Two quarters into the start of his 10th NFL season, Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson was writhing in agony on the field, clutching at a torn Achilles tendon as his teammates looked on, helpless and despondent.
The Chiefs lost that game to the Tennessee Titans 26-10, and they were without one of their greatest assets the rest of the season.
But after nearly a year away from the game, Johnson now appears to be totally healthy.
Johnson, 6 feet 3 and 242 pounds, reported to training camp Friday with a flat screen in tow as well as some extra bedding to soften the rigid, unforgiving bunks in the Scanlon Hall dorm rooms at Missouri Western College.
“It feels great (to be back),” Johnson said. “Your body is your moneymaker, so whenever you can have that back, be back with the guys, that’s the exciting part.
“Football is not perfect, regardless. But to be out of it like I was last year and to actually have this training camp to get back to form before that first game, it’s going to be big for me.”
Yet Johnson knows that as Chiefs fans descend on St. Joseph on Saturday to catch their first glimpse of a team many believe can contend for the AFC West Division title, there will undoubtedly be questions.
“It’s one of those things where coming off an injury, everybody wants to see, ‘Has he lost a step? Is he back to normal? Is he back to form?’” Johnson said.
He unequivocally answered the question “Are you back?” before Chiefs fans even got a chance to ask it.
“Oh yeah. No question. No question,” Johnson said. “And I’ll make sure I show that as soon as I step on the field.”
That news is heartening for a team that watched its run defense crumble on several occasions last season.
The Chiefs lost seven games in 2014, allowing at least 140 yards on the ground in five of them. Most notably, the Chiefs allowed the then-winless Oakland Raiders to rush for 179 yards on 6 yards per carry in a week 12 loss that led to the end of the Chiefs’ playoff aspirations.
Now, with the return of Johnson and lineman Mike DeVito from an Achilles tendon tear and strong safety Eric Berry from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the prospects of cultivating a run-stuffing defense are looking up. But Johnson is still advising that fans should proceed with caution where their immediate expectations are concerned.
“I’m not the savior that’s going to save everything from what went on last year with the running game,” Johnson explained. “But am I going to help?
Johnson’s aid won’t just solidify a sometimes porous defensive front, but will also help boost his own career beyond a significant milestone.
When he went down last season, Johnson was only 15 tackles shy of 1,000 — a number that coincidentally will also slot him as the Chiefs all-time tackling leader ahead of Gary Spani, who had 999 during 1978-86.
Johnson acknowledged that eclipsing the four-digit mark will emblazon his career with a stamp of greatness afforded only a handful of defenders in the history of the game, adding that the number absolutely means something to him personally.
But more than any prospective personal glories, he’s just happy to be getting back on the field. Back to what he loves. Back to the business of NFL football.
“I’m excited, man. You get something taken away from you, and you can get it back?
“I’m going to take advantage of it.”