For most people a hyphen is just a simple punctuation mark. For Derrell Johnson-Koulianos it signifies much more than that: pride and honor.
Johnson-Koulianos, formerly just Derrell Johnson, was adopted at age nine by the Koulianoses after growing up in the projects near Youngstown, Ohio. The Koulianoses were always close with Derrell, having gone from friends to family after Derrell’s home life got worse.
Upon being taken into Tony and Lauren Koulianos’ home, Derrell has nothing but good things to say.
“I had the best life a kid could have. I had everything I could ever want. I was blessed really,” Johnson-Koulianos said.
Family is something that DJK, the nickname fans have adopted, cherishes. Derrell refers to his father, a gynecologist, as the most amazing man he’s ever known and his mother as an angel on Earth.
“My dad has always busted his ass and that is something that I admire,” Johnson-Koulianos said. “My mom raised my brothers and I and really taught us how to do everything right.”
The choice to officially add Koulianos to his name, and jersey, before entering college was an easy one for Derrell.
“I had to have it. Your last name represents who you are, and it’s something I’m proud of. It represents my entire family, my parents, my brothers, everyone,” Johnson-Koulianos said. “When I put that jersey on, that’s who I represent.”
Respect is nothing new to DJK. He learned the value early on and has lived his life by it.
“Derrell came from a great family,” childhood friend Rich Tisone said. “He is one of the most respectful kids I know, and he has always been that way. He’s a very unique guy.”
You don’t have to spend much time with Johnson-Koulianos to realize he’s cut from a different cloth. He has very eccentric tastes.
“A lot of people say if they didn’t know me they would never know I was a football player. I don’t carry the typical athlete demeanor outside the locker room or off the field,” Johnson-Koulianos said.
DJK’s interests include fashion, home interior design, music, and film.
“I feel like if you live well, you dress well, and that inspires me to do well,” Johnson-Koulianos said.
All of these interests play into his future plans. Johnson-Koulianos said he would like to break into the restaurant business or be an interior designer of hotels. But, Derrell’s first love remains football.
“I love the game. Some people are in it for different reasons, but me, I love football,” Johnson-Koulianos said. “I would play in the league (NFL) for free, that’s how much I love football.”
Johnson-Koulianos, a redshirt sophomore, will be the Iowa Hawkeye’s top returning receiver heading into his junior year in 2009. It’s apparent that DJK possesses the physical skills, at 6’2” and 205 pounds, but Johnson-Koulianos’ most valuable asset might be his mental game. He carries himself with a certain swagger. He knows what he’s capable of and when he’s on his game he believes no one can stop him.
“I feel like every time I break the huddle, and it’s a pass play, I can score. When I lineup against a defensive back, I’m not intimidated, because I know my abilities and what I’m capable of,” Johnson-Koulianos said. “If I stick to the fundamentals, no one can stop me. And, if I do drop a pass, I forget about it five seconds later.”
Johnson-Koulianos’ 1,121 career receiving yards already place him in the top 30 in Iowa history, with two years of eligibility remaining.
Additional Q & A With DJK
Dylan Nelson-Sease: What has been your proudest moment in life so far?
Derrell Johnson-Koulianos: Enrolling in college. When I was a young boy it was my dream to become a college football player, but I never thought I could accomplish that. But, I did it with the help of my mom, who pushed so hard. I was kind of behind in a lot of areas, but she kept reminding me ‘that’s your dream, that’s your dream’. And, now it’s just a matter of taking this opportunity and doing it big.
DNS:Why did you choose Iowa?
DJK: I paid a lot of attention to college football in high school and I was always a Big Ten guy, primarily an Ohio State guy. I watched guys like Michael Jenkins, Teddy Ginn, and Santonio Holmes. (However) Once it came time, throughout recruiting, I felt like coaches and the people at Iowa were right for me. It’s a long ways away, even now I still don’t believe I came this far. But, this place is a perfect fit for me for a lot of reasons. Everyday I find more reasons why it’s a perfect fit. Mostly, the sincerity of the coaches. The coaches thought I could make an impact early, and even though I redshirted, I have the chance to start four years in a row, and thats become a personal goal of mine.
DNS:How did you deal with the hype coming out of High School?
DJK: Yeah, it was wild. Before I even got here people knew so much about me. I had a nickname before I even jumped on campus. I hadn’t played a down, but people were treating me like I was all-Big Ten two years in a row already. Which gave me more motivation, I feel like it’s my responsibility to live up to it.
DNS:What was the transition like from high school quarterback to Big Ten wide receiver?
DJK: It was harder than I expected. I do feel there are some advantages. You get a feel for an offense as a quarterback, but there is a certain craft to being a wide receiver. There are small details to being a wide receiver that I was lacking at first, but now I’m at the point where I’ve embraced those details, and I’m at the point of my career where I’m not thinking about it, I’m just reacting. It’s time, my time is now. In 2009, I should be a premier guy, and I’m ready to step into a leadership role.
DNS:How has wide receiver coach Erik Campbell influenced or impacted your game?
DJK: (He has been a) major, major influence. I can’t even put it into words. He’s basically taken over my entire life as a football player, a student, a role model to others, and being a good citizen. He’s always preaching to me, if you live well and do well as a student, then you will play well. There are so many examples of that from this last year, and it all goes hand-in-hand with what he says. Not to mention the guy has proved it all the way across the board. He’s one person I can honestly say wants to see me do well. He’s one of the best things to ever happen to me. I’m just embracing the opportunity, and feel blessed to be able to work with him.
DNS:What was the highlight of your season in 2008?
DJK: Hands down, Penn State. Beating the number three team in the country, that was huge for us. It was a big momentum booster going into the later portion of the season and the bowl game. It was also a confidence booster. After that we felt like we could play with anyone. I feel like a played a huge role, I didn’t do anything spectacular but really just did whatever it took to help the team win.
DNS:What are your goals heading into next year?
DJK: Even the great players can get better, not necessarily saying I’m a great player yet. But, there’s never a point when you should feel like you’ve arrived. There are a couple things I need to do to take my game to the next level like high pointing balls and running after the catch. These are things that I see I can improve on after watching film on myself.
DNS:Do you still keep in touch with the Johnsons?
DJK: Yeah, they have recently tried to get in contact with me. I’m okay with it, it’s all good. I talk to them occasionally.
Photos courtesy of the Associated Press and Frank Oliver/Journal & Courier, respectively