Iowa's "Blind Side"

Published: November 25 2009 | 12:18 pm - Updated: 30 March 2014 | 2:27 pm in
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Marc note: The movie "The Blind Side," the true story of Michael Oher, a homeless youngster from a broken home taken in by a Mississippi family and now an O-lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, reminded me of Derrell Johnson-Koulianos' story. He changed his name just before he came to Iowa, bringing in "Koulianos," which was the name of his adoptive family back in Campbell, Ohio.

This story unfolded over two seasons. After DJK's performance against Wisconsin in 2007, I talked to his mom, Lauren Koulianos. I couldn't talk to DJK then because he was a redshirt freshman, deemed off limits to the media then. I was able to talk to him during the 2008 media day. Here are those stories, beginning with the one from August 2008.

A big family and big support system, they're great things to have in your life.  

IOWA CITY -- Only a sophomore, Derrell Johnson-Koulianos leads the Hawkeyes in nicknames. It's not even close. "DJK" is running up the score.

That's the quick version fans have globbed onto, "DJK." Some teammates call him "Revenue-Rell" because he has the type of talent to put fans in the stands. "JK," "D-John," "D-John-Kool" and "Koolio" are in play.

"It's crazy. It's been that way since I was a little boy," the wide receiver said. "It's been just nicknames. For some reason people feel like I need a nickname. My first name is just not enough."

And, as it turns out, neither was his last name.

This will be Johnson-Koulianos' second year as a wide receiver for the Hawkeyes. True and red-shirt freshmen aren't allowed to talk to the media, so Iowa's media day on Aug. 4 was essentially his coming out party.

It was the first time Iowa's leading receiver (38 catches, 482 yards and two TDs) from '07 had a voice in his story.

Last season, we learned that Johnson-Koulianos was adopted. He came from a "tough" home in Campbell, Ohio, near Youngstown. More and more, he started spending time at the home of his lifelong friend, Stephen Koulianos. As his home life deteriorated, he eventually moved in with the Koulianoses.

By the time Derrell was in high school, he lived with Tony and Lauren Koulianos and their three children. The adoption became official when Derrell turned 18.

"Certain things happened in his life with his family and mom ... but we're very, very happy," Lauren Koulianos said last fall. "He's a great kid, an awesome kid.

"Derrell's life was probably a little bit tougher than average. He was an only child. That's why he was always here. Through circumstances and choices his mom made, he ended up with us."

Understandably, Johnson-Koulianos didn't want to get into the details of his previous home life.

"I feel like what's happened to me happened for a reason," Johnson-Koulianos said. "I'm blessed for what happened to me. I'm just thankful. Everyone has a different story and that's mine."

Johnson-Koulianos doesn't talk details, but he also doesn't quake. He is an excellent storyteller, with an impeccable sense of timing, great humor and a touch of light drama. He was a highlight reel of quotes during the hourlong session on media day.

Thanks to ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, "DJK" came to Iowa with mountainous expectations. In an interview during Big Ten media days before the '06 season, Herbstreit bragged up Johnson-Koulianos during an interview. At one point, Herbstreit said "DJK" was the best player coming out of Ohio in '06.

"We like to call that hype," Johnson-Koulianos said. "Most people, most players don't ask for it. No one ever asks for hype. But I know one thing, when there is hype, it motivates you. It sets a spark under you like you've got to go, you've got to do it."

Herbstreit's comments launched an instant Internet legend. "DJK" was probably the only Hawkeye to have his own "stat board" posts on the messageboards last season.

"An Internet legend, I don't know if I'm excited about that," Johnson-Koulianos said, "I'd rather be an on-the-field legend, but you've got to start somewhere I guess. As far as that goes, that's just the fans. Fans are going to be fans. Fans are going to be fans no matter where you go."

After 13 years at Michigan, Erik Campbell is in his first season as Iowa's receivers coach. Johnson-Koulianos has embraced his new coach. He veered away from cliches when the topic came up.

"Coach Campbell is a blessing," Johnson-Koulianos said. "I wouldn't say in disguise, he's a blessing every day."

Johnson-Koulianos' ease before the state's media speaks to a happy home in Ohio, where a kid embraced a chance to have a life. Too strong? Dramatic? Those are pretty much his words.

