View Full Version : Chiefs Babb: The Chiefs’ Derrick Johnson learns to adjust to life without Dad

Tribal Warfare
06-14-2008, 10:04 PM

The Chiefs’ Derrick Johnson learns to adjust to life without Dad
The Kansas City Star

Derrick Johnson wedged his way through the crowd and stepped outside the noise. He was spending a Tuesday night last December with friends in a loud bar on the Country Club Plaza.

He hadn’t heard his phone when it rang an hour earlier. The voice mail didn’t make sense.

Johnson reached the sidewalk and called his eldest brother, Dwayne. Derrick Johnson’s index finger pushed his earpiece deeper, amplifying the sound over the street noise.

“Dwayne,” the Chiefs linebacker said. “Did I hear that message right?”

Their 60-year-old father, Wayne Johnson, had been in the hospital nearly two weeks. He had diabetes, and his weight had swollen to nearly 500 pounds. His heart had been strained, and weeks earlier, Wayne began saying his goodbyes.

Derrick had pretended his father’s problems weren’t serious. Wayne Johnson had saved a man’s life in Vietnam and had taught his three boys about strength and determination. He was Derrick’s dad, for God’s sake. He couldn’t be near death.

“Derrick,” Dwayne said. “He’s gone, man.”

Derrick’s mouth went dry, and his fingers felt cold. He leaned back and the wall caught him as cars hummed past. He was quiet for a long time.

A valet noticed Derrick and asked if he was OK. Derrick reached in his pocket, pulled out a wad of money and handed it over without looking at the money or the man.

He told the valet to get his car. He wasn’t going back inside.


“Are you a giant?” the skinny 8-year-old asked, unashamed and intent on an answer. “Or are you a human like me?”

The boulder of a man bounced the kid on his knee, pausing for effect while his youngest son waited. Wayne Johnson was a 6-foot-6, 300-pound man with an appetite for life and a beige Ford pickup that his three sons could hear coming from a mile out.

“Tell you what,” Wayne Johnson said, sitting with his sons in the back of that pickup. “Drink this soda water, and I’ll drink it, too. If I die, then I’m not human. If I don’t die, I guess I’m human like you. Deal?”

Derrick Johnson nodded and took a gulp alongside his dad. The soda went down, and both were quenched and smiling — and alive.

The Johnson boys — Wayne and his sons, Derrick, Dwight and Dwayne — laughed together, making that pickup bounce in the front yard of their house in Waco, Texas.

Derrick was six years younger than Dwight and seven younger than Dwayne. Derrick wanted attention, but more than anything, he wanted answers. He asked his dad about the world and its people, why some folks looked one way and others looked different.

Wayne would sit there for hours, answering the questions while the boys drank sodas out of a cooler and ate Jack N Jill doughnuts, and Derrick reloaded his inquisitive arsenal.

“He would ask Daddy all those crazy questions. ‘What’s this, Daddy?’ ‘What’s that, Daddy?’ ” Dwight says now. “Pop would answer all of them.”

Sometimes, the big man would tell stories that blurred the line between human and giant. Wayne was the biggest gunner in Turret 3 aboard the battleship New Jersey during his Navy days, he’d tell them. Went about 250 back then. He was a quiet man, and he chose his company carefully.

He’d sit up late at night, talking with his bunkmate, a 19-year-old from New Jersey named Andy Tobias while their ship docked somewhere off the coast of Vietnam. They’d talk about their previous lives as civilians, pushing back the lumps that crawled up their throats when they discussed their families, and laughing loud and hard about the good ol’ boys in Texas and the damn Yankees from Jersey.

Wayne was working late one night when he heard screaming on the lower deck. Somebody told Wayne that Tobias had been hurt; something about his leg being crushed between a conveyor belt and a 2,000-pound missile.

Wayne ran down and saw his buddy lying there; Tobias’ foot had been crushed, and his body was being fed slowly to a machine that shoots missiles. Dozens stood nearby, dazed and ready to give up on the seaman from Jersey. That’s when Wayne hurried over and lifted one of those one-ton shells off Tobias, freeing him after 30 grueling minutes.

“I wouldn’t have believed it, either,” the 59-year-old Tobias says now, “but I saw him do it. He picked that thing up off me. I owe him my life, without a doubt. Without him being there, I would’ve never gotten out of that thing. It was a miracle, the way I looked at it.”

Derrick and his brothers listened and tried to swallow their doughnuts. Soda water or not, were they sure their father was human?

“We were just like: That’s the man of steel,” Dwight Johnson says.

Only the man of steel could shake off a speeding bullet, right? Wayne did that, too.

