Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali have been teammates for a long time. Both are among the longest-tenured Chiefs, with Johnson arriving in 2005 and Hali in 2006.
So as soon as Johnson heard about Hali’s new deal with the Chiefs — a three-year, $22 million extension Hali signed on Tuesday — he couldn’t help but dial up Hali.
“I called him and I was like, ‘Man, congratulations, man’ — I was probably happier than he was,” said Johnson, who was also a pending free agent. “As soon as I said that, he said, ‘DJ, you’ve got to get it done, buddy. You got to. You can’t leave me.’ ”
He didn’t. On Wednesday, Johnson agreed to a three-year, $21 million pact to remain with the team that drafted him. Like the deal with Hali, Johnson’s contract likely ensures he will retire a Chief.
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“It was one of those old-friend moments,” Johnson said of Hali’s response. “And I told him, ‘Hey, whatever I have to do, we’ll work together to get this done.’ ”
Johnson said Hali was a little worried about that, just because it went down to the wire. Johnson actually hit the free-agent market — which opened at 3 p.m. Wednesday — for a few hours before re-upping with the Chiefs.
But in Johnson’s mind, he knew where he wanted to be all along. He didn’t really see his free-agency situation shaking out any other way, though he noted his agent did his due diligence and had discussions with other clubs.
“I don’t know if I started to worry because my whole career I’ve been a Chief — that’s all I know,” Johnson said. “Even though it came down to the wire, I always believed the Chiefs would get it done. I love Andy (Reid) and John Dorsey and what they believe in. This is my third deal with a different GM, and this has been the best one yet. It’s been great.”
In fact, Johnson said Dorsey assured him something would get done at the end of the season.
“He told me that at the end of the year that we were going to make it happen,” Johnson said. “So he was a man of his word.”
So was Johnson, who vowed to return to form following an Achilles’ injury that wrecked his 2014 season. He bounced back in a big way last season, recording 116 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions in 16 games, all while breaking Gary Spani’s club record for career tackles and making his fourth Pro Bowl.
But perhaps most indicative of Johnson’s positive presence is a team statistic. With Johnson — who was chosen one of the Chiefs’ two defensive team captains, along with emotional leader Eric Berry — back on the field, the Chiefs improved from 28th in rushing defense in 2014 to eighth last year.
Johnson, who turns 34 in November, is optimistic he’ll be able to continue his strong play this year and beyond. He’s lost a ton of weight since the beginning of his career, and counteracts the effects of aging by remaining light and spry.
While he played his first two years at about 252 pounds, Johnson said he played last season at 234 and felt great. He said his target weight for 2016 is 232.
“I mean, lighter is better for me,” Johnson said. “The older you get, the less weight you have to have, because it’s just how life is. When you get older, you’ve got to lose some weight.”
Now, Johnson is ready to focus on the Chiefs’ ultimate goal, which is bringing a Super Bowl to Kansas City for the first time since the 1969 season. Entering his 12th season in the league, Johnson believes the Chiefs, who went 11-5 and won a playoff game for the first time in 22 years in January, have never been closer.
“From what we’ve been building here since Andy’s been here, it’s clear as day that we’re close — we’re really close,” Johnson said. “You win a game here and win a game there, or make a play here, make a couple of plays here and there, and you’re in the Super Bowl. You have a chance to win it all.”
That is clearly the goal for the Chiefs, who made sure they kept those dreams alive by securing Johnson, who remains a good player on the field and good teammate off of it.
Several of his younger teammates speak with reverence about Johnson’s football smarts, and the number of teammates who called to congratulate him after news of his deal broke is an indication of the respect he commands.
“Man, a lot of teammates (reached out), a lot of teammates, and a lot of them are still texting me now, actually,” Johnson said. “From (Texas) Longhorn football, former teammates from college … of course, all the Chiefs guys were texting me, but they were happy.
“I’ve been a Chief for a while and they know how much I want to stay a Chief.”