"If it weren't for my mom and dad, I definitely wouldn't be standing here giving you this interview," he said. "They changed my life in a huge way. They steered me in a direction where I had no other choice but to go toward success.''

It's media day and it's "best foot forward" time, but you can see why the Koulianoses took him in.

"He's very much into his family, very proud and appreciative of all the opportunities he's gotten," Lauren Koulianos said.

Best foot forward time, sure. But there's also this little twist. Since Johnson-Koulianos arrived at Iowa, his biological family has started to make more contact. He figures his name is out there in the media, so the family comes calling.

His view isn't at all cynical. He's "absolutely" open to bringing his biological family back into his life.

"They try to contact me just to maybe ... I don't know if I would use the word 'rekindle' but that's what I would say," he said. "You can't explain decisions that are made. I can't explain them."

That explains Johnson-Koulianos' name game. The nickname game is a work in progress. Johnson-Koulianos was informed on media day that he has Big Ten's toughest name to type.

"Yeah, well thanks to the fans you only have to type three letters," he joked. But what about "Revenue-Rell" and the rest?

"I didn't give up on (DJK)," he said. "As far as the locker room goes, it's transitioning though. I'll keep you updated."

From September 2007:

IOWA CITY - For a second there, Brent Musburger didn't know which way to go.

"What a catch by Koulianos!" the ABC announcer screamed. "Oh baby, what a touchdown grab! Johnson-Koulianos with a circus catch!"

Johnson? Koulianos? Where are you going, Brent?

Derrell Johnson-Koulianos announced himself to the college football world with fireworks last Saturday night at Wisconsin. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound red-shirt Iowa freshman caught four passes for 45 yards, including the aforementioned one-handed, sideline, 21-yard TD pass that put Musburger in apoplexy. He also returned a kick off 44 yards to set up a field goal in Iowa's 17-13 loss.

Kirk Herbstreit, Musburger's sidekick on the ABC Saturday night regional broadcast, knew all about Derrell (pronounced "Duh-rel," Johnson-Koulianos).

"It's a matter of more reps and more experience because he has playmaking ability," Herbstreit said of the fellow Ohioan. "In fact, his senior year at Youngstown Cardinal Mooney High School, he was one of the better playmakers in the state."

It's a name with a story.

Johnson-Koulianos was a late comer to the 2006 recruiting class, signing with the Hawkeyes in August. The Hawkeyes beat Michigan, Ohio State, West Virginia and Michigan State for a high school quarterback who was looking at a transition to receiver.

An ankle injury muddled Johnson-Koulianos' recruiting. He came to Iowa with a lot of offers but little fanfare.

"I saw it (his talent) when I saw his high school highlight film," senior running back Albert Young said. "I will say that was the best highlight film I've ever seen because we all check each other's out, when we can. He definitely had the top one."

Johnson-Koulianos took a red-shirt last season, sitting out of competitive football for the first time since he was 7. But it was a good year academically and, obviously, he picked up on this wide receiver thing a little bit.

"He's learning (the wide receiver position) and he's getting better every week in that regard," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. "He's obviously got some skills. He's good with the ball in his hands. Based on that catch he made the other night, he's good getting it in his hands, too."

Johnson-Koulianos' letter of intent might say one thing, but the back of his jersey says "Johnson-Koulianos."

It was a change he wanted to make to honor his adoptive family back home near Youngstown.

"It was something he felt he wanted to do and (show) respect to the family," said Lauren Koulianos, proud mother of four boys.

Her oldest, Stephen, is a film student at New York University this semester. He's the same age as Johnson-Koulianos. They were neighbors and became fast friends at age 10.

Derrell hung around the Koulianos family more and more. As his home life deteriorated, he spent even more time with the Koulianoses.

By the time Derrell was in high school, first at Campbell (Ohio) High and then Cardinal Mooney in Youngstown for his senior year, he was living with Lauren, his adoptive father Tony, Stephen and the Koulianos' younger sons (ages 9 and 5).

The official adoption came when Derrell was 18. He wanted to make it official when he turned 18, Lauren Koulianos said.

"Certain things happened in his life with his family and mom . . . but we're very, very happy," she said. "He's a great kid, an awesome kid."

Understandably, she won't go into detail about Derrell's previous home life.

It's personal, she said.

"Derrell's life was probably a little bit tougher than average," Koulianos said. "He was an only child. That's why he was always here. Through circumstances and choices his mom made, he ended up with us."