It was 2003. Wayne gathered his nerve one night and told his fourth wife he wanted a divorce; their three-year marriage wasn’t working. The woman agreed and said she needed a minute to herself. She walked to her car, grabbed her purse and went inside. Wayne was sitting in a recliner when the woman pulled a .38-caliber pistol out of the purse and told her husband not to get up. Wayne stood anyway, and the woman fired; the bullet entered his stomach, traveled three inches below his heart and lodged near his spine. The woman went to prison for 11 years. Wayne was back at work within three weeks.

After the stories were finished, Wayne told his boys in that pickup that they needed to face everything with strength, look problems in the eye and not blink. “Stay gold,” he’d tell them, borrowing a line from a Stevie Wonder song. If they did, nothing would hurt them or block their paths to success.

The Johnson boys sat for hours as their father spoke, agreeing and nodding and laughing until the sun went down.

“Back then,” Derrick says now, “every day was good.”


Derrick kept getting bigger, but he was still Wayne’s little boy.

He had grown into a man and was an All-American at Texas in 2003 and 2004. He won the Bronko Nagurski award in 2004 as college football’s best defensive player. That same year, he was the Chiefs’ first-round pick.

Every time Derrick did something big, Wayne laughed and acted as if he’d never seen it coming.

“My daddy was always surprised,” Derrick says. “He would call me and say, ‘I saw you on TV. Man, my boy …’ I’d be like, ‘Dad, I’m pretty big now.’ ”

Derrick became a star about the time his father’s health started to deteriorate. Wayne battled diabetes, plunging insulin into his bloodstream in the morning and at night since 1993. But he controlled it.

Then, a decade later, his kidneys failed. He gained nearly 100 pounds, most of it fluid that had to be drained from his body a couple of times each month.

Wayne visited Derrick in Kansas City last October and stayed at his son’s home. Despite Wayne’s health problems, Derrick still looked at his father as invulnerable: a strong man who could overcome anything.

But when Wayne tried walking upstairs at Derrick’s home, he was slow and needed breaks every few steps.

It didn’t make sense.

“That was different for me,” Derrick says. “That’s when I knew something was wrong.”

A month later, Wayne was in the hospital. Derrick tried to focus on his third season with the Chiefs, but he admits now he was distracted.

Wayne slipped into a coma in November. Derrick flew to Waco and joined his brothers in Wayne’s hospital room. The next two weeks, he drifted in and out of consciousness.

The boys gathered around their father the way they used to in the bed of the old pickup, surrounding Wayne while he spread wisdom and jokes.

Derrick, as he always did, asked questions: Why were his feet so ashy? What do those kidney machines do? When was he getting out of the hospital? It was a way to calm his fears, the ones elicited after doctors confirmed that Wayne was just a man after all.

When Wayne was awake, he talked to his boys about the future. He talked, and his sons listened. It was what they had always done.

“Sometimes in life,” Derrick remembers his father telling them, “you never know what’s going to happen to you. You have to make sure, when you’re on this earth, have a lot of love in your heart and treat people right. Never get too big. Whatever you do, never get too big. God has a way of humbling you.”

Derrick couldn’t listen anymore. It felt as if his father was giving up, that he was trying to impart some final wisdom before he said goodbye — and Derrick didn’t like how that sounded. Besides, he had a game to play. The Chiefs were losing, and they needed all the help they could get.

Derrick stood and told his dad he’d see him soon. He walked toward the hospital room door. Wayne spoke and stopped his youngest son.

“Derrick,” Wayne said as his son reached for the door. “Stay gold.”


The valet opened the car door for Derrick on that cold December night, and the stunned 25-year-old got in. He would send a text message to his friends inside the bar, explaining the phone call he received from his brother.

The words echoed inside his mind: heart failure.

“He was doing better, you know?” he says now, his voice breaking as if more than six months melted away.

Derrick was silent on that car ride home; he didn’t break down, he says, until later. He left the Chiefs for a week and arrived in Waco for his father’s funeral. He sat there for days, surrounded by grief and by memories, and wondered what he should do next.

The Chiefs told him to take whatever time he needed. But he was on a plane to Denver, hours after his father’s funeral, to play in a Chiefs road game.

He walked into the locker room and went to work.

“I don’t think he said two words the whole game,” Chiefs linebacker Donnie Edwards said. “He just played.”

Derrick says he has since rededicated himself to football. The Chiefs need that from him. He is in the fourth year of a five-year contract, and he plays a position that might be the Chiefs’ weakest this year.

Derrick admitted last week he was exhausted after four weeks of offseason practices. But he says football prevents him from thinking about his father, and there’s relief in that.

“I can’t think of anything else when I’m out there,” he says.

The Chiefs need Derrick, and Derrick needs the Chiefs. Edwards, a 12-year veteran, says Derrick hasn’t yet matured as a player, but that needs to happen this year.

