View Full Version : Thompson: DJ - A hint of greatness

08-14-2005, 03:58 AM

A hint of greatness
Chiefs aren’t shy about comparing Johnson to another famous Derrick

The Kansas City Star

RIVER FALLS, Wis. — Dick Vermeil couldn’t help himself. As the team finished an afternoon practice last week, he took some time to chat with two former Chiefs players. Soon, the conversation meandered its way to everyone’s favorite training camp topic: Derrick Johnson.

Vermeil looked at these guys, who both played with another linebacker named Derrick, and his eyes lit up. You’d have thought they’d given him a case of Opus One.

“You should have seen the play he made this morning,” Vermeil gushed. “You see flashes.”

All of River Falls realizes that Johnson, the Chiefs’ first-round draft pick, has left the team downright giddy. It’s the worst-kept secret in the NFL; they’ve glimpsed enough in two weeks to know that DJ, as his friends call him, could be the best defensive player in Kansas City since No. 58. His potential is limitless. Vermeil proclaimed him the greatest natural defensive talent he’d ever been around. You half expected the head coach to kiss him.

“This guy is gonna be a real player,” he said. “I don’t know how long it’s gonna take him, but I think he’ll be a contender for the defensive rookie of the year.”

He grinned.

“Other than that,” he said, “I’m putting no pressure on him.”

At the center of all this attention is a quiet Johnson, whose wicked sense of humor is on hold until he proves himself to his new teammates. He’s trying to fly under the radar, but it isn’t working. It only took a few practices for the fans to realize what the coaches have known all along. The fellow with the Superman tattoo on his arm can play.

“I had a lot of people say, ‘Oh, man, you’re gonna get the defensive rookie of the year,’ ” Johnson said. “A lot of words like that. Some of them told me, ‘Don’t feel any pressure, but you’re gonna be the best linebacker.’ When people tell you that, it’s gonna stick a little bit. Hopefully, you can take it out on the field and do that.”

The hype train stretches all the way to his hometown of Waco, Texas. Beverly Johnson can’t go anywhere without hearing the latest account of her son. Even for a football family — older brother Dwight and cousin Bert Emanuel have played in the NFL — this is something special.

“Everybody I bump into is saying great things about him,” she said. “Even at church. They held me after church for more than an hour talking about Derrick. I feel so good sometimes I just break out crying.”

Sometimes, she catches herself looking at him, trying to figure out how he grew from a skinny mama’s boy into the man he is today. He was always the small one, running with his older brothers. Derrick was their toy. When he was around 2, they’d take him around the neighborhood, setting up bouts with other toddlers.

“It was like ‘Friday Night Fights’,” said Dwight Johnson, an erstwhile NFL defensive tackle. “It was real cool.”

Cool until they got home and Derrick had scratches on his little face.

“What happened to my baby?” Beverly would ask, staring down her older sons.

“He just fell down,” they’d say, trying to keep a poker face.

“We’d make up all these excuses,” Dwight said, still giggling at the memory.

His now-famous coordination showed itself early. At 4 1/2 , Derrick climbed on a bike and just starting riding. No training wheels or anything. He could do skateboard tricks almost as young. The energy was there, too. Poor Dwight was charged with baby-sitting his rambunctious younger brother during church, while mama sang in the choir.

Derrick couldn’t sit still. He’d be crawling under the pews, trying to escape. Dwight remembers 4-year-old Derrick smacking him in the face once. When Dwight retaliated, the entire church turned and stared. Dwight locked eyes with Beverly, who set her jaw, pointed her fist and mouthed the words, “I’m gonna whup y’all when I get home.”

“I would look at Dwight at the back of the church and grit my teeth,” she said. “He knew I would get him and not Derrick. He would get so frustrated at Derrick getting so mischievous in church.”

Even with the toughening, Derrick didn’t like football. He’d cry before going to practice. When he was 9, the story goes, he begged her to let him stay home.

“Stop acting like a little girl,” Mom told him. “You’re going.”