The adoption topic came up when Lauren Koulianos was asked about Derrell's interests.

The first thing that came to mind was family.

"He's very, very, very close with his brother," she said. "I have two little boys also. He's very much into his family, very proud and appreciative of all the opportunities he's gotten. He makes it very easy to have done what we did.

"You just couldn't help it, he was such a great kid."

Johnson-Koulianos' personality won't be seen outside of the lines this season. After the Iowa State game, Ferentz banned red-shirt freshman from interviews.

But the personality is there.

"He's a real relaxed, chill guy," outside linebacker A.J. Edds said. "Easy to get along with, kind of easy going, good guy to be around."

Young was more specific.

"He reminds me of (Pittsburgh Steelers receiver) Hines Ward a little how he's always got that big smile on his face when he's playing," Young said. "He's just enjoying the game, loving being out there, loving the experience."

On the bus ride home from Madison last Saturday night, Johnson-Koulianos was shocked to see some 70 text messages on his cell phone. Young told him to change his number.

"I was like, `Hey, that's what it's going to be like now,' " Young said. "I just told him that he played well. Of course he feels he missed some opportunities, but that's good, he definitely knows he has room to improve.

"His confidence is huge."

So is his last name and the story behind it.

This story came along about the time I started blogging. I also posted the following, just some extra stuff that I couldn't get into the paper back then:

DJK story

There will be a Derrell Johnson-Koulianos story in the paper tomorrow. I interviewed his mom, Lauren Koulianos. The Koulianos family adopted Derrell when he turned 18, officially. He spent a lot of time with the family since he was 10 and moved in when he started high school. Derrell was friends with Stephen Koulianos, a neighborhood mate, and the relationship grew.

It's good stuff. It's the kind of stuff that makes you wonder if you'd have the strength to see the situation and do the right thing. Lauren Koulianos is a nurse turned housewife (her word, not mine, so I'm using it too). Tony Koulianos, the dad, is an OB/GYN. They have two younger sons, ages 9 and 5. Four boys, two college-age, it's "Malcolm in the Middle," with one son a film student and another a Division I-A athlete at a Midwestern university. It's beautiful.

Here's some stuff I didn't get in:

Why didn't DJK end up at The Ohio State?: Lauren Koulianos said: "We're really unclear, really unsure what happened out there. It just kind of fell through and we're still not sure why. But things happen for a reason and Derrell had been recruited by Iowa the whole time. He called several people and visited Iowa. He always really liked it out there."

There was an internet report that DJK was going to walk on at Ohio State. Lauren Koulianos said that was never true.

On Kirk Herbstreit's ABC national TV man-crush on DJK (Herbstreit gushed about DLK two years ago at the Big Ten media days, also): "To be honest, that was quite a shock to us. I was very shocked. I was very, very surprised. If you're asking me if we have a personal relationship with Kirk Herbstreit, no. That was quite a surprise. He's an Ohio guy and follows football and Derrell was recruited by Ohio State, so he might've known about Derrell. That was quite a surprise and quite a compliment to Derrell, coming from him (Herbie)."

Was Stephen Koulianos an athlete?: "It's funny because everyone laughs. They are opposites. Stephen likes sports but never played. He's more outdoorsy and is also very creative."

What did DJK carry nearly every day as a kid?: "He would always -- and this is something anyone who saw him and anyone in this area would tell you -- he always carried his football. He always had a football, this little boy. No matter where he went he always had a football in his hand."

The enthusiasm is there, and so are the nerves. Maybe sitting by senior running back Albert Young on the bus ride to Madison last week helped: Said Albert Young, "We sat on the bus next to each other, he's just ... I know he's always trying to learn, and that's what you like. He's always asking what to expect, what's it going to be like from here and there, I think just real eager to see what's going on."

Maybe I should've waited to do a big story on a player who's resume is just beginning to fill out. I'm sure Kirk Ferentz would've voted for that. No matter what he does Saturday, Iowa needs DJK, James Cleveland, Paul Chaney Jr. and Colin Sandeman to make plays that they weren't expected to make until 2008 at the earliest.

Ultimately, the team could come out stronger because of the strife at receiver. Football works that way sometimes.

Have you found an error or omission in our reporting? Is there other feedback and/or ideas you want to share with us? Tell us here.


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