Updated on Tuesday at 7 p.m.
Florida Gators redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Roderick Johnson, a promising talent and the team’s best returning starter from a season ago, will likely retire from football and end his career after being diagnosed with congenital cervical stenosis, the program announced on Tuesday.
Johnson, who started three games for Florida in 2014 and was expected to be an NFL prospect as soon as next season, received the official diagnosis on Monday. His medical condition was not discovered until he suffered a “stinger” in practice on April 3 that resulted in numbness of his hands. An MRI was done to ensure there were no other underlying medical issues, which is when doctors uncovered the cervical stenosis.
As Florida pointed out in its announcement of Johnson’s ailment, cervical stenosis is the same condition that famously forced Cooper Manning – the brother of Peyton and Eli Manning – to retire from football shortly after beginning his college career.
The Gators were also careful to word the release in such a way that it notes his Florida career is over – not his football-playing career – as there have been examples of players, such as USC’s Jarvis Jones, who transferred to another program (Georgia) and continued playing after being cleared by a separate set of physicians. (Jones was later cleared by NFL doctors and currently plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers.)
4/3/15 will tat it on me my last play in the swamp saw that white light when I went down and I stood and walk off the field with pride
— Rod Johnson (@Almighty_rod55) April 14, 2015
Head coach Jim McElwain, addressing a number of beat writers prior to a speaking engagement Tuesday evening at the Titletown Gator Club in Gainesville, expressed his disappointment for Johnson.
“Heartbreaking news on Rod. It was one of those deals that we wanted to make sure that we got as many opinions as possible to make sure,” he said, according to the Florida Times-Union‘s Richard Johnson. “Horrible for him, and yet at the same time, a blessing it was discovered through what we thought was probably a stinger.”
McElwain went on to say that Johnson would still be a “huge part” of the Gators football program, noting that he plans to have Johnson work as a student assistant who will help assimilate the freshman offensive linemen into the program this summer.
Athletes that participate in contact sports, such as football, are at high risk to develop this condition, which is a narrowing of the spinal canal. As Johnson’s was diagnosed to be congenital, the condition existed for him since birth but was not discovered until doctors decided to further investigate the numbness he felt after the stinger.
If an athlete does not stop participating in contact sports after being diagnosed with the condition, severe medical trauma could occur, including either transient or permanent quadriplegia. There are differing medical studies as to whether an athlete with cervical stenosis is indeed at higher risk for permanent brain injury.
“I will never, ever put him out there in harm’s way. We’ve got a medical staff that looks at everything. We send the things all over the country to specialists,” McElwain said Saturday. “Life’s too short, man. I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to do it to a young guy.”
Johnson was a favorite of offensive line coach Mike Summers. The two had an extremely close relationship and were not shy about expressing their affection for each other.
“The relationship I got with coach summers is priceless,” Johnson wrote on Jan. 6.
Said Summers one week later: “Rod Johnson is just an absolute pleasure to be around, a kid that you just love to put your arm around and watch him grow. He’s like a plant that you put water on and you just see him start to develop. He’s got such passion to be a great football player. I was so encouraged with what he was able to do this year.”
A three-star prospect out of Delray Beach, Florida, Johnson was an under-the-radar recruit that flashed in practice for Florida during his true freshman season, when the Gators were exceptionally deep on the offensive line and handed him a redshirt. He broke out during his redshirt freshman campaign in 2014 and was one of only a handful of players that were sure-fire starters for Florida entering 2015.
Instead, he is now the fourth Gators offensive lineman to be forced into retirement due to injury in the last two seasons, joining Octavius Jackson, Nolan Kelleher and Drew Sarvary. He will likely receive a medical hardship waiver to continue his education at Florida, if he so chooses.
In addition to this being a personal tragedy for Johnson, the loss of his significant talent also leaves yet another hole in the Gators’ already-porous offensive line. Florida now has just six scholarship linemen returning from last season, one of which – redshirt senior Trip Thurman – also missed spring practice due to injury. The Gators will add six true freshman offensive linemen in the summer, including five-star tackle Martez Ivey.
Nobody does it better pic.twitter.com/3fZd9vhfnI
— Rod Johnson(@Almighty_rod55) April 14, 2015
Awful news bout @Almighty_rod55 always an awesome teamate showed nothing but passion Best wishes to you Rod Know this will make you stronger
— Jeff Driskel (@jeffdriskel) April 14, 2015