For weeks he had been training like crazy. He would be up at dawn for an hourlong drive from his apartment near the USC campus to a gym in Westlake Village. There he would run sprints, catch footballs with arms wrapped around a pole, stretch rubber tubes in abnormal directions to strengthen his core and lift weights, of course, lift weights.
But it wasn't until he ran out to the field for his first practice at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., on Monday that former USC running back Stafon Johnson really felt like football was going to happen for him again.
"It was like Pop Warner," Johnson said by phone Thursday. "That's how I felt. I was very anxious to see what was up."
What was up was what doctors said is a full recovery from a weightlifting accident he suffered on Sept. 28, which not only ended his senior season at USC, but nearly ended his life. Doctors performed seven hours of surgery to repair his larynx, which had been completely crushed after he dropped a 275-pound weight on his throat. At the time, doctors didn't know what life would be like for Johnson. Most often, patients with that kind of injury don't make it, or are never able to live without the aid of a breathing and feeding tube.
But within a few weeks, Johnson was ahead of schedule after refusing to accept anything other than a chance -- a legitimate chance -- to return to the game that had taken him from the inner city to the grandest football stage in Los Angeles. He did what the doctors told him. He elected to have further surgery to widen his breathing tube. And he worked harder than he ever had before to get stronger, faster, bigger, doing the best he could to prepare himself for the next step.
And so, in Mobile, when it was time, when he saw all the NFL scouts, all the players in jerseys and helmets, when he felt the crunch of the turf as he moved, when he heard the calls of the coaches -- that's when he realized just how much he had missed it.
So he lined up ready to get after it, ready to show everyone what had been taken from him. And then proceeded to miss his first two pass blocks.
"I ran right by them," he said, laughing. "The first two times, I was so aggressive, wanted to get to hit somebody just to prove that I'm OK. But then I started to relax, remember that it's not always about aggression, and I made a few."
The same thing happened the first time he carried the ball.
"I got happy feet," he said, "trying to do too much. But then the second time, I was much more natural. Made a pinch and a cutback, much like I did against Oregon my junior year when I scored."
But the biggest test came Wednesday, when he had the ball one-on-one headed upfield toward a defender, knowing there was going to be impact. And there was. And he hit and got hit and quickly got up and jogged back to the huddle.
"Just to hit somebody like that felt great," he said. "I wanted that, I needed that."
If he gets hit in his surgically repaired throat, Johnson's doctors say he will get hurt just like anyone who would take a direct hit to that area, but it has nothing to do with his prior injury. They say it would just be a freak accident -- something that rarely happens in professional football.
His mother, Kim Mallory, was to arrive in Mobile on Friday morning for the Saturday game and admitted Thursday she was "nervous." But, like her son, she is putting her faith in God. It has, she says, gotten them this far.
On Saturday, Johnson says he has made sure he will be on the field as much as he can -- on punt returns, kick returns and in the rotation at running back. He's waited a long time. He says he'll be careful not to miss blocks again or get too emotional and overexcited. And even though his voice is still a raspy whisper, his words and his conviction are strong.
Shelley Smith is a writer and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com and a regular contributor for ESPN television.