Sometimes, looking back, Daryl Johnson wonders if it truly happened. Did he really lead Morgan State's football team to two undefeated seasons and then play in the pros for the Patriots?
"It's a life you dream about as a kid. Then, while you're living it, you can't believe it," said Johnson, 68, of Haverhill, Mass. "And now, while watching the Ravens play New England [Saturday], I'll be thinking, 'Was that actually me out there years ago?' "
An eighth-round draft pick of the then-Boston Patriots in 1968, Johnson was a three-year starter at defensive back before a broken leg ended his NFL career. But it was in college where he left his mark, starring at quarterback and shattering Morgan's passing records during the Bears' 31-game unbeaten streak in the mid-1960s.
Then, Morgan was a black college powerhouse, routinely outscoring opponents by four or five touchdowns and landing 18 players in the pros. Johnson played alongside Hall of Famer Willie Lanier (Kansas City Chiefs), Frenchy Fuqua (Pittsburgh Steelers), Raymond Chester (Baltimore Colts), Mark Washington (Dallas Cowboys), George Nock (New York Jets) and Carlton Dabney (Atlanta Falcons).
"For them to just sit and watch inspired us," Johnson said. "We thought we were damn good but the only way to prove it was to be damn good."
In 1965 — Johnson's sophomore season — Morgan won all eight games, six by shutouts, as the Bears outscored their rivals 265-27.
"Coach [Earl] Banks said, 'The best way to win is not to let the other team score.' That made sense to us," he said.
Banks, aka "Poppa Bear," allowed no grandstanding, Johnson said:
"If you showed off after making a tackle or knocking down a pass, you'd go back to your locker and find a bottle of French's mustard and a package of hot dogs."
A 5-foot-10, 175-pound walk-on from Richmond, Va., Johnson played wide receiver and place kicker before moving to quarterback as a junior. Again the Bears went unbeaten, averaged 40 points and finished with a 14-6 victory over West Chester State (Pa.) in the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando. That game, in 1966, celebrated the first postseason win by a historically black college against a predominately white one.
"Back then, black college teams were considered a little better than high school," Johnson said. "But we thought we could play with anyone in the country, so we sure weren't going to let them [West Chester] beat us."
Or anyone else, on Johnson's watch. His senior year, the Bears went 8-0 and were invited back to the Tangerine Bowl. But the players nixed the bid upon learning they'd face West Chester again.
"A bunch of the guys felt they had nothing to prove," he said. "Me? I was ready to beat them twice."
Johnson bowed out with honors. Named quarterback of The Sun's All-Maryland College Team, he completed 54 percent of his passes for 1,050 yards, a school record. He ran for six touchdowns and converted 27 of 33 extra points. The Pigskin Club of Washington, D.C. honored him as NCAA Small College Player of the Year.
"Our [offensive] line was outstanding. I was hardly ever sacked," he said. "Whenever we played in the rain, I'd always jump in the mud so people wouldn't think I hadn't played."
Most important, Johnson left with Morgan's 26-game winning streak intact.
"Coach always told us, 'Don't be the team that breaks the streak.' So everyone was relieved when they graduated," he said.
Boston proved different. In Johnson's three years there, the Patriots won 10 of 42 games.
"At Morgan, I remember looking across the field and wondering how it felt to be losing, 40-0," he said. "I found out, playing for Boston."
Johnson tried to psyche up the Patriots. "I dyed my football shoes red, but the league wouldn't allow it," he said. And he shared poems with the media before each game, to wit:
"With [Miami receiver Paul] Warfield out there, we'll be under the gun,
But I still think I'm going to hold him to one."
After football, Johnson worked in auto sales, as a stockbroker and as an insurance claims adjuster before retiring. Married 30 years, he has two children, one grandchild and an interest in latch hooking (wall hangings made of acrylic yarns). A kidney ailment requires dialysis three times a week.
"I had about seven concussions in football, so I keep testing myself to see if I'm still sane," he said. "I come up with a 50-50 response because, honestly, you have to be crazy to play the game in the first place."