crowded line, saw an opening to bounce the play outside, then angled for the sideline and sped the length of the field for a touchdown.

A Senior Bowl practice touchdown.

Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano, who is heading the South all-star squad, approached his player.

"Is this fun?" Sparano asked.

The question was as rhetorical as the answer was obvious.

Stafon Johnson smiled.

"You can't believe how much fun this is," he whispered.

For Johnson, the Senior Bowl must feel like the Rose Bowl. Not only is the kid alive, but the former Southern Cal standout is playing football again. And he can even talk, albeit in hushed tones, about the grace-of-God comeback he has made following the horrific (and freak) weight room accident of Sept. 28 that rocked the Trojans program. Johnson, while attempting to bench-press 285 pounds, dropped the bar bell onto his throat. He underwent eight hours of emergency surgery for a crushed neck and larynx.

In November, after nearly two months of communicating through a Mac laptop and Blackberry, Johnson was cleared to try and speak. At that long-anticipated moment, Johnson invoked the memory of a beloved relative by repeating the last word's uttered by his grandfather on his death bed.

"God has plan," Johnson managed in a faint and raspy whisper that day. "Run, Stafon, run."

And running again he is today; with a football tucked beneath his arm, no less. Johnson wears no special padding over the scar on his neck. Doctors say he doesn't need it.

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"It's incredible," South center Jeff Byers, Johnson' teammate at USC, said after Wednesday's practice at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. "A lot of people didn't think he'd ever talk again, much less play football. What he's been able to do, you just can't put into words."

Johnson, 21, doesn't try to explain it. Maybe because it's hard. His voice remains hoarse (always), so he doesn't expend a lot of energy on words. Time will tell whether his voice returns to normal -- "I pray it does," he said -- but vocal and breathing workouts are part of his heavy rehabilitation.

And, yes, lifting weights is part of his training regimen.

"I had to in order to get here," Johnson said. "I'm a football player."

That part, though, he's slowly building on. After having the equivalent of a prototype NFL defensive end land flush on his throat, no one is blaming him. Clearly, there's a mental hurdle to overcome.

"When it first happened, no one knew how he'd come out of it," said South safety Taylor Mays, the third Trojan in Mobile this week. "What we did know was his willpower and determination."

The accident, which happened despite the assistance of a spotter, occurred two days after USC defeated Washington State in the Trojans' fourth game of the season. Doctors at California Hospital Medical Center had to insert a tracheostomy, literally cutting a hole in Johnson's neck and funneling a tube into his air pipe so he could breathe. Repairing the neck damage was one thing, but operating on the larynx was a delicate and complicated procedure. The larynx had to be realigned if Johnson had any hope of speaking again.

Dr. Gudata Hinika, trauma director at CHMC, explained in a post-surgery news conference that Johnson's physique saved the player's life.

"Had that been any of us, meaning me, we would not have survived," Hinika said. "His neck was so solid, so muscular ... and the discipline that one learns from being athletic also really helped him calm down and just do what he needed to do. He took instruction very well. All this combination and his physical fitness contributed to his outcome."

His physical makeup got him through it.

His mental makeup got him here.

Just where Johnson goes now depends on Saturday's game, for openers, followed by the NFL combine in Indianapolis next month and the slew of workouts in the weeks heading toward the draft in April. Most pre-draft analysts have the 5-foot-11, 210-pound Johnson, out of Compton, Calif., rated in the top 15-20 running back prospects. That makes him about sixth among Senior Bowl backs (behind the likes of Auburn's Ben Tate, Mississippi's Dexter McCluster and Oregon's LeGarrette Blount).

In his three seasons, Johnson rushed for 1,535 yards, 19 touchdowns and averaged more than five yards per carry while sharing time in USC's ridiculously loaded backfield. He was a fine receiver, good pass protector and outstanding short-yardage runner.

Scouts will use the upcoming evaluation period to determine if the book they have on the Johnson that walked into the weight room last Sept. 28 compares to the one they'll see heading toward the draft; and how he compares to the other backs.

Johnson, however, won't waste a lot of time wondering where he fits in the pecking order.

"I don't know," he said. "I'm just here to play football."

The fact that he's here at all gets high marks on the intangible side of the scouting report.

"I can't say enough about his will," Jacksonville Jaguars General Manager Gene Smith said. "I'm a firm believer that will wins more than physical skill. A guy like him. What he's been through, if someone can overcome it, he's the one."

Yeah, Stafon Johnson definitely is having fun.

"Very blessed," Johnson said softly. "I'm a little rusty, but that's all right."

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