LADERA RANCH – The modest office is filled with the sounds of timers going off, music playing softly, training equipment and therapy tables being used. On the wall is a picture of smiling football players.
Welcome to Johnny Stanton's new arena: a physical therapy office.
The senior quarterback from Santa Margarita High School has spent most of his free time in these past four months inside rooms like this one, putting in the gut-wrenching work needed to come back from a knee injury that ended his season and rocked a team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation at the time.
This room is far from the football fields and the cheering crowds and the teammates who like to call him "Johnny Tebow" because of the way he plays the game and how he carries himself. Now his "teammates" are physical therapists and there is no end zone.
But one thing hasn't changed: the determined look in Stanton's eyes, the look he displayed while leading the Eagles to CIF-Southern Section and state championships in 2011.
"I'm very ready to show people that I'm just as good as I used to be," Stanton said recently. "Even better."
It is just after 5 p.m. on a Monday, and Stanton is receiving a hamstring massage at M&M Physical Therapy, a family-run practice in Ladera Ranch.
To his right, a photograph of Santa Margarita's championship team two seasons ago adorns the wall. The cellphone in Stanton's hand features a bright, red Nebraska sticker, a reminder of where his future lies – playing football for the Cornhuskers. But for now, the massage signals the start of the fourth quarter of his latest 21/2-hour rehabilitation session.
"You're getting done early today, Johnny," jokes Pamela Monnahan, who runs the physical therapy business with her husband, Michael.
Stanton, 18, has racked up the hours in rehabilitation since his surgery Sept. 28 for a torn anterior cruciate ligament and torn meniscus. His surgery was performed by Laguna Woods-based Dr. Scott Graham.
Three times a week, Stanton, a Coto de Caza resident, heads directly to physical therapy after his school day ends at 2:05 p.m. Stanton forgoes the typical after-school diversions for most teens so that he can begin physical therapy at 2:30 p.m. His sessions grind to a conclusion between 6 and 6:30 p.m.
"He's very dedicated," Michael Monnahan said of Stanton. "He works harder than anyone in here ... and he's got school work (too)."
Stanton follows a regimented workout program designed by Michael Monnahan. Now in the fourth month of a six-month rehabilitation, Stanton's program takes him through a battery of exercises. He rides a stationary bike. He completes numerous stretches, lifts, shuffles and balancing exercises. There are strengthening and resistance drills.
The program schedule is printed out neatly for him and kept on a clipboard.
A day of rehab is followed by a day of rest. But then he returns to the office and goes through the entire list again.
"Sometimes it does feel really monotonous and sometimes I feel like, 'Why am I still doing this certain exercise?'" Stanton said. "But when we do a new exercise, I guess it's kind of exciting knowing that I have progressed to the point that I can do other stuff."
Jogging on the treadmill is currently the hardest exercise for Stanton. Light jogging was introduced to his recovery about a month ago, and as expected, his knee is sore from the pounding.
Stanton's commitment to rehabilitation is paying off.
"I think (Johnny) will come out of this very well," Michael Monnahan said. "He'll be ready to roll July, June, when he goes over to Nebraska. He should be 100 percent."
Stanton relaxes on the therapy table, looking fit in blue shorts and a black T-shirt from the Elite 11 quarterback camp.
When Stanton started his rehabilitation, his primary color was green. The first two weeks of his therapy were brutal exercises in pain tolerance. Stanton's knee was swollen as he grimaced his way through basic movements.
"He was as green as a ghost," Pamela Monnahan recalled of Stanton's complexion.
Stanton said he took pain medication after his surgery and eventually began to feel better.
"They always say the first two weeks are the hardest part," he said.
Stanton began his physical therapy just five days after his surgery. The aggressive approach to recovery is common for knee injuries today, Michael Monnahan said.
"Rehab has changed and orthopedics has changed over the years to where we start getting more aggressive a little bit sooner," he said. "Twenty years ago or so, they were still doing some casting."
Stanton's recovery continues on the days he is not at physical therapy. He is training three days a week with former Cincinnati Bengals and Mission Viejo High quarterback Jordan Palmer, brother of Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer. Stanton wears a knee brace during his throwing sessions, but he has progressed enough to go paddleboarding with Palmer in Dana Point.
Palmer has heard the "Johnny Tebow" nickname. He believes the comparison is accurate, at least in terms of work ethic.
"He's off the charts in terms of how hard he works," Palmer said of Stanton. "I think he's going to come back better because he's never had to train this hard."
Stanton vividly remembers his reaction to the news that he had torn his ACL.
After Stanton's virtuoso performance in a 35-27 victory against St. Bonaventure of Ventura on Sept. 21, Graham delivered the results of an MRI the next day.
Buoyed by a strong support system at home and school, Stanton has remained positive in his recovery. He listened when Elite 11 coach Trent Dilfer encouraged him not to feel sorry for himself. He prayed with Palmer, whose brother overcame a career-threatening knee injury with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2006.
"I think Jordan helped me through a lot of it," Stanton said. "He told me to stay strong in myself, stay strong in my (Catholic) faith and take solace in my family because if things don't work out with my knee, they'll always be ones who support me."
Nebraska stuck with its scholarship offer to Stanton despite his injury. He committed to the Cornhuskers over the summer. Stanton is expected to sign with Nebraska on National Signing Day on Wednesday.
He knows some wonder what type of quarterback the Big Ten school will be receiving, but that only provides more motivation for Stanton.
"Once I get to Nebraska, the only thing that's ever going to be a sign that I had a hurt knee will be the scar on my knee and the brace around my leg," he said.
Stanton also will arrive in Nebraska with a newfound sense of appreciation. His injury provided him that.
"There's a new appreciation that I have for being able to play," he said. "This is the game that I love."
Yes, not everything has changed for Johnny Stanton.
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