LOS ANGELES (AP)—Southern California tailback Stafon Johnson probably wouldn’t have survived his weightlifting accident without his muscular athlete’s neck, which helped maintain his airway when a weight bar crashed down on it, a doctor said Tuesday.
Johnson could communicate non-verbally with his family members and teammates on Tuesday morning, less than 24 hours after his bench-pressing accident in the Trojans’ weight room. The bar slipped from his right hand and crushed his neck and larynx, which required seven hours of surgery.
Johnson’s fitness helped him survive, said Dr. Gudata Hinika, the trauma medical director at California Hospital Medical Center. The senior’s USC career likely is over, but he’s expected to make a full recovery that could allow him to play pro football.
“Had that been any one of us, meaning me, we would have not survived,” Hinika said. “His neck was so solid, so muscular … and the discipline that one learns from being athletic also really helped him to calm down and just do what he needed to do. He took instruction very well. All this combination and his physical fitness contributed to his outcome.”
Johnson was using a breathing tube and a feeding tube Tuesday, but was listed in stable condition. He unexpectedly woke up and communicated with his parents Tuesday morning after undergoing an emergency tracheotomy and reconstructive surgery on his throat, which was almost completely flattened by the bar.
Coach Pete Carroll was grateful for the team leader’s improved health after spending part of the night with Johnson’s family. Johnson’s mother, Kim Mallory, happened to be on a work assignment at the same downtown Los Angeles hospital where her son was transported Monday.
“He’s not talking, but he was making some sense of some stuff and writing,” Carroll said. “It’s very uplifting for his mom and his family and all the guys who got a chance to go down there. … We’re connected. This is a very tight program. Stafon has been a spiritual leader and a leader on the field for a long time here.”
Carroll dropped by the nearby hospital again a few hours before USC’s late-afternoon practice. In a tweet, Carroll said Johnson was “looking good and his spirits are very high.”
It’s unclear when Johnson will be able to speak again, but news of his recovery was greeted with sighs of relief at USC’s Heritage Hall, where the seventh-ranked Trojans gathered before Tuesday’s practice in preparation for Saturday’s key game at No. 24 California.
“It’s very serious stuff, and if anything, it’s something we can use,” USC offensive lineman Jeff Byers said. “Play every play like it’s your last, because you never know. Stafon had no idea that might his last game. Guys have every reason now to come out and refocus on why you love the game, because you never know when it can be taken from you.”
Johnson’s injury is just the latest drama in USC’s eventful season, both on and off the gridiron.
Cornerback Brian Baucham injured his left foot and knee in a freeway motorcycle accident while driving to campus on Sept. 17, leaving him with serious road burns. Another reserve defensive back, Marshall Jones, is out for the season after cracking a vertebra last weekend against Washington State.
Both injuries occurred after the Trojans lost Shareece Wright, an expected starting cornerback, to academic woes before the season.
Defensive lineman Hebron Fangupo is out for the season after breaking his leg against Washington State, and linebacker Jordan Campbell is on crutches with his severely sprained ankle in a boot.
Ronald Johnson, the Trojans’ No. 2 receiver, is still out after breaking his collarbone during the Trojans’ mock game one week before the season began.