Johnson driven after near-death experience

WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. – As tempting as it is to reduce University of Southern California running back Stafon Johnson’s future to simply getting back on that horse, the situation is decidedly more twisted than that.

This is more like Johnson having the horse get back on him, then having to lift the horse, repeatedly, as many times as he possibly can.

Next week, Johnson heads to the NFL Scouting Combine, football’s version of the Westminster Kennel Club competition. Like the other 300-something athletes there, Johnson will be examined, prodded, interviewed and put through a series of mental and physical tests.

Stafon Johnson waves after a news conference at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on Oct. 14, 2009.
(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Among the best-known tests is the 225-pound bench in which players see how many times they can lift the weight without stopping. Johnson can do it roughly 23 to 27 times these days, impressive for a running back.

More impressive considering he almost died doing it five months ago.

On Sept. 28, Johnson and a teammate who was supposed to be spotting him as he bench-pressed turned the exercise into a crude form of a guillotine. The bar slipped out of Johnson’s hands as he tried to lift 275 pounds. From a full extension of his arms, the weight dropped on his neck, the spot where it hit visible by a thick, dark scar.

It crushed his neck to the point he was spitting up blood and had difficulty breathing.

“I just remember trying to stay calm while keeping my focus on trying to breathe while everybody around me was freaking out,” Johnson said. “I was having trouble breathing, but I didn’t really know how bad it was at first.”

Real bad.

“One of the doctors said they thought it could have decapitated him if his neck wasn’t so strong,” said Travelle Gaines, the head of Performance Gaines, a training center for top athletes with branches across the nation, including Las Vegas, Atlanta and in this suburb of Los Angeles. Johnson is among 48 current NFL players and hopefuls working out at Gaines’ facility here.

While there may be a touch of hyperbole in Gaines’ comment, it’s only a touch. Johnson could be dead. He probably would be if not for his muscular neck. Johnson smiles easily about the situation these days. His now-scratchy voice, which is faintly reminiscent of Louis Armstrong, still isn’t much more than a whisper.

His actions, however, scream of someone the NFL should take note of, even if he projects as a mid-round draft pick in April.

“I’m in the business of proving people wrong,” Johnson said. “I always have been.”

Part of that business figures to be an intriguing moment when Johnson does the bench press in front of NFL coaches, scouts and executives next week at the combine. While the bench press is just another in a series of events, you get the feeling that when Johnson steps up to do it, lots of people will be interested to see how he handles it.

Certainly, Gaines’ reaction is typical.

Stafon Johnson celebrates a called back TD against Notre Dame in 2008.
(Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

“The first time he did it with me, I almost wanted to grab the bar and do the reps myself,” Gaines said.

The more you get to understand Johnson, he would never allow that.

From Ensure to the NFL

Two days after being rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery, Johnson couldn’t talk. He also couldn’t eat or breathe on his own and doctors told him it might be that way for the rest of his life. He had tubes stuck in his throat and machines monitoring his air intake and liquid food.

As he recovered over the next two months, his weight dropped from approximately 217 pounds to 189. Even as his body withered, his goal didn’t.

“A few days after the surgery, the doctors came in and had Stafon write on a piece of paper what his goals were,” said Kim Mallory, Johnson’s mother. “I’m thinking, get back into school, see about playing next fall. He wrote, ‘Play football again. Play in the Senior Bowl. Play at the next level.’

“As a mother, you’re thinking, ‘Hey, you’ve got time, make sure you’re all right.’ To him, he has a dream and I’m not going to stop him.”

Over the first two months of his recovery, Johnson exceeded every goal the doctors put in front of him. He learned to breathe on his own faster than expected. Upon his release and back at his apartment in Los Angeles, he learned to take care of his wounds, cleaning and dressing them to the point that the nurses who came by for in-home care were rendered perfunctory.

The biggest step came in late November. His doctors, Ryan Osborne and Jason Hamilton, and mother were at Johnson’s apartment one evening. The doctors ordered Thai food for dinner. When it arrived, Johnson went to get a bottle of Ensure, his meal of necessity at the time.

“The doctors said, ‘No, you can eat what we’re having,’ ” Mallory said. “Stafon couldn’t stop smiling. Watching him eat and be so happy … I can’t find the right words to describe it because I don’t know if there are the right words. He could finally eat.”

And eat. And eat. And eat.

“All night long, the microwave was going, ‘Beep, beep.’ He was trying to make up for all that lost time in hours,” she said.

The importance of eating was more than the joy of tasting real food again, although that was the initial joy.

“Thai barbeque chicken,” Johnson said with a smile, as if he could still taste it. “The only thing was learning to eat slower. Make sure you really chew … not like when you’re a kid and you just wolf it down.”

Just getting to that point so quickly was little short of a miracle, Osborne and Hamilton said at the time. What was next was similarly farfetched.

In late November, Johnson and his uncle Kregg Anderson sent text messages to Gaines saying he wanted to begin training to play in the Senior Bowl and ready himself for the NFL draft.

“He said something like, ‘I really mean it, I want to get ready for the NFL and to pursue my dream,’ ” Gaines said. “I felt so bad for the guy that I basically was willing to help him for free and the more I threw at him, the more he did.

“At a certain point, if he was willing to drive all the way out here every day, fighting through traffic all the way from L.A. to work out twice a day, I’m going to be right there with him.

A serious chase

Johnson was on his way to a strong senior season before the accident, having scored five touchdowns in USC’s first four games. That came after leading the Trojans in rushing as a junior despite splitting time with Joe McKnight and C.J. Gable. While he isn’t considered an explosive runner, he is dependable and effective.

While Johnson’s brush with death hasn’t left him mentally damaged in any serious way, there is a sense of seriousness about him beneath his affable personality.

“From the injury to now, his attitude toward playing football, it’s a total transformation,” said Lee Sprewell, who has known Johnson since they were 6 years old. “He was always serious about football, but now his work ethic is so much higher, like he’s not going to take anything for granted.”

Or as his father Stan Johnson put it: “He’s doing this all for other people. He doesn’t want anybody to see him hurt or see him down because he doesn’t want them to feel sorry for him. He’s just different.”

Along the way, there have been moments where he has had to fight the fear. There was the first time he grabbed the bar to bench press again. With Gaines concerned, Johnson said he had to fight through it as well.

“You get these thoughts in your head for a second, but you have to get that out of your mind,” Johnson said. “If you let that get to you, it’s going to stop you from going after your dreams.”

At the scouting combine, Johnson will show people exactly what he means. Rather than be consumed by the fear of what he had to survive, he’ll push himself to thrive.

“I’d rather show people than tell them,” Johnson said.

Given his current condition, that’s probably wise.

Jason Cole is a national NFL writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Feb 19, 2010