Chiefs linebacker Frank Zombo was sitting in the cold tub the day after a recent game when he noticed a familiar face watching game film.
And the voice was unmistakable.
It was fallen teammate Derrick Johnson, who was lost for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon in the Chiefs’ season-opening loss to Tennessee.
Johnson, a former team MVP and three-time Pro Bowler who was within 15 tackles of a club-record 1,000 in his career at the time of his injury, was studying film and critiquing the play of fellow inside linebackers Josh Mauga, James-Michael Johnson and Joe Mays.
Johnson has been a daily fixture in the Chiefs’ locker room while recovering from surgery. When the team is on the practice field, Johnson undergoes arduous rehab in the training room and weight room with defensive end Mike DeVito, who also went on injured reserve after suffering an identical Achilles rupture eight defensive snaps after Johnson’s injury.
When the players return from the practice field, Johnson makes himself available to Mauga, who replaced him in the lineup, as well as other inside linebackers James-Michael Johnson, Mays and Zombo, who works at both inside and outside ’backer. Johnson is also a regular at Bible study with his teammates.
It’s Johnson’s way of contributing to the Chiefs’ 7-4 season that has them a half-game out of first place in the AFC West.
“He brings that leadership presence in the locker room that definitely helps you,” Zombo said. “Watching the things DJ does allows you to get a sense of how it’s done and how it’s done the right way. Josh Mauga and JMJ are playing great football right now, there’s no doubt about it, but no one could do it quite as well as DJ did it.”
The Chiefs would not allow Johnson, as an injured player, to be interviewed, but it’s easy to see the impact he is making even without making a tackle or breaking up a pass.
“He’s been great,” said Mauga, who not only replaced Johnson in the lineup but inherited his role as the club’s leading tackler. “I got to see him once in a while before, but now that he’s been able to walk around, he’s been here a lot.
“He’ll look at what we’re doing scheme-wise, and he’ll watch film and gives me tips: ‘How you want to play this route…’ ... ‘This is how you want to play this guy…’ It’s been helping me.”
In fact, after Mauga’s first start, in the Chiefs’ week two loss against Denver, it was Johnson who delivered a much-needed pick-me-up.
“Right after the Denver game, I didn’t feel good about how I played,” Mauga said, “and he helped me on how to make certain plays … my footwork has been a lot better.”
Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has appreciated the extra help.
“It’s great to have him back in the building because he’s one of our key guys in every regard,” Sutton said. “How he prepares … the two seasons I’ve been here, he’s done a great job physical and mentally getting ready. He had a great camp, he was ready to have a great season, and to have it shortened that quick, it’s the unfortunate part of it.
“But he’s a guy the players hold and have a high regard for and have a strong feeling what he’s going through. That’s a tough deal when you’ve been a player for as long as he has and have performed as well as he has and to have a season taken away that quickly. But to have him around the other backers has been great.”
The toughest part of all for Johnson, of course, is on Sundays. During home games, he and other injured players and practice-squad members sit in a suite they call “The IR Box.”
Mays spent the first half of the season on recallable injured reserve after suffering torn ligaments in his wrist, and watching games with Johnson was time well spent.
“He’s our leader,” Mays said. “He’s a the guy who everybody rallies around, and tries to give an effort for him, because he knows how to play the game of football and knows he can help us. I tried to pick his brain a little bit, trying to see what he sees, what he’s thinking, and try to match that with some of the things I see as well.
“Whenever he’s in the building or not in the building, you want to go out there and be Derrick Johnson. He plays football the way it’s meant to be played; he made a lot of plays, and that’s who we try to be when we go out there on the field.”
Johnson, the Chiefs’ first-round draft pick in 2005 and their elder statesman among position players, had missed just six games due to injury in his nine seasons. But coming back from an Achilles injury next year, when he’ll be 32 years old, will be a daunting task.
His teammates are betting Johnson will be as productive as ever.
“I’ve said it many times, he was probably one of the best football players I’ve ever seen play … and just a freak deal like that, to blow an Achilles …” Zombo said. “But he’s keeping a great attitude. He’s looking to be ready for the OTAs and is always talking about how he’s going to come back, and we’re going to race during the conditioning drills …”
Outside linebacker Tamba Hali, who is second in seniority to Johnson on the defense, lights up when he sees his locker mate.
“That’s one of my best buds,” Hali said. “For him being around, it’s always motivating, knowing he’s going to come back, and he’s putting an effort toward it. Some guys later in their career, when they’re done (for the season), they’re done.
“But his work ethic, his mindset, he loves the game. Guys who don’t put their heart into the game, when they go down, they kind of quit. They don’t want to do the rehab. That’s a lot of work to come back from … Not Derrick. You’re talking about one of the greatest ones to play for the Chiefs organization.”