MOBILE, Ala. -- We hang on first words.
Before the bar crashed and changed everything last Sept. 28, the word USC tailback Stafon Johnson wanted to hear most was the first one uttered by his son, Stafon Jr. Like any good namesake, Stafon Jr. didn't disappoint.
"It was 'daddy,'" the elder Johnson said this week. His voice barely rose above a whisper, but his smile explained he would shout it from the rooftop if he could.
It wasn't long after the younger Johnson began building his vocabulary -- "ball" came next -- that daddy lay in a hospital bed with a tube down his throat. Doctors weren't thinking about whether the elder Johnson would speak again as they sliced his neck with their scalpels. Before they could worry about Johnson's next first words, they had to save his life.
Knowing all that, it's a small miracle Johnson could hold court at a table Monday night during a Senior Bowl media event. It's a fairly major one that Johnson, less than four months after a freak accident that nearly killed him, is back on the football field.
Saturday's Senior Bowl will be Johnson's first game since a Sept. 26 win against Washington State. This week's practices, Johnson hopes, will show NFL scouts he is recovered and ready to continue his football career.
That career was jeopardized two days after the Washington State win. Johnson, who led USC's stable of tailbacks in rushing in 2008 with 705 yards and nine rushing touchdowns, lay on a bench in the Trojans' weight room. He had 285 pounds loaded onto an Olympic bar. The weight, he said, was fairly standard for him. Johnson said he can't get into the specifics of what happened next, but somehow the bar -- and all 285 pounds -- fell directly on his throat, crushing his neck and severely damaging his larynx.
Johnson received a tracheotomy -- a hole in his throat -- that allowed him to breathe. Doctors at California Hospital Medical Center spent seven hours in surgery, first repairing the structural damage so Johnson could eventually breathe and eat normally, then working to realign his larynx so he could someday speak again. After the surgery, the hospital's trauma medical director, Dr. Gudata Hinika, said the time Johnson spent in the weight room wound up saving his life.
"Had that been any one of us, meaning me, we would have not survived," Hinika told reporters in September. "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 woke with a feeding tube down his throat and a feeding bag in his stomach. He couldn't speak, and he didn't know when he would speak again. He only knew he would, just as he knew he would eventually play football again. "I didn't put a time and date on it," Johnson said. "I just knew I was coming back. I didn't know when. I just knew I was coming back."
In the hospital, Johnson's BlackBerry and MacBook replaced his vocal chords. He typed furiously, sending thousands of e-mails to friends and well-wishers. Two days after the accident, he joined Twitter. His first message: "Thank you every1 4 all the love and support."
Johnson left the hospital after about two weeks. One of his first stops was Heritage Hall, where his teammates were relieved to see him up and walking again. Though Johnson couldn't speak, he could dance, and his return lifted the Trojans' spirits. "He's not only just fighting through it, but he's sending out an energy and a message to everybody around him and our team and everybody associated with it," now-former USC coach Pete Carroll said on Oct. 15. "He's just battling. It's been inspiring. His spirit has been so obviously positive and upbeat that he's affected everybody. ... He's just been an amazing force out here."
Johnson kept working. A month later, he finally spoke. His voice was raspy but strong enough. The words sounded painful, but Johnson only felt hoarse. Everyone hung on the second set of first words in Johnson's life. He echoed the last words his late grandfather spoke to him. "God has a plan," Johnson said. "Run, Stafon, run."
So he will. First this week. Then in next month's NFL combine. Then at his pro day. Johnson hopes he can show enough to merit a place in the draft. "I'm not sure," he said. "I'm here now just to play football. I hope that [the Senior Bowl] does help."
While Johnson will try to raise his draft stock, others will draw inspiration from him. After Johnson accepted his Senior Bowl invitation, Kevin Plank, the founder and CEO of game sponsor Under Armour, sent Johnson a letter. "Thank you for inspiring football fans around the world and for allowing us to share in your remarkable recovery," Plank wrote. "More importantly, thank you for showing us how a true champion is built."
Former USC center Jeff Byers, who will get one more chance to block for Johnson, still marvels at his teammate's determination. "Wow," Byers said. "Not only is he lucky to be playing, he's lucky to be alive."
Though a dark scar on his throat offers a constant reminder of his ordeal, Johnson isn't wearing any special padding this week to protect his neck. After Monday's practice, he said he didn't fear contact, just as he didn't fear getting back under the bench press bar to prepare himself for this week. "I'm a football player," he said. "Those things don't faze me. It's like riding a bike. Once you fall, get right back up."
Johnson wants to prove himself this week. He wants to succeed in the NFL to provide a comfortable life for 17-month-old Stafon Jr. But he also wants his son to learn that no matter what calamities befall a man, he can fight his way back. "For my namesake," Johnson said, "I knew I couldn't give up."
Johnson doesn't know if he'll ever get his old voice back. He may speak in a raspy whisper for the rest of his life. But he's alive. And he's playing. So even if he never yells or sings again, he can follow the grandfatherly advice that provided the first words of his second chance at life.
Run, Stafon, run.