Once upon a time, I was an athlete. I played baseball in college at USC and in the summers in Duluth, Minn. While it made sense to me that fans in Duluth (where I actually saw the field) would ask for autographs and high fives and such, I never understood why anyone cared about someone who lived in the virtual anonymity that I did at SC.
Until this happened to one of my favorite players today. Then it made sense.
Fans identify with athletes for different reasons--not always associated directly with on-field performance. Stafon Johnson happens to be an outstanding running back, and I would argue the best of the bunch at SC. I am, however, nowhere near impartial. He's my favorite player, but his on-field performance is only a small part of that story.
When I was in school at SC being the anonymous student-athlete that I was, I spent Friday nights during the fall covering high school football for the Los Angeles Daily News. As a matter of convenience, whenever one of the teams from the DN's coverage area (the valley) would play Dorsey High School, I would take that game since it was right down the street. My junior year at SC, I watched Sylmar get shredded on the ground by a running back tandem that included a polite, otherwise unassuming sophomore running back--Stafon Johnson.
When I was trolling the sidelines before games when teams are warming up and doing their thing, I would talk to players when I was able to do so without being a distraction. Some were rude. This one wasn't. Maybe it had to do with the fact that he was a sophomore on the varsity club. Maybe it was because I was a reporter, and he thought I would give him some good coverage in the paper.
I don't believe either of those for a second.
I believe Stafon Johnson is a good kid.
It's been well-documented that he had some struggles at SC when he wasn't getting many touches as a freshman, and he was discouraged. Who wouldn't be? He went from being the man in high school to being a face in the crowd (and seemingly on the fringes even at that). Oh yeah, the opening day starter that year was a kid from the same Sylmar team he had run wild on in the game I covered in 2003--C.J. Gable. That's tough on a kid trying to transition into life in college and living in the fishbowl that is the USC athletics department.
He didn't pull a Whitney Lewis and fade into obscurity or quit (or whatever the hell happened to Whitney Lewis).
He didn't pull an Emmanuel Moody and transfer.
He worked harder, and he kept at it until he became one of the go-to guys. What a cruel irony it is that he sustains a horrible and life-threatening injury from a freak accident doing exactly what it was he did to achieve his goal of being a top back at USC--working.
I had extremely limited interaction with Stafon Johnson on the field at Dorsey High School in 2003, but he earned himself a fan for life. I realize now that this brief interaction with that anonymous beat reporter on that anonymous fall day was why. I guess even from anonymity can come an enormous impact.
There are a number of elements in this story that hit close to home with me. Obviously there is the USC student-athlete connection, but the story outlined above is one that no one really knows. I am praying that Stafon Johnson is able to fight on and battle through adversity. After all, it's nothing he hasn't done before.