“I told him,” Edwards says, “you’re not young anymore, brother.”

Derrick says he is prepared to maximize his potential and be a leader — grab the team’s problems by the throat and take them on as his own.

Derrick thinks that’s what Wayne would have told him to do.

“He taught us how to be men,” says Dwayne Johnson, Derrick’s eldest brother. “And now, Derrick has to learn how to be a man without our daddy around.

“Daddy gave us a lifetime of wisdom. Now Derrick has got to take that and use it.”


Months after his father’s death, Derrick Johnson still can’t sleep sometimes. His thoughts keep him up.

A few nights a week, he lies in bed past midnight, scrolling through his cell phone contacts. He reaches the D’s — past Dwayne and Dwight, near Daphne, his sister. There it is: “Dad.” His home number is there, above the cell number. The number of Wayne’s shop — the one he spent hours in even near the end — is there, too.

Derrick stares at the name and phone number he can’t bring himself to erase.

“I won’t do it,” he says. “I don’t think I ever will.”

Derrick says the days and nights have gotten easier since his dad’s death.

He has learned to talk about it with his girlfriend and accept that, like all sons, his dad was grooming him all those years to do what Wayne did but do it better. He says he knows he has to move forward, become the man his father wanted him to be.

Derrick scrolls through the cell phone and stops at “Dad.”

“He always said something about, life is 10 percent what happens to you, 90 percent how you respond,” he says, still looking at the phone.

06-14-2008, 10:45 PM
Ugh.. great read. Got to me a little. I think everyone can probably relate in one way or another.

If I didn't know any better, I'd bet that was Posnasnki.

Hang in there, Derrick. Condolences.

Skip Towne
06-14-2008, 10:48 PM
Yep, very touching.

06-14-2008, 10:58 PM
Good read. Sucks for the dude.

06-14-2008, 11:04 PM
Great article!

06-14-2008, 11:24 PM
That was a great read,i wish the best for DJ and his family....... im really looking forward to watching him play this season to,im sure it will be his best yet

06-14-2008, 11:42 PM
good read, I lost my dad when I was 18. I know I'll see him again, just not yet.

Mr. Flopnuts
06-15-2008, 12:35 AM
This will be his best year as a pro. It sucks that such a tragedy is what inspired what will be.

Hammock Parties
06-15-2008, 12:38 AM
This will be his best year as a pro. It sucks that such a tragedy is what inspired what will be.

Everything happens for a reason.

I'm a firm believer that a lot of pro athletes who make it big did so because of their difficult upbringing. It's the universe's karmic way of rewarding them.

It all evens out in the end.

06-15-2008, 12:56 AM
Screw football... I just feel bad for a good guy who lost his dad.

06-15-2008, 01:12 AM
Tough read. At least he had a lot of quality time with his dad. Or, at least it sounds like it from the article.

06-15-2008, 01:40 AM
So is this finally his break out year? Or is the gonna be the same thing as every other year. I'm kind of interested to see what next years story is for why hes going to break out. Sorry if that comes off bad, I do feel bad for him.

06-15-2008, 03:56 AM
Man poor guy...
I do feel that this will be his breakout year, he'll do it for his dad.

06-15-2008, 06:34 AM
Ugh.. great read. Got to me a little. I think everyone can probably relate in one way or another.

No, actually, some of us can't relate to this.

Everything happens for a reason.

I'm a firm believer that a lot of pro athletes who make it big did so because of their difficult upbringing. It's the universe's karmic way of rewarding them.

It all evens out in the end.

Karma is a myth.

06-15-2008, 08:08 AM
Great article..just flat out inspiring. I hope when the Chiefs make the playoffs one day, during halftime they use this for a story..it'd be awesome on video!

06-15-2008, 09:21 AM
No, actually, some of us can't relate to this.

Well you're one lucky guy, I guess.

06-15-2008, 09:25 AM

Well you're one lucky guy, I guess.

No I'm not.

The lucky ones are the ones that can relate to this story.

06-15-2008, 09:29 AM
No I'm not.

The lucky ones are the ones that can relate to this story.Ah, I see. Sorry.

06-15-2008, 09:30 AM
Everything happens for a reason.

I'm a firm believer that a lot of pro athletes who make it big did so because of their difficult upbringing. It's the universe's karmic way of rewarding them.

It all evens out in the end.

Did you read the story? DJ had a great upbringing with his dad and has great memories from all of it. I'm happy for him and his family, but sorry for his recent loss. Your statement may be applicable to other athletes, but you seem to have posted on the wrong thread.

06-15-2008, 10:53 AM
Outstanding article... I really feel for the man.