On a mellow Monday in late September 2009, Stafon Johnson nearly died.
The senior USC running back was bench-pressing 275 pounds when the bar fell on his neck, crushing his throat. Johnson was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery and luckily, after hours under the knife, was in critical and stable position.
After a few more surgeries and endless hours of therapy, Johnson miraculously stepped onto the football field once more. Although he was not able to suit up for the Trojans again, he made an appearance in the Senior Bowl.
Although no team selected Johnson in the NFL draft, the Tennessee Titans signed Johnson the next day.
Johnson had not only cheated death, but he had overcome that freak accident to accomplish his dream of playing on Sundays. It was a feel-good story for the Trojan Family.
That is, until Monday, when Johnson filed a lawsuit against USC and former assistant strength coach Jamie Yanchar. Johnson is seeking unspecified damages.
Not such a feel-good story after all. Not when the lawyers get involved.
USCRipsit.com, the Trojans’ official blog, reported soon after the accident that Johnson was bench-pressing with a spotter when the bar unexpectedly slipped and fell on his neck. It was chalked up to an accident.
Turns out the details of that day are still in dispute. In a press conference Monday, Carl Douglas, Johnson’s lawyer, said the bar did not slip but was “knocked out” of the running back’s hands.
“What we say occurred is that the bar was basically knocked out of his hand, causing it to fall on Stafon’s neck, almost causing him to die,” Douglas said.
How exactly Johnson will prove that remains to be seen, but the ensuing legal struggle will be yet another black eye for USC.
Assuming Johnson is successful, USC could wind up paying for the money the running back would have received in the NFL had he not been injured.
Problem is, there is no way to scientifically determine how much Johnson’s stock fell because of the injury. It is hard to know whether Johnson would have been drafted even if the injury had not occurred.
He did not exactly put up breathtaking numbers at USC: 1,552 yards and 19 touchdowns while playing four years in USC’s crowded backfield. In 2008, his best season, he rushed for 705 yards and nine touchdowns.
But make no mistake, his lawyers will spew out a very lucrative number to cover the unspecified damages.
There is no doubt that Johnson was an inspiring Trojan who played with heart every snap. Doctors said that the injury to his neck would have probably been fatal if he was not already in such great physical shape. He was a vocal leader for the Trojans before the accident and a rallying cry of inspiration afterward.
“This lawsuit has not reduced in any way my love for the cardinal and gold,” Johnson said, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Johnson’s reputation, at least in the eyes of USC fans, will be irrevocably damaged. USC responded to the suit in a statement, maintaining, “it was not at fault” and was “disappointed” with the turn of events.
The university seemingly did everything in its power to help Johnson recover.
Maybe USC should cover all his medical expenses (Johnson said it covered only part of them), but anything beyond that makes Johnson appear to be bringing up an old grievance because his NFL career might not work out.
The timing of Johnson’s lawsuit seems odd, as well.
In another turn of bad luck, Johnson broke his fibula and sprained his ankle in a Titans preseason game. He was placed on injured reserve for the entire season.
Though Titans coach Jeff Fisher said he intends to bring Johnson back next season, there is no guarantee that he will.
According to the Los Angeles Times. Douglas said he had spoken to USC beforehand, but was forced to take legal action when the two sides could not find common ground. It is not clear when Douglas first approached USC.
To suggest that Johnson is filing this lawsuit now because his future in the NFL is on the ropes seems out of character for Johnson. But it does seem like a smart business move.
And maybe that’s what it comes down to. As we’ve been reminded so many times over the years, it’s all about the bottom line in the end.
But Johnson seemed better than that. Whenever I think back on his USC days, I’m reminded of the first time he spoke publicly after the accident. In a raspy, barely audible voice, Johnson repeated the words of his late grandfather: “God has a plan. Run Stafon, run.”
Instead of focusing on running again in the NFL, Johnson is running to the court room. And now that he is speaking again, he’s saying all the wrong things.
“Middle Ground” runs Tuesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Josh at firstname.lastname@example.org.