Derrick Johnson doesn't want you to think it was easy keeping quiet all those months. No, that was a challenge. Maybe the toughest play of his career.
But it was necessary. His daddy taught him something once: A man's life is 10 percent what happens to you, and the rest is how you handle it.
"Sometimes," Johnson says, "even if the situation doesn't look good, or even if it isn't going to change, you've got to look at it a certain way. You have to."
The story is well-traveled now: Last year, the Chiefs benched Johnson, a former first-round pick. And without much of an explanation, that's where he stayed for most of 2009. He didn't like it, and that was no secret.
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But when other players in similar predicaments complained publicly, Johnson kept quiet and looked toward brighter days. When some Chiefs demanded to be traded or asked to be released, Johnson analyzed his play and tried to discover what he could've done better.
Things would improve, he kept saying, and this season, they have. Johnson, a sixth-year linebacker, is in midseason Pro Bowl conversations and has the Chiefs at 5-3 with a vastly improved defense. And now he has a few more coins in his pocket, too.
This past week, Johnson signed a five-year contract extension worth as much as $34 million. The contract more than doubles Johnson's base salary and includes individual and team-based incentives.
The Chiefs are impressed with Johnson's play this season — he has 49 solo tackles, an interception and three forced fumbles — but more than that, they admired how he handled last season. He didn't complain, didn't sulk, didn't pout. And because of that as much as anything, Johnson has gone from a forgotten man to a foundation cornerstone in less than 12 months.
"I'm not going to say it was easy," he says. "Or just OK. No, it was hard at times. But sometimes, you've got to put your pride to the side. I knew it was going to be tough.
"I knew that, if you weather the storm, then something good will happen."
* * *
There he goes again. The little loudmouth is running around the grounds of the family's church in Waco, Texas, telling secrets and pointing out things that usually are best kept quiet.
There's a young girl standing outside. Derrick is maybe 10 years old, and he runs over to her. Does she know that his older brother, Dwight, has a crush on her? He runs off.
There's the minister, a lady who commands respect, sure, but there's enough hair on her upper lip that young Derrick is mesmerized. He has to tell her about it. Does she know that she has a mustache — and that all the other children laugh about it?
"He would always just blurt stuff out," Dwight Johnson says now. "He didn't care."
In those days, Derrick didn't always think about the consequences that words sometimes have. His father, Wayne, was a Navy man, and he had a way of helping his sons understand things.
"Derrick," Dwight Johnson remembers his father telling Derrick, "if you don't have nothing nice to say, don't say nothing at all."
It took time, but the lessons eventually sunk in. Derrick the talkative child turned into an introspective and quiet man. He learned that restraint is in order most times in life, but that abandon is required on the football field.
Now, Dwight Johnson says, the only time Derrick's family sees hints of that hyper and reckless youngster is when he's wearing pads. The adjustment in personality, and plenty of talent, helped take Johnson to the University of Texas and, later, the NFL.
One place reminded him of the other; Austin and Kansas City aren't so big that a small-town kid can get lost, but they're big enough to remind you that you're alive. Johnson grew to love Gates Bar-B-Q and the Country Club Plaza. He bought a house in Lee's Summit two years ago and told his family he was here to stay.
Then the 2009 season began, and Johnson was benched. The young loudmouth had grown into a reserved man, and even his eldest brother, Dwight, had to dig sometimes to learn how Derrick really felt.
Yes, he was discouraged. But Dwight says his brother never discussed leaving the Chiefs or expressed a desire to leave Kansas City. Even as the Chiefs lost a dozen games last season, Derrick stayed optimistic. After their father died in 2007, Dwight Johnson, who's six years older than Derrick, became the family's sounding board. Dwight played two seasons in the NFL himself, and during one of Derrick's lowest times last year, he and his brother had a long talk.
Derrick was confused and frustrated, but he remained optimistic. Dwight remembers what his brother said before they hung up.
"You know what?" Derrick said then. "It's going to be all right."
* * *
The season ended, and it was easy to forget about Derrick Johnson. He started three games and had 24 solo tackles and one sack. Other than the Chiefs' season finale in Denver last January, when Johnson returned two interceptions for touchdowns, there wasn't much to remember.
When it was over, the Chiefs realized that, in a year of chaos, distractions and disappointment, Johnson's perseverance and class were among the bright spots. The team saw Johnson as a player who was tested, and he never publicly criticized coaches' decisions or the organization's direction. Johnson says that was a sign of his character, and others seem to have noticed.
"Knowing Scott Pioli," NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt says of the Chiefs' general manager, "that went a long way."
Pioli and coach Todd Haley said early on that they were going to do things a certain way, like it or not. And part of last season was about the team finding out who was in and who was out. Outspoken critics of the plan, such as running back Larry Johnson and safety Bernard Pollard, were let go.
This season began, and the good soldiers had begun to show themselves. The Chiefs signed linebacker Andy Studebaker to a contract extension, and there was symbolism in that. Studebaker was the Chiefs' best special-teams player, and he appeared to believe in what the team was doing. Studebaker was rewarded, and premeditated or not, a message was sent.
Derrick Johnson was next. Brandt compares Johnson with Miami Dolphins linebacker Karlos Dansby, who signed a five-year contract before this season that will pay him about $8 million per year. If a player hits the open market, the price usually increases because of demand.
Johnson says he could have waited to become an unrestricted free agent after this season and perhaps demanded the same money as Dansby. Johnson could've sought more than the $5.5 million base salary the Chiefs will pay him as part of his new deal, but he wasn't willing to gamble. What if he's injured? What if a collective-bargaining agreement isn't reached before the 2011 season and there's a work stoppage? What if the Chiefs decided to let him go?
"You never know if you're going to get more or not," he says. "I just thought it was necessary to stay here and finish some unfinished business."
Besides, there were sweeteners added to Johnson's contract. He'll receive a guaranteed $8 million this season on top of his base salary, and a league source told The Star this week that there are incentives in the deal that could increase Johnson's yearly salary by about $1 million if he performs well and the team is successful.
A clause that rewards a player if he hits certain performances goals is fine, but when he hits those goals and the team wins a certain number of games or makes the playoffs, then both sides prevail.
Johnson says he had no problem agreeing to that.
"It's a team game," he says. "If I can help the team win, then we all win."
* * *
Perhaps it's fitting that the first game of the rest of Johnson's career is in Denver. It was there, after all, that the 2009 season no longer looked like a disappointment.
Johnson was, for that afternoon at Invesco Field, the star defender the Chiefs envisioned when they drafted him in 2005. And it was validation for Johnson.
See? he wanted to say. Remember what this looks like?
"I thought I was that player the whole year," he says now. "It came at the right time. A good night."
But, as he learned so many years ago, Johnson didn't say that. He kept quiet, and he began an offseason in which the stakes were higher. He says he kept believing that better days would come if he worked and maintained the optimism that pushed him through the disappointment of last year.
"He knew this was his year," Dwight Johnson says. "He had to make something happen."
A few days after the ink dried, Derrick Johnson smiles in the Chiefs locker room. He swings on a backpack and heads toward the exit. Yes, last year was frustrating. Agonizing sometimes. But just like he learned so many years ago, not all topics are worthwhile talking points.
"It was just tough overall, in general," he says. "Some days, I'd feel good; some days you don't. I'm human. Things happen when you just say, 'Man, you wish it didn't have to be like this.'
"I fought through it. I'm proud I'm on the other side."