Commentary

USC's Stafon Johnson talks about injury

Faith, family help him heal from a nearly fatal weightlifting accident

Updated: December 25, 2009, 3:19 PM ET
By Shelley Smith | Special to ESPN Los Angeles

It sits there, looming. An object that was, at one time, inviting to a kid who grew up loving its simplicity and its power to help him get to where he wanted to go, to be the football player he wanted to be. But it now is also the object that nearly killed him, dealing him so crushing a blow that doctors expected he'd never breathe without a tracheostomy tube in his neck or eat by any method other than through a tube in his stomach.

[+] EnlargeStafon Johnson
Kevork Djansezian / Getty ImagesRunning back Stafon Johnson leads his teammates to the field to take on Arizona at the Coliseum on Dec. 5. Johnson suffered a season-ending weightlifting injury earlier this season.

But there it was, looming, beckoning. USC running back Stafon Johnson took a deep breath and crawled under the iron, determined to face this demon. He had to. Because at the NFL combine, you have to bench-press. And so he grabbed the bar and pushed it slowly above his neck.

"It was just a regular day at the job."

Just three months ago Johnson was bench-pressing 275 pounds as part of his regular weight-training regimen with the Trojans. It's a weight he had handled easily all season, and he had a spotter.

"It was just a regular day at the job." he said. "Workouts. Regular day, regular day on the bench, regular weight. Next thing I know I'm gasping for air."

Accounts of what exactly happened are hazy, and Johnson says now they are too difficult for him to discuss. What is known is that the bar slipped from his hand and landed square on his throat, crushing his larynx -- actually splitting it into two parts. As paramedics were called, word spread quickly throughout the lower level at Heritage Hall, which houses the football offices.

"I was in my office and someone came in and told me that he had an accident," said USC's director of equipment Dave Scott, aka "Pops." "I ran down to the weight room and he was sitting up and [made a gesture] for me to call his mom."

That day, Johnson's mother, Kim Mallory, happened to be on a service call for her job at California Hospital, just miles from the USC campus -- the same hospital they were taking her son. She rushed from the offices to the emergency room and ran outside.

"I could hear the ambulance coming with Stafon," she said. "They pulled up and I told the paramedics I'm his mom, and they opened up the door."

He looked at her, almost not believing she was really there. She said he was wide-eyed, but calm. As she was processing what had happened, she noticed Johnson looking and gesturing for something to write with. A nurse handed him paper and a pen. He wrote, "It's hard for me to breathe."

Coach Pete Carroll, who had run down to the weight room just as Johnson was being strapped onto the gurney, said: "We didn't have a lot of hope that something really good was going to happen. All we heard was some really terrible news.

"He really was a sight to see."

A few miles away, Dr. Jason Hamilton, a neck and head surgeon, was driving on the 10 freeway when he got a call from his office. He was told that someone at California Hospital had a weight dropped on his neck and they needed his help. He looked up and saw that he was right at the exit that would take him there. Within minutes, he was in the operating room examining Johnson, stunned by what he saw.

"I basically saw a big mess. It was hard for me to figure out which pieces of his larynx went where or what the extent of the injury was," he said. "The top portion of the larynx was separated from the lower portion of the larynx, so basically two pieces."

He realized he needed an extra set of hands and called his partner, Dr. Ryan Osborne, also a neck and head surgeon, who rushed to the hospital and was also stunned by what they faced.

"There was tissue one direction, tissue going another direction," he said. "There was no orientation whatsoever. He was bleeding out of his neck, blood coming out of his mouth. He really was a sight to see. He had fractures involving these actual voice boxes, the muscles that surround the voice box were blown away."

They realized what they were up against: taking on a case so severe and traumatic that neither had even read about it in any textbook, because it had never been written about. Most patients in Johnson's condition die.

"We were basically putting together wet tissue paper," Dr. Hamilton said. "We had one chance to put each puzzle piece in its position, and if we got it wrong that was it."

With Hamilton working through Johnson's mouth and Osborne working through an incision in Johnson's neck, they used magnifying lenses and tweezers to perform their delicate work.

"We're literally communicating with each other, a little to the left, little to the right," Osborne said.

And they were in a race against time.

"With more time expired, more things got swollen, more fragile he became," Hamilton said.

