Kansas City, Mo. This is precisely what Derrick Johnson envisioned when he first stepped into the Kansas City Chiefs locker room as a wide-eyed rookie coming off a record-setting career at Texas.
He expected to be a Pro Bowl player. He expected the Chiefs to win more than they lost. He expected to be the face of the team, the best player on the field, just as he’d been going back to his schoolboy days running around the worn and weathered fields of Waco.
How he got here, though — that was entirely unexpected.
Now in his ninth year in the league, Johnson recalls with absolute clarity and no sense of joy the feeling of riding the bench. It was only five years ago that former coach Todd Haley gave his starting job to Demorrio Williams, and never really let anybody in on the reasons why.
Least of all Johnson, whose only recourse was to redouble his efforts.
It wasn’t as if he was a bad player his first four seasons in the league, but he had failed to make the kind of impact expected of a guy chosen 15th overall in the draft. Johnson had become a solid player, but no star, and the Chiefs were in desperate need of a star.
“I learned a lot about myself,” Johnson told the Associated Press. “That whole experience, it made me a better player. A better person. I’m more mature now, and I’m a smarter player.”
Johnson owes much of his perseverance during those trying times to the values instilled in him by his mother, Beverly Johnson, a sixth-grade math teacher. She taught him humility, a sense of self, a strong work ethic and the kind of discipline it takes to be successful.
It was precisely those character traits that allowed him to not only win back his starting job, but flourish once he was in it. He returned two interceptions for TDs in the final game of that roller-coaster 2009 season, and he hasn’t missed a start since.
Even now, with Andy Reid his third coach in three years, he’s still the keystone on one of the NFL’s best defenses.
“You know what I like is his enthusiasm every day,” Reid said. “He’s been doing this a long time. Those guys that are kind of in his shoes there, that have survived a very tough position for a number of years, that can still come out and bring every day, you have to marvel at those guys.”
“They’re special,” Reid said, “and he falls into that category.”
People have started to take notice outside Kansas City, too.
Even on a defense that features imposing pass rushers such as Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, it is Johnson who opposing quarterbacks point out on every play. He’s the quarterback of the defense, the guy with the radio in his helmet responsible for making all the calls.
When the ball is snapped, he’s usually the guy blowing up an unsuspecting running back.
“His speed and range allows you to do a lot of different things,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “He’s got coverage ability, the blitz ability, and he’s a good run defender.”
Johnson already has 935 career tackles, which means it’s possible he’ll eclipse Gary Spani’s franchise record of 999 by the end of the season. He’s led the Chiefs in tackles with at least 100 in three straight seasons — ever since he got his starting job back — and is doing so again this year with 61 at the midway point.
He’s coming off perhaps his best game, too. He had nine tackles, forced a fumble and batted away two passes in a win over Cleveland last Sunday that moved the Chiefs to 8-0.
“We pride ourselves on playing defense,” Johnson said. “I just took my opportunities. I’ve been consistent this year, but that game was probably my best game.”
It’s not just on the field where Johnson has become the star. One of the most popular players on the team, he was voted their “Man of the Year” in 2012 for his contributions to the community. He’s the brains behind the Defend the Dream Foundation, which aims to help 30,000 low-income and inner-city youths by the end of 2015.
“He’s a great leader,” Chiefs defensive tackle Mike DeVito said, “and a guy you look back there, you want to play for, because you know he’s giving you everything he’s got.”