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BILL PLASCHKE

No complaints from Stafon Johnson

USC running back doesn't get many opportunities, but his mother told him to stick with it

September 11, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

The story was dead. The story came alive.

After USC's final practice before flying to Ohio State on Thursday, Pete Carroll suddenly announced that his plane-catching players didn't have time to talk to the media.

I had come to talk to Stafon Johnson.

He jogged away quietly.

It was perfect.

For four years, attention has sought him, controversy has nagged him, bitterness has chased him.

He has jogged away quietly.

In the last two seasons here, among USC's running backs, he has been the most consistent, and consistently ignored.

Did you know that in games in which he has scored a touchdown, the Trojans are 12-0? Did you know that when he has carried the ball 10 or more times, the Trojans are 10-0?

Did you also know that in Saturday's season opener against San Jose State, the first game of what could be his glorious senior season, he was the third running back used? He scored twice but carried the ball only six times.

Then jogged away quietly.

For whatever reason, Johnson has always been the Trojans' running back of last resort, hidden behind the flashy Joe McKnight, the slashing C.J. Gable, and now the versatile Allen Bradford.

However, he has never, ever, complained, for one good reason.

When Carroll announced that the players could not talk Thursday, I discovered that reason by picking up the phone and calling a Gardena Xerox representative named Kim Mallory.

Turns out, the story is not Johnson, the story is his mother.

Mallory was not rushing to fly to Ohio. She rarely even comes to practice anymore. Yet this single mom has never been more proud of her son, and it has nothing to do with football.

"My son has been taught that when you make a decision, you stick with it, you don't complain, you hang in there and hope it gets better," she said. "My son is disappointed, but he knows it doesn't do any good to say anything about it. He will wait his chance, and make the most of that chance."

That chance should be huge Saturday in Columbus.

The Trojans will need to wear down the Ohio State defense to take the pressure off freshman quarterback Matt Barkley. Nobody can do that the way Johnson can.

The Trojans will need to smash them in the Buckeyes so Barkley can beat them in the air. Nobody smashes the way Johnson smashes.

"I'm sure we'll need him in a big way this week, he is hugely important for us," Carroll said of Johnson.

Which, in coach-speak, probably means we'll see him, oh, late in the second quarter. I would love to see him more. I would love for Barkley to hand him the ball from the beginning, and keep handing it to him until the Buckeyes run out of breath, and they will run out of breath.

McKnight will dazzle them, but Johnson can demoralize them.

And believe me, this is a kid who knows something about being demoralized.

Four years ago he arrived as the highly recruited star from Dorsey High, the pride of Compton, yet within weeks, he was the bust of Heritage Hall.

"He really didn't know about the work involved in the game," his mother said. "He didn't do what USC wanted, because he just didn't know."

His freshman year was little more than months of wasted opportunity that ended in tragedy, when his beloved grandfather Larry Mallory died.

Said his mother: "He learned from that. It changed him."

Said Carroll: "He came for his sophomore season, and it was like he was starting all over."

Slowly, Johnson became the running back everyone expected, only with less opportunity than anyone envisioned. The last two seasons have featured great games followed by ghost games.

In 2007, he gained 122 yards against Washington, then, a few weeks later, carried the ball three times against Oregon. Last year he gained 115 yards against Stanford, then carried the ball five times in the next game against Notre Dame.

Friends were screaming at him from Compton. Former teammates were quizzing him from everywhere.

"He's hated it that everyone is always asking him, 'Why aren't you playing more?' " his mother said. "But I taught my son to always be respectful."

So Stafon Johnson's answers have always punctured the controversy before it could sail.

I'm fine, this is a great team, we're all contributing, it's all good.

Even when, sometimes, it has felt terrible.

"There are times he's been real frustrated and I'm like, 'Fine, go in your room and scream but don't do it out here,' " his mother said. "He knows life is not a bed of roses. Sometimes you work hard and you still don't get it and you know what?"

What?

"You just keep working."

Kim Mallory knows something about that.

Throughout her son's sophomore season, she didn't tell him that she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She delayed the surgery until the spring.

Johnson became one of her caretakers until she recovered. He would leave class and spend an hour at her side before returning to practice.

"He was always there for me," she said. "Never complained then, either."

Today Johnson plays an active role in the life of not only his mother, but his 13-month-old son. The three of them hung out after Saturday's game, then spent all day Sunday in church.

When folks there talked about his two scores against San Jose State, do you know what Kim Mallory remembered?

First, that he pointed to the sky in recognition of his late grandfather. Second, that he did it without tattoos or earrings.

"Stafon loves football, but I don't love him for football," she said. "I love him for becoming an honorable and respectful man."

He jogs away quietly. His message does not.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/BillPlaschke

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