"He's got dead tissue in there just because of the injury, tissue begins to die, so we're losing tissue and we have to try and figure out what's alive and what's not alive, what we can save, what we can't save," Osborne said. "You can't actually suture this tissue with the same type of ease you can suture skin or muscle. This is thin, tissue-paper-like material you have to make every single move perfectly or it's not going to work."

The doctors worked on Johnson for more than seven hours. Putting the larynx back together didn't take much time, they said. "We were trying to put it back together so it would work, so he could use his larynx, so that he could breathe on his own, that he'd be able to swallow on his own and potentially be able to speak again someday."

And even when they were finished they weren't sure.

"We both looked at each other and said, 'Hey, this looks good,'" Osborne said. "Now whether it's going to work that's a different story."

"All literature and my logic would say he would never get the tracheostomy tube out, he's going to be on a feeding tube the rest of his life," Hamilton said. And for some people, that is all doctors can give them, that life.

"But when we were done, with the surgery I felt that everything was really good."

"I'm still holding on."

When Johnson came out of anesthesia, he knew his life had been saved. Going into surgery, he hadn't been so sure.

"I basically just put it in God's hands," he said.

His mother had been raised through the Living Gospel Church in Compton, Calif., and she had raised Johnson there as well. In the ambulance, he began to, in his mind, sing words of a hymn he sang as a young boy, "I'm still holding on." It calmed him. And so, waking up, he relied again on what he had been taught: No matter what, have faith.

What he cared about most was when he could get back to practice. His mother said he really had no idea of the extent of his injury and when Carroll visited that night, he told him, "He was sorry he let the team down, but he'd be back the next week." Nobody had the heart to tell him he might never be back.

"I looked at my best friend and asked him when I was gonna get out," Johnson said. "He just put his head down, and from that point then I knew it was not good. I just kind of broke down. It was hard."

Visitors came by droves and were allowed in a few at a time. The main thing Johnson needed was rest. His mother, who never left the hospital the first few weeks, was concerned that too much excitement and emotion would jeopardize his recovery. Doctors had given them explicit instructions.

"We told him, 'You have a major injury,'" Dr. Osborne said. "We said, 'Do not move. Do not swallow. Do not cough.' I actually said, 'Don't even think about talking. If you don't follow directions, you may never get these tubes out.'"

Johnson had the tube in his neck to help him breathe, and feeding tubes in his nose. The gauze around his neck was bloodstained. It was a shocking sight to many who had seen him only as the powerful athlete he had become.

Pops, the equipment director, walked in and had to walk out immediately.

"It was very emotional," he said. "Very emotional."

And it was emotional for Johnson, as well. He began to understand what he was dealing with. Many nights coaches would come to visit, and sat and cried as Johnson cried. Sometimes it was too much for his mom to see, so she quietly left the room to give them their privacy.

And there was pain, the times when nurses had to suction Johnson's tracheostomy incision, which was so brutally painful he squeezed her hand so hard it hurt. Teammates and coaches who visited lent their hand during those procedures when she needed to squeeze someone's hand, too.

[+] EnlargeStafon Johnson
Damian Dovarganes / Associated PressStafon Johnson, left, listens as his mother, Kim Mallory, thanks his supporters during a news conference at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where Johnson was hospitalized after a weight bar crushed his throat and voice box.

But it was the times when it was just the two of them late at night that brought out the hardest moments, she said. Times when she knew her son was having flashbacks to that moment in the weight room. It was those times that their faith was tested, but she never wavered.

Too many things had happened to reassure them that God was guiding them: She was at the hospital when he was brought in, the doctor was driving by at that same time, Johnson had calmed himself and found a way to breathe to even make it to the hospital. She reminded him of these things and he said he kept repeating in his head what his late grandfather told him when he was struggling because of a lack of playing time his freshman year at USC: "God has a plan. Run, Stafon, run."

"I just wanted to talk to somebody."

Johnson followed his doctors' plans to a T, eventually learning how to attach and detach his tracheostomy and feeding tubes from the machines, maneuver around to take a shower and keep the urge to talk at bay. He communicated with a dry-erase board and by typing on his computer. And he started to keep a journal. A week in, by all accounts, he was making great progress.

But then came the Trojans' game against Cal.

