Dynamic Duo … Friday Cup O’Chiefs

This is a story about a couple of NFL linebackers who are making an impression on the league in this 2011 season. They happen to play side-by-side in the Chiefs defense.

Derrick Johnson is well known as a former No. 1 draft choice of the Chiefs. Jovan Belcher is the unknown guy, a quiet, unassuming, undrafted player out of Maine who arrived to no fanfare and has played three seasons in the shadows.

Together, Johnson and Belcher are two of the most important parts of the defensive effort that led the Chiefs over the last month. Together, it would be hard to find two players with more different backgrounds and paths to the NFL.

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The conversation was about Jovan Belcher and Todd Haley kept using the same word as he talked about the third-year linebacker – tough.

“He’s got a tough mindset, he’s very tough minded,” the Chiefs head coach said of Belcher. “I thought it was one of his better games or maybe his best games last Sunday (against Chicago). He’s a tough competitive guy; that inside linebacker position, it’s a tough position to play.

“But the one thing you definitely have to be is tough.”

Belcher knows tough. There are all sorts of moments in his life growing up on Long Island where his toughness was forged, enlarged and tested over and over again. But a lot of guys playing in the NFL have stories like that.

What makes Belcher even tougher was his participation in another sport – wrestling. If you think football is tough, imagine having your wrestling coach at West Babylon High School ask you to drop weight for an important match.

“I was wrestling at 189 pounds and the other school had a very good wrestler at 171 pounds, so my coach asked me to drop down to face him,” Belcher was remembering on Thursday in the Chiefs locker room.

OK, it’s no big deal for young wrestlers to lose a lot of weight over a few days. But Belcher’s coach wanted him down those 19 pounds in just a little more than 24 hours.

He did it, made weight and won the match. Now that’s tough. “It hurt a little bit, but I made weight.”

“The wrestling mentality really forms you,” Belcher said. “It gets into every part of who you are and how you go about things. When you are trying to lose weight, there’s only one person that can make it happen and that’s yourself.

“You’ve got to go run those couple miles, you’ve got to put the sweat suit on and run some stairs. You have to have the motivation to do it.

“And then when you get on the mat, it’s just you and that other person. There is no one else to come and help. It all comes down to how you work. It’s all about how much you work when no one was looking.”

Belcher plays football with a wrestling mentality. He’s part of a team, part of a unit and he’s not a lone out there on the field like he was on the mat. But winning and losing comes down to a handful of one-on-one battles that make up every snap of the game.

And as soon as that ball starts to move, Belcher is trying to put his man on the mat. There are no points for takedowns, no scoring on a reverse, just mano-on-mano to contain a certain gap or end. If he has to go through the guy in front of him, he will.

That’s what he did in Chicago last Sunday, in a game where he ended up getting 10 total tackles to keep his position at No. 2 on the Chiefs tackle list with a total of 95 after 12 games.

“I thought he was a really disruptive player in there and made some great, great plays,” Haley said of Belcher. “The two inside guys are really playing well together and you can see that the defense is feeding off of each other right now and like I said, this time of year that’s a good sign for us and we’ve just got to keep it going.”

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You cannot find a pair of NFL inside linebackers in the 3-4 defense that have as varied backgrounds as Johnson and Belcher. They come from opposite ends of the football spectrum.

Johnson is a former first-round draft choice, who played his college ball at one of the country’s major football powers the University of Texas. Coming out of high school in Waco, he was one of the most recruited and noteworthy players in the country, one of the top 100 football recruits in his senior season in high school.

Playing next to him is Belcher, an undrafted college free agent who played his college football at the University of Maine. Belcher had numerous opportunities to move onto college on a wrestling scholarship, but wasn’t on anybody’s radar for football. The offer from the Black Bears was the only football scholarship he was offered.

When the NFL held its 2005 Draft, Johnson was the 15th player selected, grabbed by the Chiefs. When the NFL held its 2009 Draft, Belcher was not one of the 256 players selected. He signed with the Chiefs as an undrafted rookie free agent.

These two guys bonded together in 2009. That was the year Johnson was in Todd Haley’s dog house and was used as only in the nickel defense. In his rookie season, Belcher got his first extended playing time next to D.J. in the nickel.

This was coming at a time when Belcher was making the move inside, from the outside linebacker/defensive end position he played at Maine and earned All-America honors.

“He pretty much from day one showed those traits you like to see from those inside backers from a toughness standpoint,” Haley said. “It’s just instinctual being in there, having all those bodies flying at you from different angles and getting used to it takes some time. He’s another one of those guys that has done nothing but make progress.”

Johnson has seen his teammate grow not only in how he plays the game physically, but especially mentally and his understanding of opponents and offenses.

“The mental part of his game just skyrocketed,” said Johnson. “He was coming out of a system in college where he was a defensive end, outside rushers. That just tells you how much better he can be. He has so much room to grow.”

D.J. loves to talk about how physical Belcher plays and how he has cleaned out a lot of lead blockers that have allowed Johnson to swoop in and make some of his 136 tackles.

“He’s a tough guy,” Johnson said. “You see how hit hits people and he’ll head butt lineman all the time. He’s a guy that you are out there competing with because he raises the level of your game when you are going head to head.”

After three years together, Johnson and Belcher have that mental telepathy between them on the field, where they can glance at each other and figure out what the other is thinking without opening their mouth.

“Yeah, we have some looks,” Johnson said with a laugh. “We are always working on making sure we are where we are supposed to be.”

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Sunday’s game in New Jersey against the Jets is a special one for Belcher – for the first time in his young career, he’s playing back home in the New York/New Jersey area.

“I’ve been looking forward to it,” Belcher said. “It’s very excited being in front of your people. I have a lot of people coming, family, people I grew up with. It’s going to be great.”

Might Jovan Belcher be a big over-hyped for this game.

“We are going out there for football, this is a business trip,” Belcher said. “I’ll be focused on football.”


4 Responses to “Dynamic Duo … Friday Cup O’Chiefs”

  • December 9, 2011  - ED J says:

    When Berry comes back making of top 5 defense.


  • December 9, 2011  - Steve says:

    Bob – great story. Love your knowledge and getting guys like DJ and Belcher to talk.


  • December 9, 2011  - BigJimInWisconsin says:

    I grew up on Long Island (Huntington Station) and my Dad graduated from West Babylon High in 1948.

    Go Jovan!
    Go CHIEFS!


  • December 10, 2011  - Tenand6 says:

    Well done, Bob. I’m sure Belcher will be adding this to his scrap book.




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