Darryl Johnson shares a special bond with his college coach

The Bills defensive end gave his jersey to his former position coach

Sal Capaccio
November 20, 2019 - 8:16 pm
Courtney Coard

Photo: Courtney Coard

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Week 5. Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee. Fourth quarter.

The Buffalo Bills just scored a touchdown to take a 14-7 lead over the Tennessee Titans, who take over at their own 25-yard line and now need a touchdown to tie the game. There’s just 9:46 to play.  

Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota takes the snap, fakes a handoff, and rolls slightly to his right. At first, it appears he has room to survey the field, but Bills safety Dean Marlowe played his outside contain perfectly, making sure to force the quarterback back towards the middle of the defense.

Bills rookie defensive end Darryl Johnson had lined up in a four-point stance (both hands on the ground), just inside tight end MyCole Pruitt on the left side of the defense. At the snap of the ball, Pruitt stepped left and tried to get his head across the body of Johnson, who by now was off the ball and headed through the gap right between Pruitt and offensive tackle Jake Conklin. However, the 6' 2", 245-pound Pruitt was too slow getting to where he needed to be against the 6' 6", 253-pound Johnson, who pushed his way five yards into the backfield.  

Mariota pulled down the ball and tried to take off. Johnson, simply by feeling how Pruitt was trying to block him, knew to spin back the other way off the block because that’s where Mariota would be coming. Sure enough, the Titans quarterback ran right into the waiting arms of the rookie, who wrapped him by the waist and took him to the ground for his first-career NFL sack.

Back in Greensboro, North Carolina, Courtney Coard was listening intently to the entire play unfold on the radio. When it finally ended with Mariota laying on the ground, he yelled excitedly to anyone within earshot:

“D.J. got his first sack!”

He texted Johnson immediately to tell him congratulations.

For Johnson, the moment was a lifetime in the making. For the two of them, it was the culmination of three years of physical and emotional investment paying off. That’s why Johnson responded to the text with something that blew Coard away:

“I’m saving the jersey for you.”

The jersey Johnson was wearing when he got his first sack wasn’t going to get washed and worn again for the next game. It wasn’t getting put away somewhere for safe keeping. It was going to Coard, his former defensive line coach at North Carolina A&T University.

Just a few days later, Johnson did exactly that. Because the Bills were on their bye week and Johnson had a few days off, he took some of that time to go to Greensboro to see Coard back on campus. He handed Coard his blue No. 92 Bills jersey, complete with Johnson’s signature in the middle of the nine and the stains of the Nissan Field grass splattered throughout.

“That meant a lot to him,” Johnson said of Coard receiving the jersey. “The look on his face, you could just tell the way it kind of touched his heart a little bit. I was just happy to give it to him, and I told him thank you for everything he had done for me, for believing in me, and working with me every day and getting me better.”

Getting better every day is always the goal for Coard’s players. But from the moment he saw Johnson his red-shirt freshman year, he knew the Kingsland, Georgia native had the potential to be special. So the conversations about playing at the next level started much more early on than other talented players he’s been around.

“With most guys, it starts their junior or even senior year,” Coard told me when reached over the phone. 

He said that he and Johnson not only talked about it, but that the defensive end took it very seriously and immediately dedicated himself to getting to the NFL, while getting better for his own team. “He was the first one on the field and last one to leave every day,” Coard said. “He stayed after for film work. He worked on his weaknesses and acted like a pro from day one.”

Johnson trusted Coard when it came to football. They worked well together. But it didn’t take long for pupil and student to form an emotional bond that extended beyond the field, and it started when the head coach of the Aggies at the time, Rod Broadway, told Coard that if he really wanted to earn Johnson’s trust, he needed to open up to him about himself. Show his personal, and even vulnerable side. Coard did just that, and the two often talked about life just as much as they did about football. They still do.

“We talk about anything, on and off the field problems,” Johnson said. “He tells me his problems, I tell him my problems, and we just click. It’s something when you’ve got a coach like that.”

Coard said he learned a lot about Johnson. He learned what he liked and didn’t like. He learned that he loved to dance. He learned about things Johnson was going through that others wouldn’t even realize. Having someone there to talk to allowed Johnson to channel what Coard called his “contagious energy” onto the football field.  

On April 27, the Buffalo Bills selected Darryl Johnson during the seventh round of the 2019 NFL Draft with pick No. 225 overall. During the preseason, Johnson led the Bills with two sacks, was second with three quarterback hurries, and was one of three players to force a fumble. All of that helped him make the team’s final roster. Five games into his NFL career, he recorded his first career sack and blocked a field goal attempt in the same game.

Johnson’s been playing as a backup end on Buffalo’s defense all season. He’s played at least 25% of the the snaps in six games. Pretty impressive for a seventh round rookie from an FCS school. He’s currently the leader in special teams snaps for a 7-3 NFL team. At only 22-years-old, he’s just starting out on what has the potential to be a solid NFL future. But back in October, Johnson made sure to honor and thank the past that helped him get here.

He made sure he thanked Courtney Coard.

“He means a lot,” Johnson said. “He’s like a father figure to me.”


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