Derrick Johnson’s right foot is in a boot, and of all the guys in this locker room to spend the day living the athlete’s nightmare, why did it have to be him?
He wears baggy red shorts with the Chiefs’ logo, crutching his way toward the door and an uncertain future. Football can be such a cruel game. The tear of an Achilles’ tendon happens in a blink, and it changes a career forever. Athletes know this. Johnson has spent a decade building a reputation as one of the NFL’s best linebackers.
Science, medicine, and a long history of this devastating injury say he will never again be the same player. He came into the season 19 tackles short of a thousand and the career franchise record. Johnson swings his body on those crutches, past the shaking heads. Nobody can be sure what kind of player he’ll be, or even if he’ll play again for the Chiefs.
“I love you, man,” Dustin Colquitt tells Johnson, his teammate for 10 years.
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The Chiefs lost much more than their season opener 26-10 against the Titans on Sunday. They saw the course of their season, and the career of one of the best players in franchise history, changed for the worse.
Johnson collapsed to the grass in the first half without anyone touching him. His face was stern, hiding any physical pain. He was taken off the field in a cart. Eight plays later, defensive end Mike DeVito suffered the same injury.
Other than a head or neck injury, a torn Achilles’ tendon might be the worst injury that can happen on a football field. The Achilles is the longest and strongest tendon in the human body, requiring up to 11 months of rehab. Full recoveries are nearly impossible. At least with an ACL tear, athletes typically return to full strength.
Research from Duke University indicates that more than one-third of NFL players who suffer ruptured Achilles’ never play again. All of the players who returned saw “significant decreases” in games played and production. That study was published four years ago, but the grim outlook remains.
“That’s absolutely still the case,” says Selene Parekh, an associate professor for orthopedic surgery and a co-author of the study. “Once you tear (the Achilles’), you’re just not the same.”
Surgeries have evolved, minimizing complications. Johnson and DeVito will require 2-inch incisions for a procedure that used to leave scars up to 10 inches. Also, Parekh’s research indicates that offensive players have a harder time recovering than defensive players.
If you want precedent, Ravens star Terrell Suggs returned just six months after a partial tear in his Achilles’. He’s come back as a star — 10 sacks last year — but not at the same level. If you want an estimate, Parekh guesses Johnson can expect “an 80 to 90 percent” recovery. He’ll turn 32 in November.
Johnson’s injury is devastating, and for so many reasons. Over and over after the game, teammate after teammate talked about “next man up” with all the conviction of someone trying to beat a polygraph. Sean Smith admitted that the energy in the second half dropped, and this is more a concession to human nature than any indictment of the Chiefs.
No matter your level of optimism or pessimism going into this season, no worst-case scenario for the 2014 Chiefs included Johnson suffering a season-ending injury early in the first game. By the time DeVito went down, the Chiefs were hopelessly behind in what felt way too much like an updated version of the start of the 2011 or even 2012 season.
Johnson is more than an All-Pro middle linebacker, though he certainly is that. Justin Houston might be more talented, and Eric Berry makes more money. But Johnson is something like the soul of the defense on a team that expected to get back to the playoffs based largely on its defense.
His career arc is a coach’s dream, a credible example for any struggling player. As recently as five years ago, Johnson was backing up Demorrio Williams on a 4-12 team. The next year, Romeo Crennel was hired as defensive coordinator, showing the Chiefs how a 3-4 defense is supposed to look and helping Johnson show the talent that made him a first-round pick in 2005.
Even through the Chiefs’ terrible seasons — and they’ve had too many terrible seasons in the last decade — Johnson has been a source of pride. Especially after Crennel took over the defense, Johnson combined prodigious physical gifts with an advanced football mind in becoming one of the NFL’s best linebackers.
Talk to league scouts, and you’ll often hear Johnson credited with helping players like Berry, Houston and Dontari Poe reach or approach stardom. Talk to people inside the Chiefs’ organization, and you’ll often hear Johnson credited with helping everyone through the tragic 2012 season, including the murder-suicide of Jovan Belcher, Johnson’s partner at inside linebacker for three years.
Johnson is playing for his third front office, fourth defensive coordinator and fifth head coach. He is one of the Chiefs’ great success stories over that time, a first-round pick who worked his way through a long list of struggles — many of which were put on him by circumstance and being let down by coaches — in large part by fully dedicating himself to the cause.
In that way, Johnson was more than a standout linebacker. He was a mascot for every coach asking for sacrifice, and every player deciding whether to give it.
There are a hundred ways the Chiefs stunk on Sunday, and a thousand ways the coaches must now try to keep those specific failures in the season opener from infecting the rest of the season. That was never going to be easy.
It will be much harder without Johnson. Neither team nor player will be the same.