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Stafon Johnson's fitness saved his life, doctor says

USC's top rusher is expected to make a full recovery. His neck muscles helped maintain an airway after a weightlifting bar crushed his throat.

September 30, 2009|Gary Klein

Stafon Johnson's season is finished, but his playing days probably are not.

A trauma expert who was part of the team that performed more than seven hours of throat surgery on the USC tailback said Tuesday that Johnson, injured in a weightlifting accident, would make a full recovery and play again when healed.

"We definitely are working very hard to get him better, for him and for the rest of his fans," said Dr. Gudata Hinika, trauma director at California Hospital Medical Center. "So we expect him to be on the football field at some time."

Whether that occurs first at USC or in the NFL remains to be seen. Johnson, a former star at Los Angeles Dorsey High, is a fourth-year senior.

A USC official said the school's compliance office had determined that Johnson could potentially be granted an extra year of eligibility because of a medical hardship.

But Johnson also would be eligible to make himself available for the NFL draft.

Johnson, who led the Trojans in rushing in 2008 and has scored five touchdowns this season, would not need to return to USC for another season to prove himself to pro teams, an NFL scouting executive said.

"He has enough tape, and we know what he is," said the executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity because it is against his team's policy to talk about prospects.

But, the talent evaluator suggested, Johnson should not attempt to rush back.

"He needs to focus on his health," he said. "It sounds like a significant injury. He needs to take care of his business. . . . He will be evaluated thoroughly both medically and as a player, and he needs to be healthy for workouts and minicamps after the draft."

Johnson's physique and his fitness saved his life Monday, Hinika said.

Johnson was performing a "bench press" lift with what doctors were told was 275 pounds when the bar apparently slipped from his hand and landed on his throat. USC officials said an assistant strength and conditioning coach was working with Johnson as a "spotter" when the accident happened, but he was unable to stop the bar from injuring the player.

Initially spitting blood from his mouth and nose, Johnson was rushed by ambulance to the hospital.

At 5 feet 11 and 210 pounds, Johnson was able to survive the accident because the muscles around his neck helped him keep open a breathing passage, Hinika said at a news conference Tuesday.

"Had that been any one of us, meaning me, I would not have survived," Hinika said. "His neck was so solid and so muscular, that actually helped maintain his airway."

When Johnson arrived at the hospital, doctors first performed an emergency tracheotomy to help him breath. Reconstructive procedures then began, with four surgeons working on him.

Hinika said that, along with Johnson's fitness, other attributes from being an elite athlete helped him through the process. "The discipline one learns from being athletic also really helped him to calm down and just do what he needed to do," Hinika said.

Johnson is being fed through a tube in his stomach but could resume eating normally in only a few days. Hinika said the tailback probably would remain hospitalized for at least a week and there was no timetable for his recovery or release. He said the reconstruction could require revisions in the future, and that hospital staff were monitoring the running back for infections and other complications.

On Tuesday, Johnson communicated nonverbally with family members, friends and Coach Pete Carroll while being weaned from a ventilator.

"He looks well, he's alert," Carroll said after practice. "He sent a message to the team that he's going to be back soon. . . . He lifted me up the way he was."

Carroll said the school had received hundreds of messages from well-wishers, among them Washington Coach Steve Sarkisian, other Pacific 10 Conference coaches and Notre Dame Coach Charlie Weis.

With Johnson sidelined for the season, juniors Allen Bradford and C.J. Gable are expected to move up the depth chart behind starting tailback Joe McKnight.

The seventh-ranked Trojans play No. 24 California on Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley.

"Stafon is going to be in our prayers and we wish him a speedy recovery and hope he comes back as soon as possible," Bradford said.

Gable welcomes the increased opportunity but is saddened that it comes at Johnson's expense.

"I really don't want to get it this way," Gable said. "I wanted to get it by working hard and getting my way up to the spot, but things happen."

Quarterback Matt Barkley said Johnson would be with the Trojans in spirit.

"He said he wants us to ball out like we always do," Barkley said. "He's in our hearts."

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gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

Times staff writers Sam Farmer and Ben Bolch contributed to this report.

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