Because Damian Williams ran, he and Stafon Johnson walked together in the weeks that followed.
Now the close friends and former USC teammates have taken the first steps toward a career in professional football together.
Their participation in the first day of the Tennessee Titans’ rookie orientation Friday was particularly meaningful to the pair given the experience they shared last September 28. Williams was no more than a couple feet away when a bar fell on the throat of Johnson as the latter attempted a bench press.
“If anybody wanted to see some speed, that was definitely the time to clock me,” Williams, a third-round draft pick, said. “Yeah, I got out of there as fast as possible.
“It was definitely pretty scary. I remember it very vividly. As soon as it happened I just remember looking at him and I could tell on his face that something was wrong. I just took off and ran to the training room to get the trainer.”
Johnson needed seven hours of surgery to repair the damage done when the 275 pounds he attempted to lift came down on him, and doctors said his fitness level had a lot to do with the fact that he survived at all.
He missed the remainder of his senior season but took part in the Senior Bowl in late January. His performance there and at the NFL scouting combine was not enough to convince anyone to draft him so the Titans signed him as a free agent a day later.
“A lot of things went through (my mind) during that time and that situation,” Johnson said. “For the most part, this is now, that’s then. Coach (Jeff) Fisher gave me an awesome, tremendous opportunity to make this football team.
“It’s left up to me to show what I can do and show that I’m healthy enough to play football.”
With only two veteran running backs on the roster, Johnson and the two other rookie free agents at the position – LeGarrette Blount of Oregon and Dominique Lindsay from East Carolina – will have plenty of chances to prove themselves in upcoming workouts and in training camp.
“I think, to be honest, this was the best opportunity – (better) than getting picked late in the draft,” Johnson said. “I could have gone to a team where I was struggling to even be on the practice (squad). Here, we have a great opportunity to make the roster and to help the football team out as much as possible.”
Johnson was USC’s top rusher as a junior with 705 yards and nine touchdowns. In the four games before he was injured last fall he gained 157 yards and scored five touchdowns.
He said he felt little, if any, effects from the long layoff or rehabilitation process during Friday’s two on-field sessions.
In fact, the most obvious consequence of the incident is a soft, raspy voice with which he speaks.
“That story is an incredible story,” Fisher said. “The smile that was on his face when he walked off the practice field … it’s the first time he’s practiced since the accident, with the exception of the (pre-draft) workouts and those kinds of things. It’s tremendous. A tremendous story.
“He’s cleared 100 percent and ready to play. And he has skills.”
He also has a familiar face for a roommate in Williams, who was regular visitor to his hospital room in the wake of the accident.
“He’s one of my close friends,” Williams said. “I got a chance to spend a lot of time with him in the hospital and take him on his daily walks and that kind of stuff.
“It was a learning experience for me. You definitely can’t take anything for granted, and he taught me a lot.”