It paid off.

Derrick flourished and, by the time he got to high school, his body ballooned. He grew in spurts, filling out his skinny frame with muscles. His brothers harped on his ankle tackling and Johnson developed into a punishing hitter. His skill set slowly caught up with his gift.

His senior year, he even played nickelback sometimes, keeping up with speedy wide receivers. For the first time, he realized he was faster than everyone else. Coaches realized it, too.

They wanted this bundle of potential. Oklahoma assistant Brent Venables called him 30 minutes before the Sooners’ 2001 national championship game. In the end, Mack Brown won the sweepstakes. Derrick Johnson was headed to Austin. It was there the hype began.

His highlight reels became the stuff of legend, his feats growing more superhuman with each retelling. Though he was solid on every play, his reputation was built on those few flashes. It became a ritual on the sprawling campus: Did you see what Derrick Johnson did Saturday? Old men shook their heads. Grizzled coaches couldn’t help but make impossible predictions.

They saw him run down Oklahoma quarterback Jason White in last year’s Red River Shootout, punching the ball loose. The move became known as the “DJ.”

“On that one,” they’d remind each other, “you’ve got to use the DJ.”

Or the time he ran down Oklahoma State running back Vernand Morency, a former track star. Morency caught the Longhorns’ defense napping and took off down the sideline. Johnson turned on the jets, drawing even at the 1-yard line. He didn’t save the touchdown, but he still left his teammates and coaches slack-jawed. Linebackers don’t run down sprinters. The legend grew.

When they saw his highlight tapes, NFL folks went nuts. In Kansas City, the athleticism reminded them of someone they used to know. Comparisons began. Some of it was just wishful thinking; the city has never truly gotten over the loss of Derrick Thomas. His number, all these years later, is still spray-painted on an overpass by Arrowhead. Some of it, though, was based in truth. The tools are there. The raw material is waiting.

“He knows he can be just as great a player as Derrick Thomas,” Dwight Johnson said.

His first two weeks of camp — a mix of ridiculous plays and rookie errors — have also taught Johnson a lesson about potential. He’s heard the DT talk, and, frankly, it flatters him. But he knows that the roadsides are littered with might-have-beens and sure bets fallen short. The people who’ve seen the real thing make sure to remind their young phenom that athleticism isn’t enough.

“I realize the work and time he put in,” Johnson said. “You saw him on Sunday and you think, ‘He’s gifted, he’s talented, he goes out and does whatever he wants.’ No. He put a lot of work into what he did, and a lot of guys told me that.”

Sitting at a lunch table last week, Johnson was reserved. He talked softly, feeling out his new surroundings. He took neat bites of a sandwich, measured and low-key. Let other people call him the savior. He’s listening instead of making noise, except, of course, for his warbling rendition of the Texas fight song during dinner his first night in camp.

“He’s pretty quiet,” Jared Allen said. “He didn’t say much when he first got here. He didn’t come in all cocky.”

At Texas, Johnson was the life of the party. He was the one who put rubber snakes in lockers, who knocked on teammates’ doors late at night wearing a Freddy mask. Once he makes some plays, proves that he’s worth all this attention, then he can show his true colors.

“You have to get to know him, and you’ll find out different,” Beverly Johnson said. “Everybody thinks he’s quiet and shy. He’s not.”

They still talk about his prized prank in Austin. He procured a writing pen that gave the user a little electric shock. After a media session, he went around the room to reporters, asking them to sign a book. Said he was keeping a record of every person who attended. Sure enough, they all got the jolt. Derrick loved it. The boy who rolled on the floor at church never grew up.

If the public got to see his goofy side, he saved a more serious part of himself for a group of Austin elementary school students. Few people know that he spent his Mondays working with three kids who had trouble reading.

One was a special case. Derrick asked to be assigned to the children who needed him the most. He wanted to help them reach their potential. This one kid had low self-esteem. He got picked on. He wasn’t athletic. He didn’t do his assignments.

