LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Just 16 days after Stafon Johnson's neck was crushed in a weightlifting accident, the Southern California tailback is heading home.
Johnson expressed thanks and optimism with his eyes and smile at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on Wednesday during his first public appearance since the accident. He was scheduled to be released later in the day.
Wearing a black USC sweatshirt and a red cap with the Trojans' helmet logo, Johnson easily walked through the hospital and exchanged teasing gestures with friends. He also smiled at his mother, Kim Mallory, who hasn't left his side since Johnson accidentally dropped a weight bar on his neck, crushing his throat and larynx.
Tearing up along with her 21-year-old son, Mallory expressed gratitude for a worldwide outpouring of support in cards, flowers and posters -- even some from UCLA fans.
"They sent everything you can possibly think to show Stafon the love, and that meant the world to get us to go along with that process," Mallory said.
Johnson's uncle, Kregg Anderson, read a message written by Johnson.
"I am just so filled with joy, as if I am graduating from one stage of life and on to the next obstacles," Anderson read. "I greatly appreciate everything, and at this point, everything counts. ... This is not the end of anything. This is the beginning of things to come. I'll be back soon. We are fighting on."
Although he still has a breathing tube in his throat and can't swallow, Johnson clearly has made a remarkable recovery from an accident that would have killed most people. He underwent seven hours of reconstructive surgery Sept. 28 to repair his throat, but his rehabilitation has been swift because of his tremendous physical condition.
"As an athlete, Stafon already has the mental ability to push through many obstacles," said Dr. Jason Hamilton, a throat specialist who's part of Johnson's medical team. "I think he's done that thus far. He's made extreme progress to this date, and we expect him to continue to make progress."
Doctors don't know when Johnson will be able to speak. His right vocal cord was torn away from its mooring, and his larynx was separated. He also still has a tracheostomy tube in his throat which will be there "as long as he needs it," Dr. Ryan Osborne said.
Osborne and Hamilton believe Johnson's ability to play football again largely will depend on his own desire to return, either to the Trojans or the NFL.
"I think that the majority of that is in the hands of Stafon," Osborne said. "I don't think any physician can tell a player if they're going to play again."
USC coach Pete Carroll said Tuesday it's possible Johnson could qualify for a medical redshirt that would give him a sixth year of eligibility. Essentially the Trojans' entire team and coaching staff have visited Johnson in the hospital since the injury occurred.
With a lengthy rehabilitation still in front of him, Johnson is content to be a Trojans fan for now. He watched USC's victory at California on Oct. 3 on television with his mother.
"It was overwhelming for him," Mallory said. "He was pushing in bed like he was out there trying to get that touchdown in. The whole game, it was like he was in there. He got kind of emotional toward the end."
While his doctors spoke, Johnson wrote another message with red marker on a sheet of paper, plugging his Twitter account and leaving his teammates with a message for their weekend trip to Notre Dame.
"Fight on. Beat the Irish," Mallory read.