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Derrick Johnson interview: Chiefs LB talks about reaching out and being benched

The Pro Bowl linebacker talks about his upcoming charity event, Celebrity Waiter Night, and how he's playing his best football at this stage of his career.

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It's not often that an NFL player makes his first Pro Bowl at the age of 29. It's even more rare for that number to turn into three consecutive appearances. Then again, Derrick Johnson is not our average linebacker. 

Johnson will turn 32-years-old this season, but the Kansas City Chiefs inside linebacker shows no signs of slowing down. He's an elite tackler who continues to get better with age despite the physical toll that each NFL season takes on a player. The story is even more interesting given that DJ's turning point came as a result of being benched by then-head coach Todd Haley.

Johnson is also turning up his efforts off the field. He's currently focusing his offseason energy and efforts on his Defend the Dream foundation to provide educational opportunities for at-risk youth in the KC area.

The foundation's latest event is Celebrity Waiter Night, coming up on Monday, June 9th at the Grand Street Cafe in Lenexa. The second annual event brings together various Chiefs players to "trade their helmets for aprons" as they serve guests during a cocktail reception, dinner, and special event auction. You can buy tickets to the event here.  

We want to talk about Celebrity Waiter Night, but let's pan the camera back a bit first. When did you first decide to start a foundation and channel your energies into working with at-risk youth?

I just found myself taking a lot of pride in helping the younger generation go to school-Derrick Johnson

Early in college, you get the opportunity to do things in the community. In high school you get to do it a little bit, but in college they really put you out there. I just found myself taking a lot of pride in helping the younger generation go to school and doing different things for kids.

The kids in the inner city see us as professional football players now -- even in college they did. Their eyes light up. They get so excited. So I’m really taking a lot of pride in mentoring kids and in doing things like Celebrity Waiter Night, hosting different events to help them to get things like high school supplies and backpacks and age-appropriate books in the inner city for them to read. They need to get out of that situation and have more opportunities through education.

Education was important for you growing up as well, right?

My mom is a school teacher and has been one for 40-plus years now. She's a sixth grade math teacher, and she’s doing a lot to educate our kids. I remember growing up in the household, she definitely instilled a lot of education in me. She made sure my grades were right. I always made sure I handled my business at school first, and even though I was a great football player, education was applauded.

For kids in these low-budget homes, there are so many more opportunities for them if they get their education. Regardless of whether they are good at sports or not, in the inner city, if they have the education and make good grades and have a chance to go to college, they’ll make a better life for themselves. So I’m trying to put all my energy into helping kids with literacy and education.

How did you move from “I’m excited about this” to “I want to form my own foundation"?

It’s always been in a passion of mine since I first got to the NFL. I just changed the name and the outlook on my foundation to Defend the Dream a couple years ago, and it focuses more on the education part. Before this, my foundation was a little broader and more general. It was still doing good, but it was just focused on a lot of different areas I like to get my hands on. But I’m glad I found a passion that I want to focus on the most, and that’s the education part, because that had a big bearing on me, growing up in my household. My mom means a lot to me, and what I’ve seen her doing day in and day out, it made me want to help give back to the kids.

Where does the Celebrity Waiter Night idea come from?

I just wanted to make it fun for the community and the players at the same time. Sometimes, with events, players might say, “Aw man, we’ve got to go here or here,” but this event is going to be one where the players are lined up like, “Hey when is this event?” I know they’re going to have fun turning in their helmets for aprons and serving the community to helping raise money for the community, for literacy, and to raise money for the Defend the Dream Foundation.

Who are some of the guys who will be there?

Jamaal Charles, Eric Berry, Dontari Poe, Tamba Hali. There’ll be a whole host of guys.

Obviously we'd love to talk football, too. Looking at your career, you've hit your first three Pro Bowls in the last three years. Few enjoy such longevity in the NFL already, but it seems you're getting better each season, which obviously is a rare feat given the physical nature of the game. Do you feel that trajectory?

You know what, I think that’s accurate. I feel like the last four years have been my best years in the league. In 2009 I got benched for whatever reason. I had problems going on on the field. I was only playing 20 plays a game. I was just playing on nickel defense, so that was a big year for me to grow mentally and physically. That made me stronger, that 2009 season.

So from 2010 until now, my career has been my best. I’ve been a lot more independent. I haven’t missed any games. It’s been a blessing. The way my career has gone, the later years have been my better years, and that’s a good thing. I’m finishing strong.

What exactly happened with you and Coach Haley?

Not that I agreed with it, but it wasn’t one of those things where I was going to lash out or disrespect my mom, because she taught me to be humble all the time.-Derrick Johnson

Todd Haley was here and we had some disagreements. I got hurt a few times in training camp and early in the season, and I’d never been benched in my life before that, so that was a different situation. I didn’t see that coming at all, but this is the NFL. So when I came back from that first injury, I wasn’t starting the first game of the season. I only played nickel defense, and that played out through the whole year.

Not that I agreed with it, but it wasn’t one of those things where I was going to lash out or disrespect my mom, because she taught me to be humble all the time. That was a time to exercise that characteristic that she raised me with. It paid off later on.

Do you remember how hard it was to hold your tongue through all of that? It could have been quite a distraction.

It goes against everything I know about football, because on the football field I never sat on the bench. When you get a chance to sit on the bench and you’ve never done that before, it definitely humbles you. Looking back on it, it happened the way it happened. I don’t take anything for granted, but it just turned out good for me.

It could have turned out bad. I could have been in the media talking this, talking that, talking back or saying whatever was on my mind emotionally at the time. But that wasn’t the time to do that. It was a time to stay grounded and believe in my abilities, knowing that when I did get the opportunities I would need to take advantage of them, so that’s what I did.

Offseason lists are dime-a-dozen, but it's hard to ignore when five Chiefs defenders, including yourself, are listed on the Pro Football Focus Top 101 list. You've been around the league for several years now. Does this feel like an elite defense to you?

There’s a little bit of pressure in there, but it’s a positive pressure, knowing that everybody expects us to do pretty well because we have five or so Pro Bowlers on our defensive side. It’s a good thing to have great talent around you, knowing that when it’s time to make tough plays they’ll get it done, and that when there’s an opportunity for me to make a tough play then I need to do it too. But it’s a great feeling. I’ve gone through a lot of tough times here where nobody made the Pro Bowl on the whole team. But now we have 10 in the Pro Bowl. So it’s a good feeling.

The objective is not only to have great players, make the Pro Bowl, or make the Top 100, but we want to win a championship. That window is always small because you never know with business and the things that go on in the NFL every year, so we always strive to get that championship.

How much does that help to also have the same coaches in place?

Yeah, it's big time. We wanted to win the championship last year, but to actually have the same coaching staff again? I’ve been through, what, five head coaches here? So to actually have another year with a great head coach, it’s going to pay big dividends for us. It’s going to be a great season for us.

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