“By the end of the semester,” said teacher Linda Anderson, “the kid was doing his homework, was one of most popular kids in class because Derrick Johnson was his mentor. A complete turnaround.”

She realized she was gushing, but, like the people who watch him on the field, she couldn’t help herself.

“He’s a great, great guy,” she said. “And a good football player.”

Each week, Derrick stuck around, letting kids surround him, taking pictures, playing catch. As he and Anderson navigated the hall one day, she turned and asked, “This has got to be driving you crazy. I can’t imagine living like this, being a constant center of attention.”

“Mrs. Anderson,” he said, “I know how fortunate I am.”

All this has brought him here. After a lifetime of preparation, he’s reached the biggest stage in football. It’s in the NFL that he’ll have to translate potential into stardom. During his brief contract holdout, the team worked to keep expectations low. General manager Carl Peterson even said he wasn’t convinced Johnson was a starter.

That lasted a total of two days.

Johnson walked into the linebacker meeting room his opening week of training camp and eyed the depth chart posted on the wall. He was running with the first team.

“It was like, OK, now I’m in that starting lineup,” he said.

During his initial practice as a first-teamer, his voicemail began to fill up. Friends and college teammates called and left messages. They’d heard the news and weren’t surprised.

He’s held his own but also learned that the NFL is a lot different from college. He used a poor technique on a pass rush, and veteran guard Brian Waters tossed him to the ground like dirty laundry.

“He just stood over me and looked at me,” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘OK, I can’t do that anymore.’ ”

The whispers have started here, too, as they did at Texas. This past week, Johnson ran 30 yards down the field with a wide receiver, sticking to him like a rock star’s pants. He found the ball in the air and made the interception.

Practice nearly stopped as everyone realized what had happened. Linebackers don’t keep up with wide receivers. Johnson has noticed the shocked look on teammates’ faces when they make their money move and realize he’s still attached.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, smiling, “if I’m running down a receiver or running back, you can actually see the receiver or the running back look back like, ‘OK, that was a linebacker that just ran after me.’ I think I have a lot of respect on this team.”

He does. He has coaches dreaming of the possibilities. Teammates, too. They’ve seen enough of his gift to know Derrick Johnson has all the tools to be a star. Fulfilling his promise is now up to him.

“He’s made some athletic plays, but, then again, he’s made some rookie mistakes,” Allen said. “He’ll learn, and I think he’s gonna be great. He’s athletic enough and fast enough to make a big impact.”

08-14-2005, 07:47 AM
Let's hope he lives up to the hype,
Doesn't get a big head and just learn and play the game.

08-14-2005, 07:56 AM
Great article.

J Diddy
08-14-2005, 08:14 AM
Anybody want to see him use that pen gag on Whitlock with a little more voltage?

J Diddy
08-14-2005, 08:15 AM
Stop acting like a little girl,” Mom told him. “You’re going.”

This is the best line of the whole article right here.

go bo
08-14-2005, 12:30 PM
this is a great read...


08-14-2005, 12:51 PM

Some of it was just wishful thinking; the city has never truly gotten over the loss of Derrick Thomas. His number, all these years later, is still spray-painted on an overpass by Arrowhead..”

Has anyone ever seen this before?

08-14-2005, 02:07 PM
This is the best line of the whole article right here.

Should we write a thank you letter to mom? :)

KC Jones
08-14-2005, 02:45 PM
Great read - Hopefully we will see something amazing this season, but if not hopefully DJ can be a centerpiece to build on as some of our offensive stars start retiring.

08-14-2005, 04:26 PM
DJ showed his speed against the VIKES and his ability to tackle. He looked very good. I can certainly see the reason for all the hype. I've seen him play a lot at UT so I wasn't surprised at all. He is the REAL deal. Now if we only had a few more...

Rain Man
08-14-2005, 05:20 PM
Right now, Fox executives are hashing out the final details of a new reality show called ToddlerFight.