Maybe this Twitter thing isn't so bad after all. The same week that Texas Tech coach Mike Leach banned his players from using the micro-blogging site, calling it a "stupid distraction," and other organizations and leagues attempted to crack down on its usage, USC coach Pete Carroll showed that it could be used for something far more important than the "Song of the Day" and "Follow Friday."
As he stood next to Stafon Johnson a day after the senior running back had more than seven hours of surgery on his throat following a weightlifting accident that nearly killed him, Carroll pulled out his cell phone and tweeted. "I'm visiting with stafon," he wrote. "He wants to say ... he's coming back and through his yrs as a Trojan he's learned to be strong and fight on!"
Carroll then looked at Johnson, who had been texting on his cell phone from his hospital bed until the battery ran out, and realized that Johnson should send a message to everyone. So he reached back into his pocket and handed his cell phone to Johnson, who tweeted on Carroll's page. "This is stafon," he wrote. "Thank you all 4 the prayers and love I truly feel it ... We ride 2gether we die 2gther umma TROJAN 4 LIFE."
"At that moment I realized that this is his chance to speak when he can't speak," said Carroll. "He can speak not only to the people that are sitting with him but to everyone. It was an extraordinary expression of how you can have a voice even when you can't talk."
That night Carroll called Ben Malcolmson, the team's director of online media, who set up a Twitter page for Johnson and linked it to his phone so he could text his tweets to everyone. Within 24 hours he had more than 7,000 followers and well wishes from the likes of Ryan Seacrest and Chad Ocho Cinco.
"I think every message they get from him is very uplifting," said Carroll. "He's very powerful right now. He has a lot of power with what he does and he's starting to sense that."
With Johnson tweeting and texting updates, a sense of normalcy returned to the Trojans as they went through practice on Thursday, a day before boarding a flight for Saturday's game against Cal in Berkeley. As Johnson had tweeted earlier in the day, he is feeling "better and better by the hour" and expects to make a full recovery.
The boisterous group that ran off the practice field was in stark contrast to the shell-shocked team on Monday as Johnson was listed in critical condition after a 275-pound barbell slipped from his hands during a bench press lift and landed on his neck. Johnson, who was immediately rushed to the hospital after the incident, was in the midst of his surgery when the team finished practiced on Monday night.
"The mood of the team has changed completely," said senior safety Will Harris, who was standing five feet in front of Johnson in the weight room when the accident occurred. "A minute before it happened we were talking about football and the game this week and the next he's fighting for his life. We're not going to act like nothing happened but he always likes to have fun so we're going to have fun and win for him."
The biggest difference during practice was the missing sound of Johnson's booming voice during drills. Known as the team's resident jokester and trash-talker, he was also famous for belting out Kanye West and Beyonce tunes in between plays and chatting with fans watching from the sidelines. He would be the one screaming and rallying players in the locker room and in huddles on game day. "He's the motivator on this team," said Harris. "He's the leader. He's one of the guys that we all follow."
While Carroll has visited Johnson at least once a day since the accident, many of his teammates haven't been able to because only a handful of people are allowed to see him at a time while he's in the intensive care unit, but at least a dozen filmed well-wishes to him in a video that Carroll gave Johnson before the team left.
Lee Sprewell, who ran track with Johnson at Dorsey High and has known him since they were six, has been by Johnson's side at the hospital since he found out about the injury. Sitting with him when he opened his eyes early Tuesday morning after his surgery, Sprewell recalls Johnson grabbing the dry erase board and marker that he uses to communicate with visitors and scribbling down the first question he had:
"How long am I going to be out?"
"He only thought it was going to be a three-four week injury," said Sprewell. "Nobody wanted to tell him the news and I wasn't going to tell him. Then he turned on the news in his room and that's how he found out that he was going to be out for the season. It was on every channel. You could see that it crushed him, but I told him that football should be least of his worries."
Sprewell, who spoke from the California Hospital Medical Center where Johnson will watch Saturday's game, said that Johnson continues to get better each day and that he's even begun joking with him on his white board. "He wrote that he can't wait to get back [home] and eat some real food," said Sprewell. "He's getting tired of the hospital food but he's in good spirits. His sense of humor is out of this world. He's hurting but he's still trying to make people laugh when he's writing on his board."
Although most of Johnson's backfield teammates laughed when recalling their favorite Johnson moments, senior tailback Allen Bradford, who arrived at USC with Johnson four years ago, choked up when thinking about the special handshake they perform at the team hotel before every game. For the first time in his career Johnson won't be there when he gets on the team bus on Saturday.
"It's like one of my brothers got hurt," said Bradford. "I went and saw him the first night and it was tough. I was mad at myself that I wasn't there for him when he got hurt. I know we're going to run real hard for him and represent him on Saturday. He might not be with us but you're going to see him out there when we run."