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Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Updated: September 30, 7:08 PM ET
USC's Johnson gives mom thumbs-up

ESPN.com news services

USC tailback Stafon Johnson is awake and communicating via writing and hand signals less than a day after emergency surgery to repair throat injuries from a weightlifting accident, according to a doctor at the hospital where he is being treated.

Dr. Gudata Hinika, the trauma medical director at California Hospital Medical Center, said Johnson is giving thumbs-up signs and communicating in writing to his mother and teammates after undergoing a seven-hour surgery to repair a crushed neck and larynx.

Johnson is listed in stable condition.

On Wednesday, Johnson texted ESPN's Shelley Smith, saying: "Hey Shelly [sic] ... I'm doin fine. Ahead of schedule."

Johnson, a senior who scored the seventh-ranked Trojans' go-ahead touchdown against Ohio State two weeks ago, was bench-pressing Monday when the bar slipped from his right hand and fell onto his throat.

Stan Johnson, the player's father, told Smith that his son needed a tracheotomy to enable him to breathe.

Hinika said a man of lesser stature would have died from the injuries, but the thickness of Johnson's neck muscles helped him to breathe and probably saved his life.

"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 is expected to fully recover, Hinika said, but the doctor would not speculate on the recovery prognosis for the player's vocal cords. It may take as long as six weeks before doctors even ask Johnson to attempt to speak, depending on factors such as swelling, he explained.

Doctors are trying to wean Johnson off a ventilator, and he is being fed through a tube in his stomach.

Johnson is unlikely to play again for USC, but coach Pete Carroll is grateful for the team leader's improved health.

"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."

The news 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, who was taken away from USC's campus wearing a neck brace, woke up Tuesday morning after undergoing an emergency tracheotomy, followed by reconstructive surgery. Immediately after the accident, Johnson was coughing up blood, a source close to the USC football program told ESPN's Smith.

Johnson's mother, Kim Mallory, happened to be working at the same downtown Los Angeles hospital where her son was transported Monday.

An assistant strength and conditioning coach was standing over Johnson at the time of the accident.

"I've seen players have the bar slip and fall onto their chest, but never in my 25 years of coaching have I heard of someone dropping a bar on their throat," said head strength and conditioning coach Chris Carlisle, who was standing 10 feet away at the time of the accident. "We're fortunate he was being spotted."

Johnson, a 5-foot-11, 210-pound senior from Compton, Calif., is the Trojans' second-leading rusher and goal-line specialist. He's rushed 32 times for 157 yards this year and leads the team with five touchdowns. He entered the season with 1,395 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns.

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.

Shelley Smith is a reporter for ESPN. Information from The Associated Press was used this report.