Stafon Johnson was the first USC football player I ever talked to.
I approached him as he walked off Howard Jones Field after a Monday practice last season.
He was visibly busy. There were 10 or 20 kids waiting for his autograph — I later learned this is quite normal — and plenty of things to be done.
Guys come up with excuses all the time when reporters ask them for a minute or two to talk — you’d be surprised how many times a player doesn’t hear you from five feet away — but he didn’t. He stopped, turned to me.
I was nervous. He wasn’t. He paused, laughed in a hearty, welcoming way in between autographs and made me feel immediately comfortable.
My mind flew back to that moment when I heard what had happened on Monday.
Johnson, a senior running back, was doing his usual morning workouts in Heritage Hall when he dropped a weight on his throat while bench pressing.
He started coughing up blood and was rushed to California Hospital Medical Center, where he then underwent seven consecutive hours of surgery on his neck and larynx — the latter of which doctors called “destroyed, fractured and displaced.”
He hasn’t been able to talk yet.
Talk about a lack of luck.
Johnson is probably the most talkative guy on the team. Every weekday afternoon, after the three whistles are blown and practice ends, he comes bounding across the field as he prepares to talk to the media.
He’s just a happy person.
He’s always jawing with another running back, always in a benevolent manner, always with an enormous grin across his face.
And that’s truly notable, because Johnson has had so many opportunities to err — so many opportunities to pull an Emmanuel Moody and speak out — and he never has.
He was a first-team All-American his senior year at Dorsey High, and he was supposed to be the marquee back in the ’06 recruiting class.
Then C.J. Gable and Moody came along and Johnson watched from the background as Gable started the season opener and basked in the limelight.
Johnson had three carries as a freshman. Did he complain?
No, he apologized.
Seriously, he apologized for not giving his best effort. Imagine that.
“I just didn’t give my best in 2006,” Johnson told USC’s official website. “I just knew I was better than that. I just wasn’t being consistent, wasn’t living up to expectations day in and day out. That’s what got me in the predicament I was in.”
He came back the next season — breaking out with an 11-carry, 144-yard performance against Nebraska — and ran for 673 yards, good for second on the team behind Chauncey Washington.
“Stafon’s been a spiritual leader and a leader on the field in all ways for a long time here and a beloved guy,” USC coach Pete Carroll said in his Tuesday press conference. “So this is something that does affect you. We all will feel it for some time.”
USC has seven running backs who have carried the ball this season. Seven.
And although each of them brings different skills to the gridiron, Johnson’s appeal to USC fans and coaches has always struck a different chord.
“He’s a wonderful kid in this program,” Carroll said. “He means something to everybody here, and it affects everyone. We all feel it.”
In what could be Johnson’s final shining moment as a Trojan — for all intents and purposes, he’s out for the rest of the season and would have to apply for a medical redshirt to return — he carried the ball off the right tackle against Ohio State.
Johnson took three steps towards the goal line, saw Buckeye middle linebacker Austin Spitler eyeing him and juked to the right.
From there, it was an open path to the end zone. Johnson started celebrating the second his toe hit the white chalk, completing an unthinkable comeback and giving USC the lead in the final five minutes at Ohio Stadium.
He calmly paused and pointed to the sky — seemingly stopping time for a second of serenity while the rest of the stadium reacted — before he was bear-hugged by his teammates in a genuinely emotional moment.
If that’s the last we see of him in a game situation, it sure was something to remember. Fitting, isn’t it? A truly memorable guy creating a truly memorable moment.
Fight on, Stafon.