From his hospital bed, he watched Joe McKnight, whom he calls his little brother, rush for 118 yards and two touchdowns as the Trojans manhandled the Bears, 30-3. During the game he sent text messages and tweets. He was so emotional and excited he began to cough and then choked. It was so severe that doctors had to sedate him.

"I was so amped up and into it, happy for my boys," Johnson said. "It was too much."

Unaware of what had happened back in Los Angeles, Pete Carroll told a national television audience that when the Trojans got back from Berkeley they were going to take the buses to the hospital. They were on the I-10 headed there when Mallory told Carroll what had happened, that Johnson was knocked out.

"We were almost there," Carroll says.

Johnson was moved to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to be closer to his doctors, whose offices are in the adjacent building. It was there that they started to believe that their work in the operating room had been successful.

"We were able to give him smaller and smaller breathing tubes to allow him to breathe on his own," Hamilton said. "Essentially, he was sharing breathing through the trach tube and mouth at the same time."

And that was enough for them to discharge him from the hospital.

Said Hamilton: "We thought that if he continues in that fashion, he'd be able to get that tube out and breathe on his own. After breathing is established, swallowing and voice would follow. He made rapid progress in developing ability to swallow and then, eventually, to speak."

What Johnson spoke, initially, was just one word and in a raspy whisper.

"We asked him to say hello," Osborne said. "And he said, 'Hello,' and we all jumped up and down."

"They told me my voice would never be the same," Johnson said. "I was so anxious as to what sound would come out. I was so happy when I did it; I wanted to say 'Hi' to other people. ... I just wanted to talk to somebody."

Before the USC-Stanford game, Johnson sneaked into the Trojans' locker room, grabbed Pops in a bear hug and said, "I love you, Pops."

"When he did that it was very special," Scott said. "And I knew there was a God. I knew the blessings were on him, it was going to work out for him."

And then there was food, probably what he missed even more than speaking. The first time doctors allowed him to try was when they all met at a restaurant. Kim had always been careful not to eat in front of Johnson when he was still on the feeding tube.

She remembers that one day just the smell of food was too much for him.

"He ran in the kitchen and just grabbed some and put it in his mouth," she said, laughing. "He had to spit it out, and I was like, 'Why are you wasting my food?'"

But that day at the restaurant Osborne ordered three plates of chicken instead of two. Johnson noticed the extra plate, and Osborne said, "Go for it."

"That chicken tasted like heaven," Johnson said. "I couldn't believe how good chicken could be."

Said Osborne: "It went down like cotton candy."

"It was then," Johnson said, "I knew I was back to being me. I had learned to swallow water, which is the toughest thing to tackle, they say. I had a voice, and now I was eating. It felt wonderful."

"'I need to get back out there again.'"

Doctors performed several more surgical procedures on Johnson, to help erase scarring on his neck because they didn't want him to be reminded of what happened every time he looked in the mirror. And eventually, he had surgery to widen his windpipe. Johnson could have elected to have surgery to strengthen his vocal cords and his voice, but chose to "rob Peter to pay Paul," Hamilton said.

"The vocal cords do three things," he explained. "They allow you to swallow normally, they allow you to speak and allow you to breathe. It's a balancing game."

Content with where his voice was, Johnson chose a better way to breathe.

Asked why, he laughed and said, "I'm not a singer."

He wanted to start working out to see if he could maybe play football again.

"Stafon made it clear to us," Osborne said. "'I need to get back out there again.' This is the reason he underwent these procedures. These procedures really were about his election to play football."

They didn't, however, come without risk. Each time doctors went in, there was a chance that the procedures wouldn't work and Johnson would end up back in the hospital, potentially back on breathing and feeding machines. Each time they told him of that risk and asked if he was sure he wanted to go through the surgery, his answer was yes. He didn't waver.

"His faith in God is unreal for a kid his age," says Kregg Anderson, a man Johnson calls an uncle. "He's very grounded in that area. Don't know too many kids, especially ballplayers, superstar athletes, that have faith in God as much as he has."

Anderson and Johnson had trained and worked out together since Johnson was 9. When he asked to start again, it was Anderson that he turned to. They started with a treadmill, walking a few minutes each day, building to a run. The problem became, Anderson said, that Johnson wanted to push himself too much.

