By Joe Scalzo
In the days leading up to the NFL draft, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos started hearing from more and more teams and started to wonder what it all meant.
Would he get drafted? Was one team willing to look beyond his December arrest and give him a chance? Should he get his hopes up?
“It was a ‘hope for the best, prepare for the worst’ kind of deal,” said Johnson-Koulianos, a Mooney High graduate who went on to a record-breaking career as a wide receiver at Iowa. “I zoned in on each and every pick and it didn’t turn out in our favor. But I was prepared for that.
“I’m not going to let it get me down. I’m still as excited as ever.”
After setting Iowa’s career receptions and receiving yardage marks, Johnson-Koulianos was an almost surefire mid-round pick until police raided his house on Dec. 7, finding cocaine, marijuana and $3,000 in cash.
He was charged with possession and with keeping a drug house — he eventually pleaded guilty to marijuana possession and the other charges were dropped — and was indefinitely suspended from the team.
Johnson-Koulianos missed the Insight Bowl, then failed to get invitations to any postseason all-star games or the February NFL Combine. He wasn’t even allowed to work out at Iowa’s Pro Day.
So he moved to Chicago to work out at EFT Sports Performance, a training center utilized by several pro athletes, including Bears defensive lineman Tommie Harris and Bulls forward Luol Deng.
The move was good for him physically — “I got results I hadn’t had in my last five years,” he said — and mentally.
“I came out of it more mentally prepared and focused than ever,” he said. “My mom always told me I perform my best when my back’s against the wall.”
In the meantime, Johnson-Koulianos did his best to convince NFL teams that his behavior was an aberration. and that they could trust him to stay clean and become an impact player. He knew some teams would take him off their draft boards regardless, but he was hoping at least one would give him a chance.
He still is.
“What happened wasn’t representative of who I am,” said Johnson-Koulianos, who is three classes away from graduating with a degree in interdepartmental studies. “I let myself get influenced by others and due to my success, there were people coming into my life that were used to that lifestyle on a daily basis.
“I gave into peer pressure and it was a major setback. But it was something I needed. It gave me a chance to refocus myself, rehumble myself and reevaluate who I am and what I want.”
Johnson-Koulianos is almost certain to get a free agent offer once the NFL lockout is settled. Although undrafted players normally sign with a team within hours of the draft’s final round, he said the extra time could be a blessing.
“It gives you an opportunity to evaluate rosters and location and find the best fit for yourself,” he said. “You don’t typically have that opportunity.
“I’m just trying to be a good brother, a good son, a good friend. And I’m just kind of fine-tuning my game so that when I do get into camp, I’ll absolutely take off like a wild man. It’s exciting because I know it’s going to come.”
In the meantime, he’s working out and spending time with his friends and family. He said people in Youngstown have been supportive, stopping him at the bowling alley, at Rite Aid, when he’s eating wings — everywhere.
“The support’s been unbelievable,” said Johnson-Koulianos, who attended Campbell until his senior year, when he played at Mooney. “They’re waiting to see that great story at the end of the road.”
He knows there are skeptics but he also knows this is a town willing to give second chances. When asked what he’d like to tell the people from Youngstown, he pictured himself standing at a podium inside the Covelli Centre in front of the entire city, delivering this message:
“From the bottom of my heart, I regret being involved in anything like that,” he said. “That’s certainly not representative of who we are in this town.
“I certainly apologize giving my town and my city a black eye, but I’ve got to go to work and persevere through this very dark time of my life.”