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USC injury hits home at Arizona

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CHRIS RUSSELL | The Daily Wildcat Southern California's Stafon Johnson dances into the end zone for the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter against Ohio State at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday, September 12, 2009. (Chris Russell/Columbus Dispatch/MCT)

Stafon Johnson's life changed forever last Monday.


Johnson — a senior running back at USC — was lifting weights, something his team does nearly every day. But after this workout Johnson wasn't rushing to the showers or his next class, he was being rushed to the hospital.


While doing a bench press, Johnson — listed at 5-foot-11, 210 pounds — dropped a bar holding 275 pounds directly onto his neck, shattering his larynx and crushing his neck. He was taken to a nearby hospital for an emergency procedure that lasted seven hours. Doctors removed his broken voice box and then performed reconstructive surgery on the rest of his damaged neck.


""I found out a little later than everybody because people got the running backs mixed up. They thought it was Joe McKnight who got hurt,"" said UA guard Jovon Hayes, who played with Johnson at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles. ""But when I found out it was my boy Stafon I called my mom. I called his parents, but they couldn't pick up the phone because they were at the hospital. … I'm still praying for him that he can get through this and can still play football, but the good thing is that he's still alive right now.""


""(Johnson's) 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,"" Dr. Gudata Hinika, the trauma medical director at California Hospital Medical Center, told media following the procedure. ""He took instruction very well. All this combination and his physical fitness contributed to his outcome.""


The news about Johnson's accident spread across the country, and the next day he was alert and communicating through writing and hand signals with those close to him. Even though a USC coach was within 15 feet during the accident, a slight slip-up during a routine exercise cost Johnson the rest of this season, and almost his life.


""The first thing I did when I saw that, and I'm serious, I sat there for about three hours thinking about all the different scenarios that could have happened, because you don't want that to happen on your watch,"" said UA strength coach Corey Edmond. ""It's something that happens. I've got many stories in the weight room, but that's something that I never would have thought of in 25 years.


""I've heard of guys dropping bars and things like that, but it's just a freak thing,"" he added. ""Everybody wants to find an answer; there is no answer. That stuff happens.""


Edmond said that after he reflected on the situation, he reiterated the importance of weight-room safety to Arizona's players. Even though 275 pounds is considered ""light weight"" to many football players, they now know just how much damage the slightest bit of carelessness or poor technique could cost them.


""Coach (Edmond) really stresses to everybody that we need a spot,"" said UA defensive tackle Donald Horton. ""I remember one time it was like 225 pounds — something that we could pretty easily do — and he kept saying, ‘You need a spot, you need a spot.' So he makes sure we always have that group aspect.""


Johnson had teammates and coaches around, too. But as Edmond said, that situation was a freak accident. And while he did his fair share of playing the ""what if"" game, Edmond said he isn't going to worry about that sort of thing happening to Wildcat players.


""If you get to that point, then you're not going to do your job. You have to do your job, that's point blank,"" Edmond said. ""You look at the news and everything and you see somebody got hit by a drunk driver and killed, but does that stop you from driving? You know what I'm saying?


""It is what it is … and we feel confident that we take all the right precautions,"" Edmond added. ""Even if you're taking the right precautions, it doesn't guarantee that something's not going to happen. So what are you going to do?""


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