At the end of September, it wasn’t certain that USC running back Stafon Johnson would even live through a marathon surgery to repair "crushing injuries" to his throat after a bar holding 275 pounds fell on his neck during a routine bench press. In November, reporters were pleasantly surprised when Johnson whispered a few words during a press conference, well ahead of schedule. A few weeks later, he returned to Trojan practices, began working out again and led the team onto the field for the home finale against Arizona on Dec. 5.
But for medical miracles, nothing yet is quite as astonishing as the word Sunday that Johnson will be back on the field in a matter of weeks, at full speed barely four months to the day after his career flashed before his eyes:
MOBILE, Ala. (AP)—USC running back Stafon Johnson, who had his larynx crushed in a weightlifting accident early in the season, has accepted an invitation to play in the Senior Bowl.
The Senior Bowl announced Sunday that Johnson planned to participate in practices and the Jan. 30 showcase game for NFL prospects in Mobile, Ala. According to a release, Johnson was recently cleared for football activities by doctors.
"This decision was made after extensive conversations with Stafon’s family, coaches, medical team and personal trainer so that we were assured of his physical condition and readiness to participate in the Senior Bowl," Steve Hale, the Senior Bowl president, said in a news release.
That’s an awfully quick turnaround for a guy whose larynx was broken into two pieces, and whose own surgeon described the muscles around Johnson’s voice box as "blown away" by the impact of the weight; for less insanely driven players, that level of devastation might have been the end of hurtling themselves into a pack of angry 300-pounders. But even at this early stage of his return, doctors said Johnson’s risk level is no higher than any other player’s on the field.
He may need the all-star week as much as any player in Mobile, though, to put away any lingering doubts among pro scouts, which are as likely to concern Johnson’s limited playing time in the crowded USC backfield as they are his health. One of the most hyped incoming backs in the country in 2006, Johnson earned a few carries as a true freshman, finished second on the team with 673 yards on nearly seven yards per carry as a sophomore and led a three-headed attack with 705 yards in 2008 — altogether, he racked up 1,552 yards with 19 touchdowns, a career he might have surpassed in a single season at a school where he was allowed to carry the load as the feature back. Still, with his compact, 5’10", 220-pound frame, Johnson was always the most "pro style" back in the Trojan rotation, physically, and if he passes the questions about his recovery, no one will dare question his commitment to playing football again.