Shortly before the Chiefs stretched for their first session of organized team activities Tuesday, Mike DeVito was determined to seek out the man in white, wearing No. 56.
It had been a long nine months of rehab for he and Derrick Johnson, two key veterans who each saw their 2014 seasons wiped out by Achilles’ injuries in a week-one loss to Tennessee.
So on this bright and sunny day — in which they were finally out of football purgatory and back on the field — they celebrated the occasion with a simple-but-enthusiastic high five.
“Every time we walk by each other, we’re giving each other high fives, man,” said Johnson, an inside linebacker who turns 33 in November. “It’s been a long road for us. We’ve been talking about this day since we got hurt.”
That much became clear as DeVito, a defensive end who turns 31 in June, earnestly recalled the moment on Wednesday.
“As soon as we got out here, I went right up to him, because we’ve been working so hard to get back to this point,” DeVito said. “We’ve been doing all the running and lifting, and all that’s stuff great.
“But to get out here, put the helmet on (in) real 11-on-11 drills, we’re kind back to the real stuff. So I went right up to him because I know hard he’s worked, and I know how much he’s helped me to get back up here.”
DeVito and Johnson have spoken repeatedly about how much they supported each other through rehab, with DeVito going as far to say he might have considered retirement were it not for Johnson.
“It reminded me of when I was back in high school — I was just so grateful for another opportunity to be out here,” DeVito said of his first day back. “I’m grateful to the organization giving me another chance — I think they could have very easily gone in a separate way. But they decided to bring me back and I’m going to make the most of every second out here because I know how fast it can be gone.”
Now both players are working to return to their old form. Without them, the Chiefs’ run defense dropped from 11th in 2013 to 28th last season. And while DeVito’s Pro Football Focus run defense grade of plus-16.4 in 2013 ranked fourth among 45 qualifying 3-4 defensive ends, Johnson’s run defense grade of plus-1.3 ranked 18th among 55 qualifying 3-4 inside linebackers.
Johnson is optimistic about his early performance during OTAs — he’s playing at a lighter weight, and even had a moment Tuesday where he felt like he was back to his old self.
“There was one time they threw the ball to (running back) Knile (Davis) out in the flat and I tracked him down pretty good — then the next play, Jamaal caught a ball on me so I went back down a little bit,” Johnson said with a laugh.
“But football is never perfect — that’s the best thing about it. It’s always going to humble you, even if you have a good play here and there. So I’ve got a lot of work to do, but I’m excited man.”
Johnson, in particular, is excited to sharpen his play recognition — a key trait — after missing a full season of football.
“It’s different being out all year, just checks here and there, better recognition of plays,” Johnson said. “But all this OTA stuff … it’s getting me there. As far as being explosive and running, I’m there. It’s just, I’ve got to get the mental part down again. It’s like riding a bike. I’ll get there. I’m very confident in myself.”
DeVito, meanwhile, says he’s putting a heavy emphasis on his conditioning — he wants to play at 305 pounds — and his technique leading into training camp.
“My weight’s good, speed’s good,” DeVito said. “I think right now, it’s all about the fundamentals. You want to try to make the most out of OTAs … I think sometimes, it’s easy to get into bad habits because you don’t have pads on. So it’s about doing the little things and building good habits going into training camp so you don’t have to deconstruct all the bad things you’ve learned. You want to start training camp off at a high level.”
And according to Johnson, you don’t have to worry about he and DeVito doing the latter, provided their bodies cooperate.
“As long as we stay healthy,” Johnson said, “we’ll do a lot for this team.”