The last time we saw Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson at Arrowhead Stadium was a wrenching spectacle:
He seemingly had spontaneously crumpled to the turf, untouched, in the 2014 season opener against Tennessee.
If it was a shock to see, nothing less than shock coursed through Johnson, whose face turned grim but stoic as he remembers feeling “just numb and quiet.”
“I wasn’t saying, ‘Aw, man,’ and just yelling or going crazy,” he said. “I just was like, ‘Wow, really, first game of the season?’ ”
Johnson instantly figured it was an Achilles tendon injury. But as he removed his helmet, on his back in agony waiting for medical attention, he could wiggle his foot. “Maybe that’s not it,” he thought.
But even preliminary tests on the field indicated that was his curse as they carted him away.
It was a ride that might well have been into the fading sunset for a then-31-year-old linebacker who hadn’t missed a football season since he began playing as a 9-year-old.
Johnson, after all, would have to cope with an injury that has the potential to be career-ending and almost always is career-diminishing.
According to research from Duke University released in 2010, only two-thirds of NFL players studied in a five-year period returned from the injury, and those who did saw “significant decreases” in games played and production.
That didn’t seem to bode well for Johnson or defensive end Mike DeVito, who only a few plays later freakishly suffered the same injury.
But Dr. David Chao, an orthopedist, former NFL team physician and now the author of “Monday Morning MD” observations on NFL injuries, notes that studies such as Duke’s don’t account for certain key data.
While the research is “necessary and good to have” as a framework, he said, it doesn’t always tell the whole story.
For instance, Chao says a third of players turn over on each team every season, anyway, and that any player who would miss a season for any injury would struggle to return.
In this particular case, the study reviewed 31 incidences of Achilles ruptures, which may or may not be statistically significant.
And what it can’t precisely measure is the unique individuality in each player, from how entrenched they were on a team to what position they played, to what time of season the injury happened.
It was a major advantage, for instance, for Johnson and DeVito to have it happen in the opener instead of late in the season.
“Each case is its own,” said Chao, who has not examined Johnson or DeVito and noted he was speaking in generalities.
Each case is especially its own when it comes to what’s in the hearts and minds of the players.
In Johnson’s case, he thought he might be done.
Sometime between when the shock lifted and reality jackhammered home, he remembers asking himself, “How am I going to come back from this?”
But he knew with certainty he wasn’t ready to retire, especially because of his belief that this Chiefs team has special days ahead and because of his passion to be part of it.
So Johnson, long the soul of the Chiefs’ defense and now 15 tackles from being the franchise’s career leader, simply determined that retreat was no option.
That explains a lot about why Johnson will return to the field at Arrowhead for the first time on Friday when the Chiefs play host to Seattle in their home exhibition opener.
Not that his desire made it an automatic or that there weren’t times he wondered if he could make it.
“But I was focused on the objective of getting back to form, not the obstacles that I had to get through,” he said. “And I’m back.”
It’s hard to know what percentage of “back” Johnson is just yet, but it’s potent enough that he started last week at Arizona and make a vintage tackle for loss from the Chiefs 1-yard-line on Arizona’s Andre Ellington.
And this in itself, like DeVito’s return, is a moment to appreciate.
To get here, Johnson had to learn infinite patience.
The process of recovery wasn’t going to be one of glorious breakthroughs and profound progress but one of tedious, arduous repetition and glimpses of improvement that sometimes were fleeting.
“It’s like, man, you want to take that big leap,” he said. “But you can’t.”
Instead, “any little bit of improvement” became his daily goal.
Sometimes he maybe found ways to convince himself he’d done so even when he hadn’t.
He learned to savor his slightest victories as he methodically moved from not being able to put weight on the tendon at all, to tentative movements, to jogging … and jogging … and jogging.
“You have a week in there, where you say, ‘Man, I’m still jogging the same,’ ” he said. “I’m thinking, ‘When am I going to get that explosive power back?’ ”
If Johnson did suffer natural lags in motivation, he had plenty of encouragement along the way. It helped to have a natural partner in rehabilitation, DeVito, who also took inspiration from Johnson.
Then there was the example of teammate Eric Berry, who in December was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma.
“It let me know how important life was. And how what I was going through wasn’t anything. It was nothing at all,” Johnson said. “When it comes to the big scheme of things of life, for him to go through that, I can surely go through an Achilles injury.
“That’s why I say he stands tall. Everybody looks at him and says, ‘I can do it’ — meaning whatever my situation is, I can do it.”
While Johnson feels he’s gotten through much of the healing of the body and has no sense of physical limitation, he knows there’s some healing of the mind left, too.
That means gaining more faith in his recovery and being able to play with the unconscious abandon he had before.
But it also means scraping away some rust in how he literally sees the game.
“To make plays, you have to trust your eyes. And being away from the game for a whole year … you’ve got to train your eyes back,” he said, in order to be able to anticipate and attack. “If you don’t train your eyes and be spot-on everything, you’re going to look slow out there … “
“We’re all blessed with ability to run fast and jump high. But the great players and the good players who make plays anticipate plays and train the eyes to jump routes or to know what’s coming before it hits you.
“Because if you don’t know, if you’re just reacting out there, you’ll be a step slow.”
Veteran that he is, Johnson wouldn’t normally make so much of preseason play.
This time, though, it’s a vital strand in helping him make his way back to the peak form he hopes to realize — a process he’s glad will continue at Arrowhead on Friday.
“Last time I was on that field,” he said, smiling, “I was on my butt.”
And on what might have been his last legs.