It has been 15 months since Derrell Johnson-Koulianos last played in a football game anywhere near the state of Iowa.
At that time he was a hero, an icon, the all-time leading receiver in Iowa Hawkeyes football history, a free spirit who projected a rebellious image while producing in a big way on the playing field.
Bad things have happened to him since then and the player known as DJK departed the Iowa program in a cloud of drug charges, disgraced, renounced, forsaken.
In spite of that, he isn’t the least bit worried about what sort of reception he will get when he returns to the field tonight as a member of the Iowa Barnstormers in an Arena Football League preseason game at i wireless Center.
“People have been great to me,” Johnson-Koulianos said. “You know, there was no existence of DJK before I came to Iowa. The nickname and the persona all was inspired by the people of the state of Iowa. Through all the adversity, they have continued to support me. I think people want to see me do well, to see me bounce back from this situation.”
It’s a situation DJK probably never envisioned during the four years in which he was catching 173 passes and gaining 2,616 yards for the Hawkeyes. He seemed destined for a glorious end to his college career and at least a shot at the National Football League.
Arena football? It wasn’t on his radar screen.
But then he fell in with some questionable company. Two weeks after playing his last regular-season game with the Hawkeyes, he was carted off to jail and charged not only with using drugs but with selling them.
Most of the charges eventually were dropped and he received a deferred sentence, but the damage had been done.
There would be no NFL, no big money, no further contact with the Iowa program.
“In life you can make a billion good decisions and then you can make one bad one that erases all the good ones,” Johnson-Koulianos said. “It’s the way life is. When you start to take risks like I did, it can happen.
“It’s really just something that happened there at the end of my career. I certainly didn’t get involved in it on my own, but it happened. I got caught. I fault myself entirely.
“I learned from it. In a way, it’s almost like it’s something that needed to happen. It was a re-humbling experience, a refocusing experience. It has refocused and re-humbled me and got me back to the person I was before it all happened.”
Johnson-Koulianos admitted he still was a bit surprised that no NFL teams gave him a chance to show what he could do.
“Not having the support of people you needed to have the support of made it tougher,” he said. “I don’t want to say it made it almost impossible, but it really sort of did.”
He is referring to the Iowa football program, which has disowned him. When DJK played in a postseason all-star game last February — the last organized game in which he played — he was not permitted to wear an Iowa helmet. He borrowed some Utah Utes headgear that day.
He is not surprised by that reaction. He expected to be exiled.
“I forced their hand when I made a decision like the one I made,” he said. “There are no hard feelings on my part.”
He said many of his old teammates from his Iowa days have stuck by him, however.
“I have some great friends who never left my side,” Johnson-Koulianos said. “Guys like Ricky Stanzi and Tyler Sash. They’ve been amazing, probably better than ever. It’s kind of a test of life. People sort of separate themselves as far as what kind of friends they are. Guys like Micah Hyde are continually reaching out, seeking updates on where I am and what I’m doing.”
In the past year, Johnson-Koulianos has spent some time working with younger receivers, trying to tutor them on things they’ll need to know to play at the college level. He said that has helped him stay in good physical condition.
He lived in Chicago for awhile and briefly moved back to the Youngstown, Ohio, area to help his parents move into a new house. He also has done some classroom work and said he is now just one class away from earning his college degree.
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The Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League signed him to a contract in October, but it was late in the season and he never saw any action for them.
In January, the Barnstormers came through with an offer. Johnson-Koulianos decided to give the arena game a shot, hoping it might lead to bigger and better things.
“It’s still football but it’s definitely different,” he admitted after only his fourth workout. “It goes into the execution of plays and timing, depth, spacing. And learning a new playbook is always a challenge.”
He said he’s looking forward to playing an entire season with the Barnstormers and he’s definitely eager to play an actual game for the first time in more than a year tonight.
“My life has taken on a new path,” he said. “I’m writing a whole new story now.”
What: Iowa Barnstormers vs. Chicago Rush in Arena Football League preseason game.
Where: i wireless Center
When: Tonight, 7 p.m.
Tickets: $10, $15 and $30 with a limited number of $50 VIP seats also available.
Did you know: The Barnstormers feature the talents of ex-Iowa star Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and former Quad-City Steamwheelers J.J. Raterink and Jesse Schmidt