Eyes On The Prize
This article appears in the October 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
All it took was one play. Dorsey head coach Paul Knox was conducting a practice in the fall of 2002 and was about to get a look at then-freshman running back Stafon Johnson.
Knox had seen Johnson dominate for the freshman-sophomore team that season, but this was the coach's first chance to see his young phenom go up against the varsity. After one handoff, Knox's verdict was in.
"It was just a simple play," says Knox, who is now in his 21st year as head coach of the Dons. "When we saw him run right there, we knew he could play."
Johnson, now a 6-foot, 200-pound senior, showcased that talent during his sophomore and junior seasons. Despite splitting carries the past two years with Jeremiah Johnson (no relation), who is now a freshman at Oregon, Stafon rushed for 3,303 yards, 35 touchdowns and a phenomenal 8.8 yards per carry over that span. Last season, he was named Los Angeles Times City Player of the Year after running for 1,839 yards and 17 touchdowns.
With Jeremiah's graduation, Stafon is now the man in the backfield. And the Dons are in very good hands with the guy who's rated the No. 3 running back and No. 11 overall recruit in the nation by SchoolSports.com. Using a lethal combination of speed and power, Johnson has used the City Section as his own personal showcase.
"His most outstanding thing is his balance," says Knox. "He's got great balance and vision. He has the ability to make powerful cuts. But if you're not ready and he sees you back on your heels, he'll run you over."
Not surprisingly, Johnson is being pursued by a number of the nation's top college programs, including USC, Tennessee, Michigan, Miami, Florida, Florida State, Oklahoma and UCLA. He's also playing safety on defense this year and has received some recruiting interest at that position as well. And while his primary love is tailback, he won't rule out playing defense in college.
But Johnson, who has looked into possibly graduating early in December to get a head start on university life, won't make a college decision until after this season. That's because he has other things to focus on right now — namely leading Dorsey to a City Section title, something he hasn't been able to do in his career.
Those who don't think that's vitally important to Johnson don't know him at all. The kid practically bleeds Dorsey green, and he's more concerned with upholding the Dons' tradition than breaking any individual records.
Ever since he was little, Johnson has gotten a first-hand glimpse of the Dorsey football team, which won City Section titles in 1989, '91, '95 and '01. Johnson's father, Stan, is an assistant track coach for the Dons and used to bring his son to the practice field to see such Dorsey standouts as current NFL players Dennis Northcutt, Na'il Diggs and Antonio Chatman and former NFL players Karim Abdul-Jabbar and Lamont Warren.
Johnson even served as the team's ball boy and, realizing not many kids his age had that kind of access to so many gridiron stars, soaked up all the information he could like a sponge.
"Hanging out around here a lot, just watching the players and seeing the tradition, I was like, ‘I want to do that,'" says Johnson.
What he doesn't want to do is break tradition and be part of a senior class that couldn't deliver a City Section title to Dorsey.
"That's one thing we haven't been able to do in his years on varsity," says Knox, whose squads have lost in the section semifinals and finals the past two years. "We've been close. He's grown up in this winning atmosphere, and of course he wants to win one."
It's not like Johnson hasn't done his best to try to lead the Dons to the crown. His sophomore year, he ran for 72 yards and a touchdown in Dorsey's 19-18 semifinal loss to eventual City Section champion Carson. Last year, he rushed for 184 yards and a touchdown, picked off two passes and returned a kickoff for a touchdown in a 29-15 win over Crenshaw in the semifinals (Dorsey lost to Birmingham in the finals).
The fact that he could practically taste a title both years is why Johnson worked out like crazy this past summer, knowing he was going to be the Dons' main running back this fall. Forget the beach — Johnson was more concerned with hitting the weights and running the track. Having a dad who's a coach for one of the state's top track programs certainly helped, as Stan taught his son how speed enhancement through track workouts could help on the gridiron.
Dorsey began its summer practices in July, but that didn't slow down Johnson's workouts at all. In fact, it doubled them up.
"He did his track workout in the morning and worked with us in the afternoon," says Knox. "He was dragging a bit, but he knew what to do. I knew he was putting in real serious work on his own, and he was giving us 100 percent."
Fact is, Johnson cares more about working hard than padding his stats or receiving acclaim.
"I never really see myself as being better than other players," he says. "I just see myself working harder than anyone else. I've seen players come through here and what it took to get to the next level."
That dedication, coupled with amazing physical skills, is why Knox has lofty praise for his star back. And trust us, Knox isn't one to exaggerate, especially since he has coached the likes of Keyshawn Johnson.
"Deep down, he wants to be one of the best players who has ever played at Dorsey," says Knox. "And he's right up there right now."
And if Johnson leads the Dons to a City Section title this year, there will be no doubt about his legacy.