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Bills’ rookie Darryl Johnson uses work ethic to beat long odds

Every day at 4:30 a.m., Darryl Johnson Jr. knew it was time to get up. He didn’t need an alarm in the bedroom of his family’s home in Kingsland, Ga. His father, Darryl Johnson Sr., took care of that.

He’d roust his two sons out of bed and on their way to a workout that would last anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes. The ritual began when Darryl Jr., was 12 and his brother, Darvaughn, was nine. It involved running – with and without parachutes attached to their backs – as well as cone and ladder drills. Then it was off to school.

Darryl Sr. didn’t know if the investment of time and sweat would lead anywhere. He just wanted his kids to understand the importance of having a strong work ethic, the kind that gets him up every morning for those long, hard days of operating a crane at the Georgia Port Authority.

“I was always a guy that believed in work,” Darryl Sr. said. “So that’s what I was teaching them at a young age.”

“We talk about it now,” Darryl Johnson Jr. said with a smile. “I’m like, ‘Dad, you were crazy, that was crazy.’ But it got me here.”

Here was One Bills Drive. The 6-foot-6, 253-pound defensive end had just finished his first practice at rookie minicamp on Friday.

North Carolina A&T defensive end/outside linebacker Darryl Johnson Jr., shown here against Charlotte in 2017, was a seventh-round draft pick by the Bills. (Photo by Kevin L. Dorsey/N.C.A&T)

As a seventh-round draft pick, the first of the team’s two final choices last month, the former North Carolina A&T standout faces an enormous challenge to make enough of an impression over the next four months to land a roster spot. Logic would suggest that no more than five of the Bills’ eight draft picks are going to have the chance to make a contribution this year, and that the four taken in the first three rounds have a built-in advantage because of their draft status.

But Johnson isn’t conceding a thing.

“I just feel like I’m made to play in the NFL,” he said. “I feel my best football’s ahead of me. I’ve got a lot to work on and a lot to improve on. And, working with my coaches, they’re going to put me in the right spot to help.”

Needing to beef up their pass rush, the Bills made the defensive line a draft priority. They invested their first pick, ninth overall, in highly touted former University of Houston tackle Ed Oliver, who will fill the spot vacated by the retirement of Kyle Williams. Ends Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson are still around, but their futures beyond this season are uncertain. And although the Bills didn’t address the exterior of the line until the final round, and North Carolina A&T is a small school from which they had never drafted a player, there was some deep thinking behind the selection of Johnson.

The fact he entered the draft after his junior year, which isn’t typical for small-school players, didn’t faze the Bills’ player-personnel staff after seeing how productive he was the past two seasons. In 2018, Johnson was named Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year after finishing the season with a conference-best 10.5 sacks, 50 tackles, seven quarterback hits and a forced fumble. In 2017, he earned All-America honors from the American Football Coaches Association after generating 40 tackles, 6.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and recovering two fumbles.

Johnson played at 232 pounds last season. However, he bulked up to his current weight on the advice of his Georgia-based personal trainer, Chip Smith, and others with a feel for what would enhance his chances in the NFL.

“I’m 250 now and (Smith) was like, ‘You can get bigger,’ ” Johnson said. “And a lot of my coaches saying, ‘You can easily be 270-265.’ Whatever they need me to be, that’s what I’m willing to do.”

Such thinking was ingrained in Johnson for as long as he can remember. His father and mother, Marsha Johnson, had an inkling that Darryl Jr. was cut out for a contact sport from the time he was a baby and had a tendency to slam his toys and other items on the ground. It earned him the nickname “Bam,” as in “Bamm-Bamm Rubble,” the ultra-powerful baby from Flintstones fame.

The early morning workouts he and his younger brother, who eventually chose to give up sports, did become a bit more sophisticated through the years. When Darryl Jr. was 15, the family moved an hour north to Savannah. Darryl Sr. began taking his sons to the Savannah Mall, where they would work out at a fitness center that a friend of his who worked there would open early for them.

“I was just kind of crazy with it,” Darryl Sr. said by phone. “Their mother would handle all the other stuff, but I was always spending money on training gear.”

Despite all of the workouts and playing at the youth level, Darryl Jr.’s high school career was far from distinguished. It also was far from conventional.

“My story’s so crazy,” he said. He then explained that he attended three high schools: Savannah Christian Preparatory School, Jenkins High School in Savannah, and Camden County High School in Kingsland, where he lived with an aunt and his parents would commute to his games.

“They didn’t see that young man over there working his butt off,” Johnson, in reference to himself, said of Savannah Christian and Jenkins High coaches. “They already had their guys, their premier guys.”

He said he developed a massive chip on his shoulder that continues to motivate him.

With limited playing time through his high school career, Johnson had little film to send to college programs, so larger programs ignored him. It took the help of his coach at Camden County, Welton Coffey II, to help convince North Carolina A&T to give Johnson a partial scholarship.

“It was my only option and I was going to take advantage of it,” Johnson said. “And I took advantage.”

“He is one of those guys who is willing to put in the extra time and give the extra effort and do the little things to be special,” N.C. A&T coach Sam Washington was quoted as saying on after the Bills drafted Johnson. “That is what separates him from the rest. It doesn’t hurt that he is also very athletic and can run, run. He has the attributes every coach dreams of."

Johnson became the third player from North Carolina A&T to be drafted in three years. The others are running back Tarik Cohen, by the Chicago Bears in 2017, and offensive tackle Brandon Parker, by the Oakland Raiders in 2018.

Before Johnson, two other MEAC defensive-player-of-the-year honorees, tackle Javon Hargrave from South Carolina State, and linebacker Darius Leonard, also from South Carolina State, were third- and second-round selections by the Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts, respectively.

“You’ve always got to look up to the guys before you,” Johnson said. “They’re doing their thing, so, hopefully, one day, I can follow in their footsteps. I just always had heart and believed in myself and believed in my work ethic. And that takes you a long way.

“That’s why I’m here.”

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