"We'd be watching TV and he'd get out his perfect push-up," Anderson said. "I'd say, 'Stafon that's too much.' But he was determined."

He was monitored by doctors at first, and trained privately because none of them were sure what would happen, not wanting him to fail in front of people. But what they saw was gradual improvement and his ability to adapt to a smaller-than-normal windpipe.

"I had to get acclimated to that," Johnson said. "It's as if I had asthma and such, and there's a lot of people that play sports, run track, do other things like that. So it's like, 'OK, I have the same thing as they have. Why can't I run? Why can't I do this?' When it was hard, I just thought about that."

He began to jump rope, minutes at a time. Eventually, he knew, if he was really going to continue this journey toward his goal of getting back on the football field, he'd have to face the bench press. It came with a lot of emotion.

"A fluke accident."

Just about everyone who heard about the accident asks the question: "How could this happen if you had a spotter?"

Johnson answers, "I don't know." That's as far as he'll go, for now.

Members of the weight staff weren't made available to ESPN, but Carroll said he was told, "It was just a mistake on [Johnson's] judgment. He flexed his hands and the bar just rolled off. We had spotters. It's just he's in the last set of his workout, he had been lifting for years and years so you back off and let the guy do his exercise."

Asked if he flexed his hands, Johnson said only: "It was a normal day, normal weight room, normal weights."

His mother said she wanted to know, "Where was everybody? I haven't asked anyone. I just know that we wouldn't be in this situation we're in if something, something should have been done."

Anderson said: "I really don't know how it happened. I will say this, when you're spotting someone, if you're doing what your duty is to do right then, then that can't happen. Bottom line. That can't happen if you're doing what you're supposed to be doing."

Said Carroll: "He's an extraordinary weightlifter and workout guy. He's an expert. For that to have happened was a fluke accident."

Mallory said Johnson hasn't talked about it and she hasn't asked.

"I do not want him to have flashbacks," she said. "You don't forget but you have to move on, work with what you have. God spared your life, so there's a reason why he did. So we're going to work with that."

"What I'm doing is not wrong."

That first time back under the bar was the toughest, Johnson said. Anderson hovered, watching intently as Johnson lifted 185 pounds into the air. One rep, then two. One set, then two.

"Lot of emotions," Johnson said of what was going through his mind. "I was so nervous and didn't know what to do. It felt as if it was so much weight, and it wasn't at all. As time progressed, it got easier and easier. That day just lifting, one of those, 'Whew!' I was very happy, very happy."

Johnson admitted that he had flashbacks at first, but those have faded with time and repetition.

Not long after that first day, Johnson progressed to full-blown NFL-combine preparations at Performance Gaines in Westlake Village, Calif. It's run by Travelle Gaines, who last year trained 32 players who were later drafted by NFL teams. After a few weeks of daily four-hour sessions, Johnson said he is now stronger and fitter, both physically and mentally, than he was before the accident. He hopes to bench 225 pounds at least 20 times at the NFL combine.

"Maybe more," he said.

His immediate goal is to play Jan. 30 in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. His name was on the list of potential participants before the accident, and Pete Carroll and Johnson's doctors maintain it should still be there now. They wouldn't uninvite a player who came back from a knee injury or shoulder injury, Carroll maintains. This shouldn't be considered any different. In fact, he and the doctors argue, players are more likely to reinjure knees and shoulders than a throat.

But what happens if he gets hit in the throat?

"Yes, he would be hurt," Osborne said. "So would every other human being. But it's not because of his prior injury."

Johnson has been cleared to play by both doctors, and Carroll is working the Senior Bowl personnel to see if they'll let him play. Both doctors and Johnson's coach have one goal in mind now: to see Johnson carry the ball again.

What fears does Johnson have?

"No fears," he says resolutely. "Knowing that if you have faith, do all things in Christ, it strengthens you no matter what. What I'm doing is not wrong."

He hears his grandfather's voice again: "God has a plan. Run, Stafon, run."

ESPN correspondent Shelley Smith is based in Los Angeles.

Shelley Smith

SportsCenter correspondent
Shelley Smith joined ESPN in January 1997 after working part-time as a reporter for the network since 1993. She has covered Super Bowls, the NBA Finals, the BCS championship game, the Stanley Cup playoffs, golf and tennis championships and more.

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