Some first impressions last longer than others. Countless introductions are forgettable, for it’s hard to dazzle at first glance.
Even nearly two decades later, Johnny Tusa has no problem recalling his first impression of Derrick Johnson.
Tusa first laid eyes on Johnson back in the fall of 1997. Then the head football coach at Waco High, Tusa spotted a tall freshman who was rail-thin but broad-shouldered, the kind of adaptable frame that could be potentially imposing after some time in the weight room. But it wasn’t until Tusa saw Johnson run that he was certain the kid could be special.
“He was tall and lanky, maybe 175 to 180 pounds at the time,” said Tusa, now the athletic director for Waco ISD. “But the thing you really couldn’t help but notice was the unbelievable instincts he had. Hoo-boy, he was fast. When Derrick wanted to get from point A to point B, it was sudden.”
The Waco High coaches installed DJ as a starter at outside linebacker his sophomore year, then cut him loose and delighted in watching him go. Quite rapidly, a dynamic football career commenced. Johnson would twice be named a Parade All-American for the Lions before moving on to equally dynamic careers for the University of Texas and the Kansas City Chiefs, his current team.
Next Saturday he’ll be honored for his launching pad days at Waco High, as he and seven other men are inducted into the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame.
“It’s very exciting. In the state of Texas, just playing high school football is a really big honor,” Johnson said. “So to be inducted into the Hall of Fame is a truly prestigious honor. It’s brought back a lot of memories.”
It’s no wonder Johnson turned out to be swift and agile as he did, considering he spent much of his youth chasing Dwight, his older brother of six years. Dwight Johnson set his own standard of excellence at Waco High before moving on to Baylor and the NFL. He inspired young Derrick greatly, who couldn’t wait to grow up and strap on that red helmet with the white lion emblazoned on the side, just like his cool big brother Dwight.
“My brother had a big influence on me,” Derrick Johnson said. “When I was playing pee wee football, we’d play on Saturday mornings, but the night before was devoted to those Friday night lights. Watching him play, I could understand what a privilege it was to play high school football. He showed a lot of toughness on and off the field, gave me a good example to follow.”
Johnson said he also mimicked the actions of another talented Waco High linebacker, LaMarcus McDonald. But Johnson also had instincts that couldn’t be coached. If a running back ever started heading east and west instead of darting in a northerly direction, forget about it. For Johnson, that was like giving a hungry lion a T-bone.
The legendary game where DJ put his field-covering ability on full display came against Tyler John Tyler in the 2000 Class 5A playoffs. John Tyler stubbornly tried to find a gap that Johnson couldn’t close, but to no avail. He made plays all over the field. By the end of the game, he had racked up 30 tackles and forced four fumbles.
“First of all, John Tyler ran like 50 times a game, so that was part of it,” Johnson said. “They came from a hard-nosed East Texas district, and that’s what they did, they ran it downhill and hammered it right at you. They’d try that power sweep, and I had a pretty good read on them. Going sideline to sideline, that was my thing.”
Still, 30 tackles? Even for a very good player, that may be a month’s worth.
“I knew I had a bunch, but I didn’t know how many I had,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t until the next day when I came into the fieldhouse, and Coach Tusa said, ‘Hey, Derrick, how many tackles do you think you had?’ I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, about 22.’ When he said 30, I was really surprised. Funny thing is, I had 23 tackles the week before, so I ended up with more than 50 tackles in two weeks.”
In addition to his superior playmaking ability, Johnson demonstrated leadership qualities from his first varsity season forward, Tusa said.
“He’s always been a humble, quiet individual, and he still is to this day,” Tusa said. “He’s a great player, but nothing about him is flashy. He doesn’t try to draw attention to himself. That’s just refreshing in this day and time when there is so much narcissism. Derrick epitomizes what a player is supposed to be, which is a great teammate.”
After a senior season in which he racked up 170 tackles, six sacks, two interceptions and five forced fumbles, Johnson signed with Mack Brown and Texas. He single-handedly throttled offensive coordinators’ game plans for four years, winning the Butkus and Nagurski awards as a senior in 2004.
The Chiefs took DJ with the 15th overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft, and they haven’t regretted the selection. He started every game as a rookie, and has only gotten progressively better in the years since, making three straight Pro Bowl trips from 2011-13.
Johnson missed all of last season with an Achilles injury, the first major injury of his life. But at age 32, he still believes he has several good years ahead of him.
“We were talking on the phone recently and DJ told me, ‘Coach, for the first time I’m going to head into camp without all the bumps and bruises from the previous year,’ ” Tusa said.
“I’m not old for society, but I’m one of the oldest on the team,” Johnson said. “I’ve done a lot of things and I’ve got some war wounds, but the injury is cleared up and I feel fresher than ever.”
Johnson uses his platform as an NFL player to help kids, which he called “my passion.” His Defend the Dream Foundation was designed to provide inner-city and at-risk children with the resources they need to pursue their academic dreams. Johnson’s mother is a teacher, so he was taught the importance of education from a young age.
Johnson also believes in the educational power of football. It’s a game that humbles and challenges almost on a daily basis, he said. But the linebacker contends that the reward is worth the cost.
“This game always came very natural to me,” he said. “It’s something I wouldn’t give up for the world. When you get out there and just breathe that fresh air, you smell the grass, you hear the pads cracking, I still love it to this day.
“It’s a kids’ game. Even as we grow older and older I still remember that it’s a kids’ game, and that it all started in Waco, Texas.”