Playing with purpose

Joppatowne's Derrick Johnson has become a force at linebacker this season, which the junior has dedicated to his late grandfather.


Derrick Johnson loved sitting and talking about football with his grandfather. Clifton Johnson knew the game well and explained its intricacies to Derrick when he was about 5, talks the Joppatowne junior remembers well.

When Derrick Johnson began playing recreation league football for the Edgewood-Joppatowne Steelers, Clifton Johnson often would be there to root him on. That's why the Mariners linebacker dedicated this season to his grandfather, who died last year.

Despite being only 5 feet 8, 185 pounds, Johnson has grown into a force in his first season starting at linebacker, helping the Mariners shut down most opponents en route to a 5-1 start as they try for a third straight trip to a state title game.

He began playing football, often with the Steelers recreation team, around the time his grandfather first started teaching him about the game.

"He said that no matter how bad you lose or how [much] you win by, always try your hardest and keep your head on your shoulders," Johnson said. "This year means a lot more [now], knowing that you're not only playing for your team and your coaches, but playing for somebody you loved."

Johnson plays with a high level of intensity. He's like a spinning top both on the field and the sideline, constantly yelling, screaming, barking and exhorting his teammates to do more and keep getting better.

"We're just trying to keep him in check," Joppatowne coach Bill Waibel said, laughing. "He gets very excited."

That excitement was evident in Joppatowne's win over Fallston two weeks ago. On one play, Johnson blitzed Fallston quarterback Sean Kelly, coming in practically untouched and getting an easy sack. Johnson then jumped up screaming and banging his chest as he turned toward the Mariners bench. A loud cheer also went up from there.

The Mariners play a 4-4 scheme on defense with Johnson somewhere in the middle. Waibel and his coaches like to take advantage of Johnson's speed and quickness by blitzing him a lot.

"He brings a real desire to get to the ball," Joppatowne assistant head coach-defensive coordinator John Horgan said. "He's got a real passion for the game and gets very, very, very excited during the games. He is a very hardworking kid."

That passion for learning the game and hard work came out in a tough decision he made last year. Then a sophomore, Johnson could have stayed on the junior varsity and been a star player. But he had other ideas.

Johnson asked the coaches if he could come up to the varsity. They told him he wouldn't get nearly as much playing time, but Johnson was fine with that. He just saw it as a better way to learn the game.

"I wanted to get as much experience as I could," Johnson said. "If you practice with the big boys, you can become a big boy. I was trying to learn as much as I could."

Johnson played mostly on special teams, but he also spent time with players such as All-County pick Dashaun Lewis in practice, learning the linebacker position. In addition, he worked relentlessly in the weight room, something that Waibel noticed. Johnson can bench press about 305 pounds and is in there nearly every day.

Johnson tore a ligament in his right thumb just before halftime in last year's loss to Dunbar in the Class 1A state title game, but he kept right on playing.

"He's a kid that works very hard in the offseason, and he's very strong," Waibel said. "He's in good shape, and he really wants to get better and better."

Johnson also made an impression on North Harford coach Ken Brinkman, who was impressed with what he saw on film and in person.

"Even though he's not the biggest linebacker, his quickness and aggressiveness give him the ability to be in the right place at the right time," Brinkman said. "Every year, Joppatowne always has one or two linebackers that, no matter how you prepare for them, they know how to make plays. He fits that mold."

Johnson said he wasn't nervous before this season despite starting for the first time. He worked with the coaches over the summer and kept working out in the weight room, determined to reach his goal of playing college football.

He still has more to accomplish in high school, though. Johnson said he would love to help the Mariners keep winning and get back to the state title game.

And, most of all, he wants to make his grandfather proud. Johnson didn't hesitate when asked what his grandfather's feelings might be at this point.

"I think he's enjoying it now," Johnson said.

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