- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 27, 2010

MOBILE, Ala. | Stafon Johnson quietly walks around the Senior Bowl players’ hotel or to and from the team bus with white headphones affixed to his ears or hanging around his neck. He’s mostly content to do his talking on the field.

The former Southern California tailback still speaks with a soft, raspy voice four months after his larynx was crushed in a weightlifting accident. He is back trying to forge an NFL career at the Senior Bowl, and prove that his game remains strong even if his voice is far from full-strength.

“I don’t have any doubt he’ll be able to get back,” said new Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, formerly Johnson’s coach at USC. “He’s been out of playing for a while but he’ll get back.

“This is a great opportunity. I think the Senior Bowl making the statement and giving him a chance was really a thoughtful and good idea. He’s a great kid and he deserves a shot.”

Johnson was sidelined after dropping 275 pounds of weights on his neck on Sept. 28 while using the bench press, an injury that required seven hours of immediate reconstructive surgery. Three more operations followed from an accident that could have been fatal, and he spent 16 days in the hospital.

He was cleared by doctors to play and happily accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl. The game is Saturday but the week of practices gives him the chance to showcase his abilities in front of dozens of NFL scouts that he didn’t get during his shortened final season at USC.

“It feels good to be getting this opportunity to go out there and erase some of the question marks and just play football,” Johnson said. “I’m just trying to make sure I dot all my i’s and cross all my t’s and that should take care of everything.”

Johnson ran for 1,552 yards and 19 touchdowns during his USC career. He had 157 yards and five TDs in four games this season, scoring the go-ahead touchdown in a victory over Ohio State.

He started training full-time about a month and a half ago to be ready for his pro auditions. He said he wasn’t worried about being able to get back into the swing of playing football after a four-month layoff.

“I’m a football player, period,” Johnson said. “It’s just like coming into camp. You’ve had that long offseason and now you’re coming into camp. It’s the same scenario.”

He said he was “very surprised” and grateful to get the Senior Bowl shot.

“I’m just going to prove how grateful I am,” Johnson said.

Senior Bowl president Steve Hale also read aloud a letter to Johnson from the CEO of game sponsor UnderArmour, Kevin Plank, in front of all the players on Monday morning.

“Your presence on the field not only will elevate the level of play, but also will serve as a powerful reminder of the tremendous courage, determination and strength that you continue to display in the face of adversity,” Plank’s letter said in part.

Johnson, who has been able to speak since mid-November, said his voice is expected to return.

“Eventually,” he said, “but right now, that’s the least of my worries.”

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