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BILL PLASCHKE

Stafon Johnson's mother is never far away

Kim Mallory is there for whatever her son needs after the USC running back's serious throat injury.

November 26, 2009|Bill Plaschke

Sometimes, late at night, her faith run ragged from trying to raise a voice from the dead, Kim Mallory sneaks away to listen to her dream.
She clicks her son's old laptop to YouTube. She clicks to an old video of her son giving an interview.
He is Stafon Johnson, a USC running back, speaking to a television reporter after scoring the first two touchdowns of his career.
"He's stuttering, he's searching for the right words," she says. "He sounds just beautiful."

Sometimes, late at night, her body weary from trying to mother a miracle, Kim Mallory sneaks away to run for help.

She slips on her running shoes and jogs familiar South Los Angeles streets.

It's cluttered, but she's used to navigat ing trouble. It's dark, but she has always been able to make her own light.

"Stafon is not a burden, Stafon is my child," she says. "I don't care if he's 21 or 60, he will always be my child."

Today, after two months that have changed two lives, the maternal bond has been stretched to exhaustion and pounded with despair.

Yet watching Kim Mallory nurse her only child back from one of the most freak injuries in college football history, it is a bond that reads like a Thanksgiving prayer.

"Whatever happens in this life, he's mine, and I will never give up fighting for him," she says. "I am not saddened by that. I am thankful for that."

What a fight it has been, nurture against nature, the opening bell the thud of a weight bar bearing 275 pounds falling upon Johnson's neck.

The accident occurred Sept. 28, in the USC weight room, where Johnson was bench pressing when the bar slipped.

While exact details are being withheld by lawyers preparing for a very different sort of fight, the immediate result was Johnson's being rushed to California Hospital Medical Center with a crushed throat.

Coincidentally -- or not -- Kim was already at the hospital in her job as a Xerox account representative.

She was there when he was wheeled through the emergency room on a gurney, blood coming from his throat while he begged for a notepad on which to write, "I'm having trouble breathing."

She was there when he was wheeled into an operating room for seven hours of reconstructive surgery, repeating to him one of their favorite biblical phrases, "I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me."

She was there when he emerged to write, "I'm as scared as I've ever been in my life."

She clutched his hand after reading that one. She clutched his hand a lot.

For days after the surgery, she slept in a chair with her head on his hospital bed. When he moved to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, she slept in his room on a separate bed.

During his nearly three-week hospital stay, she never went home. She still hasn't gone home.

When Johnson returned to his apartment Oct. 16, with tubes coming out of his throat and stomach, she moved in with him.

The first few weeks, she actually slept in his bed, listening for changes in his breathing or signs of distress.

"Remember, he couldn't talk, so he couldn't call out for me in the night," she says. "He needed me there."

After doctors removed the tubes, she moved into an adjoining room but only after setting him up with a bell and a system of claps for communication. They even have a cellphone system, for when texting isn't enough. He pushes a button once for "yes" and twice for "no."

"When it's family, you make it work," she says. "You find a way."

Today she remains in that room in his apartment, her own apartment shut down, her life on hold while her son struggles to find a voice that may never return, in a world that has forever changed.

Less than two months ago, Stafon Johnson was the inspirational rock and leader of one of college football's premier teams, a running back whose power wowed NFL scouts, a Dorsey High hero whose words held great weight across south Los Angeles.

Today, he talks in a raspy whisper and moves in a shroud of doubt.

Doctors hope he will speak normally again, but they don't know. Fans hope he will play again, but no one knows.

The struggling Trojans could use his presence, but he can't even stand to sit through an entire game. The community misses his happy appearances, but he rarely goes out for fear of not being able to communicate.

The only constant in all this -- the only one who has never left him, ever -- is a mother, who, when asked about her son, points to her truck and computer.

"STFN4LF" is on her license plate.

"Stafon4Life" is her e-mail address.

"That's not something I just put on there after the injury," she says. "I've used that phrase for years, and I'll mean it forever."

She says it. He knows it.

Because Johnson cannot verbally conduct an interview, he provided quotes for this story through e-mail, with a recurring theme in each answer.

"My mother was the person that never left my side, from the first day," he writes. "She's showing the meaning of unconditional love, of going the extra mile."

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