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).
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.
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."