Johnson proves his worth to Chiefs

Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson celebrates after returning an interception for a touchdown last month against the Jaguars at Arrowhead Stadium.

Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson celebrates after returning an interception for a touchdown last month against the Jaguars at Arrowhead Stadium. Photo by The Associated Press.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — His quiet, humble spirit has helped make Derrick Johnson a rich man.

Instead of seething when Kansas City coach Todd Haley benched him last year, Johnson hunkered down and worked hard. He worked harder than he’d ever worked in his life.

Going all the way back to the playgrounds of Waco, the former star linebacker at Texas could not remember a time when he was not only a starter, but also just about the best player on his team. Now the Chiefs were using him only in certain situations and seemed to be saying this new coaching staff did not see him as a player they wanted to build around.

Faced with such humiliation for the first time in what had always been a charmed life, a lot of athletes would rebel. Johnson, after all, had been the national defensive player of the year when the Chiefs drafted him in the first round out of Texas in 2005.

But heeding lessons he learned growing up in a stern but loving home, Johnson kept his mouth shut. He tried to keep a good attitude. He never complained, never grumbled.

Now he leads the Chiefs with 79 tackles and the ink is drying on a five-year contract extension that could be worth as much as $34 million. Once again, he’s a star player on a winning team.

Instead of saying, “Hi, mom,” when cameras catch him on the sideline, Johnson would probably say, “Thanks, mom!”

“She taught me to stay humble. Believe in God. Know that something good will happen if you just keep working hard. It paid off for me,” Johnson said Wednesday with a big smile.

A sixth-grade math teacher, Beverly Johnson was not a mom to be trifled with.

“She instilled a lot of education and a lot of discipline,” said Johnson. “She was really strict on me when I was a kid. I got to know right from wrong. She’s a big part of why my character is strong now.”

For Haley and what he calls his “transitioning” football team, Johnson brings a bonus, something besides outstanding plays, such as tying an NFL record last year by returning two interceptions for touchdowns against Denver.

He is also living proof of what can happen when a player buys what the Chiefs are selling. Work hard, hang tough, accept discipline and the opportunities on this team are limitless.

It’s something Haley steps gingerly around.

“As we go through this process, there are going to be guys, that it becomes clear to us that are the right kinds of guys,” Haley said. “And at the same time, it becomes clear to players that maybe, ‘This is where I want to be. This is the way I want to do things, and I want to be a part of this.’”

Haley never indicated why Johnson was not starting.

“All I saw was a player that pushed his chips in and made it clear he wanted to be part of this and wasn’t going to be denied,” he said. “The more guys you have like that who are doing that, who are willing to push them all in and say, ‘Let’s do this,’ the better chance you have. And we’re getting more and more, and that’s a real good thing for the Kansas City Chiefs.”

Johnson acknowledges he had to work to fend off despair during his long season of 2009.

“I didn’t have it all planned out how it was gong to happen. I left that up to God,” he said. “But at the same time, I knew that it was in my best interest to just keep working. Stay humble. Doing the right thing is going to pay off, sooner or later.”

He also decided pride, a great motivator in the right situation, can also be a problem.

“In this league, your pride’s got to go out the window. I’d be the first to say that. Everybody’s good in this league and just because you’re not out there, the train keeps rolling. You’ve got to either jump on board or get off. And I jumped on.”

His teammates are glad.

“With Derrick playing the way he’s playing, it’s going to be hard to score points against us,” said cornerback Brandon Flowers. “He’s the playmaker of this defense, running game and passing game. He’s our ‘X’ factor. He’s the one defensive coordinators have to prepare for.”

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