The League


Stafon Johnson: Desperate to be great

Whether you're training a draft prospect for his pro day and the scouting combine, or writing about him for The Washington Post, the first rule is always this: Be objective with what you see. You have to see things straight and sometimes cold; to dig deep, to know the truth, and to relay that truth to others. So, I can tell you that USC's Stafon Johnson is a 5-foot-11, 220-pound running back with 4.6 speed. He's projected as a second-day pick, or even as an undrafted free agent by some. His best collegiate season was in 2008, when he gained 728 rushing yards in 138 carries, and he gained only 157 yards on 32 carries in 2009. His senior season was derailed by an injury.

These are the facts. But as Norman Mailer once wisely said, "Facts are nothing without their nuance." So, here's the nuance.

Last fall, Stafon Johnson almost died. It happened at the USC weight facility on the 28th of September. Johnson was bench-pressing a barbell with 275 pounds loaded on it, and reports indicate that he was being spotted, but the bar slipped from his right hand and came down on his throat, crushing his larynx. Doctors said that had his neck muscles not been so well-developed, Johnson would not have survived the accident. As it was, he underwent emergency surgery and had a breathing tube through most of October. His 2009 season was certainly over, but Johnson wasn't satisfied with the notion that he was done with football. As he recovered, his NFL dreams recovered with him. In December, Johnson's uncle, Craig Anderson, texted trainer Travelle Gaines (the subject of PreDraft articles here and here), asking if Gaines would be willing to meet with Johnson. At first, Gaines thought it was a hoax.

"The craziest part about Stafon is ... I thought (the text) was a joke -- I didn't respond to it at first," Gaines said. "Someone crank-texting me or something. Then, Craig called me, and said, 'Hey, I didn't hear back from you' and I realized it was serious. Because I was told that he would have a tracheotomy tube for the next year, and all these steps. In the first two weeks after the accident, you didn't hear anything else from the reports.

"So, we set up a conference call on speakerphone. Stafon could talk at that point, but his voice was very weak. He said that he wanted to arrange a meeting with me. They came down on a Monday. I met Stafon, heard him talk, heard the passion in his voice about wanting to get back into football -- how much it means to him."

Nobody who has talked with Johnson could doubt the meaning of the game to him, and how it ran parallel to his deeper dreams of recovery. But it was baby steps at first; when Johnson started training with Gaines, both men had to find out where to begin.

"First, it was a honor that he came to me -- he wanted the best of the best, and he could have gone anywhere in the country," Gaines said. "And the second thing was, I couldn't believe it. Because when it first happened ... I mean, the first reports were that he died. Then, it was, 'Oh, he's living, but he's on life support,' and then these other things ... it was bad. So, to see somebody you thought had died, somebody you thought would never, ever play football again, he would never talk again, he would never do this or that, walk into your doors and say, 'I want to play football' -- and he's 30 pounds under his playing weight. At the time, he was still enrolled at USC, so I said, 'If you want to drive out here twice a day, no problem -- come here and work out. I didn't think he would do it, but he did it. After the first few weeks, I said, 'Okay, let's get serious. Why don't you move in here with the rest of the guys?' So he moved in, and followed the program. Three months later, he's 215 (pounds) and played in the Senior Bowl, ready to run and ready to play. He says he's in the best shape of his life."

As the layers fell away, and Johnson started to become the player he had been before, confidence bred confidence. "It was a gradual thing -- every week, we wanted to accomplish certain goals," Johnson told me in a recent phone interview. "I started to feel better each week, got better in my program, and I knew that everything would be okay."

Right now, Johnson's voice is coming back. It's raspy, and he will lose clarity sometimes after talking a bit, but the determination with which he attacks this supposedly simple task gives one a sense of how he deals with everything else. Gaines said that Johnson became an inspiration to himself, and the other kids he was training, right away. "Every day, to come into your facility and see that -- if you're saying, 'I don't want to be here" or "My shoulder hurts' when this guy almost died ... then, you see his commitment level to working out and training, and it really beings a new perspective to your life."

Of course, the scary part had to come sooner than later -- Johnson was going to have to get back on that bench. But according to Gaines, the process was more nerve-wracking to everyone around Johnson than to Johnson himself. "The first time he did the bench ... I think I did just about every rep for him. My hands were so tight around that bar. There was 135 pounds on the bar and we had spotters on both sides. He had done a little bit with his uncle, but that was basically the first time he had benched since the accident. We were scared. But he ended up doing six reps at 225, and he should do between 14 and 16 at the combine. But to have the courage to get back under that bar ... I don't care if he does one rep. He's from Compton, California, and he's a tough kid, but to have the courage to face that bar over and over again, that's pretty impressive. And we didn't baby him. He's had reps of 315 and 335 for two and three reps at the facility.

"We don't treat him like a special case. He's like everyone else; just with a softer voice."

To Johnson, it was just part of the process, and there was a bigger and more important message at the heart of it all. "I knew I had to do it to get to where I wanted to get to ... I wasn't 100 percent, but I will compete against anyone and everyone, because that's how I am. That's how desperate I am to be great."

Gaines and Johnson worked together non-stop, got Johnson back up to 220 pounds from 189, and had him ready for Senior Bowl week in late January. Johnson suited up for the North team and gained three net yards on four carries in the game, but that was hardly relevant in the grand scheme of things. The important thing was, he was back. " I realized then how much I missed it -- how much I missed being out on the field, playing with other people," Johnson said. "Being with the guys on my team, having them there with me, made me realize how much I missed those guys. I knew it wasn't going to be back where I wanted it to be, but I also knew that this was a big step that I could take to push me over the hump. It felt good; everything felt good that whole month (in training). Like I said, every week, we had a progression, and I accomplished my goal of coming out (of the Senior Bowl) healthy and seeing where I was at."

At the combine, Johnson ran a 4.62-40 and put up 13 bench press reps at 225 pounds. That number was the lowest among all running backs at the combine, but I doubt anyone gave him any flak about it. Now, Johnson is back working with Gaines. "We're working more on speed, acceleration, that kind of stuff. I wasn't able to work on that before the Combine, With all that training, and my body feeling different, I was really sore, so I couldn't do everything I wanted to do. We knew that going in -- we knew that we weren't going to get the numbers and the times we wanted to get."

And the voice? Will he regain full use? "Eventually. But we're just taking it day by day. God has blessed me with the voice I have now -- I wasn't supposed to be this far. Like I say, you can never count anybody out."

It's hard to be objective about Stafon Johnson; when he talked to me on the phone about how he keeps fighting on, and how blessed he feels to be where he is now, and his voice cracks from the strain ... well, it's tough to look at that with a cold, impartial eye. I don't know how far he'll make it in the NFL, but it's hard not to keep a rooting interest going for a person in any profession who refuses to be told "no". When Johnson runs at his pro day on the 30th, and when he's drafted by an NFL team, and as he finds the best inside himself again, more people will find out that Johnson's desperation for greatness permeates every aspect of his exceptional life.

By Doug Farrar  |  March 18, 2010; 1:19 AM ET  | Category:  Combine , Doug Farrar , Draft Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I remember that story last September and am glad to hear that the kid is okay now. I also like the fact that his USC jersey was lucky number 13.

Posted by: ozpunk | April 1, 2010 3:02 PM

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