Senior Derrell Johnson
Nov. 16, 2013
By Bill Woodward
GREENVILLE, N.C. - Derrell Johnson ran onto the turf for his 46th-straight start for East Carolina's football team on Saturday.
But this one was different for the 6-foot-1, 264-pound linebacker from Baltimore. Before the game, he was introduced along with 19 other seniors who were making their final regular-season appearance in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
There was a hug from coach Ruffin McNeill as Johnson trotted out in a pregame ceremony, a greeting from his family at midfield, and a big roar from the Pirates fans who appreciate the effort of the four-year starter and team's leading tackler this season.
"A lot of things were going through my head, the last time at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium," Johnson said. "The fans, this town, have given us a lot of support. It was really emotional for all the seniors and we knew we had to come out with a big win. That is what we did."
The bear hug he got from McNeill was an emotional moment, Johnson said.
"He told me he was proud of me and how hard I had been working and to keep it up," Johnson said. "I wanted to go out there for him and keep working hard because he works so hard for us. All the coaching staff does.
"He is like a father figure to me and this team is like a family. For him to come out there and give me that hug, I felt like I had to play that much harder for him."
Johnson said he and his fellow seniors had no trouble focusing on the job at hand after the pregame ceremonies.
"It gets you real emotional, but at the same time we focused in," he said. "We still want to win the conference championship and still want to win a big bowl game, so we focused in. We made sure we got the job done."
Johnson got the job done individually, making seven tackles and also grabbing his first career interception.
Johnson has started all but one game he has played at East Carolina, a cornerstone of the defense. A defensive end as a freshman and sophomore, he moved to linebacker the past two seasons.
For McNeill, the hard-hitting senior has been as good as it gets.
"Derrell is a grown man," McNeill said. "He is one of the best defensive players in the country. He is one of the best football players in the country, bar none.
"He does what we ask him to do on the field and more. I'm proud of Derrell. He's got a chance to get his degree and also play at the next level.
"Derrell is one of the best football players I have ever coached."
Johnson's string of 46 straight starts is second in the nation among active players (to 51 straight by Georgia's Aaron Murray). He's worked hard to stay in shape and played through bumps and bruises, always there for the Pirates.
"I am just blessed to be in that situation," Johnson said. "That's totally up to God. I have worked very hard to stay healthy, but that is where that comes from. I am going to keep going out there and play as many games as I can whether I am beat up, sore or hurt, for my teammates because they give their all for me so I am going to give my all for them."
Johnson and his fellow seniors had a big day on their day, scoring seven of the team's nine touchdowns.
"For the seniors to step up and get this big win, for everybody to contribute is a good feeling," Johnson said. "We all talked about it before the game that we were going to play good. For us to go out there and actually play well, it worked hard.
"This bond that we have built started when we were freshmen and all the way on up. It's a bond that is second to none. We all feel like we are all brothers."