The day that nobody thought would come is upon us.
Well, almost nobody.
“The day I had a doubt would have been the day I failed as a person,” former USC running back Stafon Johnson told the Press-Register in Mobile, Ala. last week. “I knew I’d be back.”
For the first time since carrying a ball on Sept. 26, 2009, for the first time since dropping a 275-pound bar on his neck four months ago, crushing his larynx and tearing his right vocal cord away from its mooring, the first time since he spoke again two months ago, Stafon Johnson will take the field and play in a game with college football fans across the nation watching.
Tim Tebow may rule the headlines at the Senior Bowl, and even though most of the other top seniors in the country aren’t participating in Saturday’s game. When Tebow, college football’s biggest star, hands off to college football’s most inspirational story — Johnson will have completed one of the most inspiring and remarkable stories in recent memory.
Although he won’t be able to be the vocal team leader he was throughout his career (he speaks now in a raspy voice), and though a quarterback tucked the ball into Johnson’s cradling arms 271 times during his career at USC, every handoff he takes on Saturday will be a handoff he almost never got.
Here’s a person many people thought might not survive following his horrific accident on the morning of Sept. 28. Doctors said that a lesser man would have died. But not Johnson. He fought for his life, and, because of his strong physical and mental character and his strong drive to pursue a dream, he willed himself back onto the field.
Maybe he remembered the speech Jim Valvano gave at the 1993 ESPY Awards; Follow your dream and never give up. It may sound cliché, but, in an age of laziness and complacency, our society is all too willing to lie down and give into adversity.
This is a fact not lost on Under Armour (a sponsor of the Senior Bowl) founder and CEO Kevin Plank, who sent a personal letter of congratulations to Johnson this week. In his letter, Plank acknowledged that Johnson’s presence on the field will “serve as a powerful reminder of the tremendous courage, determination and strength you continue to display in the face of adversity,” and he admits to being “humbled by your journey, which has only just begun.”
Indeed, when Johnson steps onto the field Saturday, it will be the first step in what he hopes will lead to a promising professional career. Although he only played four games last year, he opted not to take a medical redshirt and, instead, turn pro following USC’s last game,
Many seniors opt to forgo the Senior Bowl and regard it as a week not woth participating in. Big names such as Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, Clemson running back C.J. Spiller and Texas linebacker Sergio Kindle will all skip the game on Saturday, as they probably see they have very little room to improve their draft position.
This clearly isn’t the case for Johnson.
In fact, this entire week, not just the game, will go a long way in determining where Johnson lands in the draft. NFL Draft Countdown has him rated as the 13th best running back available. Of course, this is mainly based off his junior season, and Johnson can do a lot this week to boost his stock.
However, Johnson’s neck remains the big concern. There is no doubt that the crowd will go silent in the stadium the first time Johnson takes a hit. The bigger question will be how he holds up after getting hit repeatedly by people much heavier than 275 pounds (see Alabama nose tackle Terrence Cody, who would have broken any normal household scale last week when he weighed in at 370 pounds).
Once he jumps up off the turf, Johnson will be thrust into an unfamiliar role in a familiar setting.
Though he will be surrounded by familiar faces at the bowl (former USC players Taylor Mays, Anthony McCoy and Jeff Byers are also participating) and will have a familiar role as one of the featured running backs, he will no longer be the anonymous, powerful running back churned out by the USC factory.
He will be Stafon Johnson, the man who took one of life’s most powerful blows to the jugular and fought back to win.
We can all learn from that.
“Spittin’ Sports” runs Wednesday. To comment on this article visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Kenny at firstname.lastname@example.org.