Third Place Writing – Sports


Path of a fallen star: the sad ending to DJK’s story

By Scott Miller

Derrell Johnson-Koulianos showed up for his court appearance on the blustery Wednesday morning dressed in a gray turtleneck, black blazer, and freshly pressed slacks. Sunglasses shielded his eyes from the camera clicks and the recording devices as he made his way to the courthouse. His hair and beard were newly trimmed — a decidedly different look from his mug shot taken at the Johnson County Jail some 19 hours earlier. There, he wore a hooded sweatshirt — his hair not groomed, his facial hair a mess.

It wasn’t supposed to end this way for Johnson-Koulianos, the most prolific wide receiver in Iowa history. It wasn’t supposed to end with police raiding his house. It wasn’t supposed to end with the discovery of pharmaceutical drugs. It wasn’t supposed to end with Johnson-Koulianos reportedly testing positive for cocaine and marijuana. It wasn’t supposed to end with the 23-year-old being formally charged with seven drug-related charges and national headlines about an Iowa player running a “drug house.”

No, it wasn’t supposed to end this way at all.

The best and worst of DJK

Johnson-Koulianos’ best and worst trait has always been his affable personality. In front of the media — when he was still allowed to talk to the media — he always spoke as if he was giving a monologue. He wanted to entertain, to amuse. Most of all, he wanted to be liked. Heck, DJK even started his own Facebook fan page — one that had about 5,000 followers before he took it down on Dec. 7.

He wanted to be recognized. He wanted to be famous. Could this be connected to his past, to the feeling of abandonment he might have felt when his biological mother left him at such a young age?

Once when working on The Daily Iowan’s weekly football insert, Pregame, I texted Johnson-Koulianos to clarify a point he made at the team’s media day in August — the last time he spoke publicly. He answered my question, also adding, “Maybe get me on the front page of Pregame Friday?”

Forget about the marijuana. Try to get past the cocaine. It’s some of the pharmaceutical substances police reportedly found in DJK’s room that raise bigger questions:

  • Zolpidem Tartrate, a medicine administered mainly to help the elderly get a good night’s rest. “It’s really unusual for young people to have sleeping medicines,” said Katherine Linder, a pharmacist at Medicap Pharmacy in rural Iowa.
  • Diazepam, one of the original anxiety medications.
  • Hydromorphone Hydrochloride (Diluadid), a very strong controlled substance used for extreme pain. Typically seen in the treatment of cancer patients and people who have had severe accidents, it’s stronger than morphine. “That’s the big one. That’s the one that made me go, ‘Wow. What do they have that for?’ ” Linder said. “… There’s no way that a football player or anybody would be using that acutely. In my practice, I’ve seen scripts for [Hydromorphone Hydrochloride] a few times. The likelihood of [Johnson-Koulianos] having a legitimate prescription for something like that is pretty low.”

What were his intentions? Why did he have them? We don’t know. But, allegedly, he had them.

“They’re very dangerous,” Linder said about the drugs found in Johnson-Koulianos’ bedroom. “When you take hydromorphone by itself, without any kind of tolerance, you can have respiratory depression and die.”

Up until this point, Johnson-Koulianos was defined by his vivacious public persona — not by the prescription drugs found in his room. The wide receiver’s personality resembles NFL braggadocios Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens. Earlier this season, quarterback Ricky Stanzi said he was pretty sure those were Johnson-Koulianos’ role models. (Neither Ochocinco nor Owens have ever faced the legal trouble now confronting Johnson-Koulianos.)

It’s this personality that has, at times, alienated him from a Hawkeye coaching staff hell-bent on controlling the program’s image and never saying too much. As recently as Nov. 27 against Minnesota, Johnson-Koulianos didn’t start because fellow wide receiver Colin Sandeman had a “better week of practice,” Ferentz said. When I asked DJK his explanation for the non-start, he said he was the last one on the field for the Friday walk-through.

But it’s also a personality that endeared him to a fan base yearning for a star. At Kids Day and after home games, he could always be found with a black Sharpie in hand, signing countless autographs until the horde was pleased. In the lobby of the team’s hotel for the Michigan game earlier this year, I ran into Johnson-Koulianos talking with several kids in Hawkeye gear. The kids looked up at him, admired him, adored him.

This was the world in which Johnson-Koulianos lived. He craved attention, and frankly, much of it was well-deserved. For four years, he was Iowa’s most productive wide receiver. For four years, he lit up opposing secondaries. For four years, he compiled a record better than any other receiver to play in Iowa City. Better than Tim Dwight. Better than Kevin Kasper. Better than Danan Hughes and Quinn Early. DJK is Iowa’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yardage, and he has scored 17 touchdowns, including 10 this season.

It only took one day for all of that potential to unravel. Now, as the worst kind of attention zeroes in on him, there are no more records to break, no more autographs to sign, no more kids to ogle at him.

At Iowa media day on Aug. 6, Johnson-Koulianos said, “A lot of guys don’t understand that fewer than half of 1 percent of the people in the world get to be a part of anything like this. That’s an opportunity people dream of. I dreamt of it as a little boy, I can’t believe I’m living it.”

The dream is over.

Johnson-Koulianos, a senior, has played his last game as a Hawkeye — head coach Kirk Ferentz said as much in his terse statement issued on the night of the arrest: “I am highly disappointed to learn of the charges. Derrell has been suspended from all team activities.” And in a discussion Thursday with Missouri reporters — Iowa plays Mizzou Dec. 28 in the Insight Bowl — Ferentz said, “He’ll not play again here.”

The NFL, which was once a mere certainty, may come calling; it may not. Johnson-Koulianos has left that in someone else’s hands now.

“If you want to try to figure out the worst thing to do to your draft stock, he might have found it,” said Wes Bunting, the director of college scouting for the National Football Post.

The elusive DJK story

I have been chasing Johnson-Koulianos’ story for a while, but never would have guessed it would end up like this.

On March 9, I sent an e-mail to Iowa Sports Information Director Phil Haddy requesting to do a long profile on Johnson-Koulianos. The wide receiver’s background — he was abandoned by his teen mother, adopted by the Koulianos family, and became a wildly successful Division-I athlete — was newsworthy enough, but that Johnson-Koulianos was on the verge of becoming Iowa’s all-time leading receiver made this a story that had to be told.

Not surprisingly, Johnson-Koulianos was on board. “Let’s do it big and do it right,” I remember him telling me one night at Formosa, 221 E. College St. That was the DJK way — always wanting to do it big.

But per Ferentz’s policy, all exclusive interviews are provided at the head coach’s discretion. On March 11, Ferentz sent Haddy the following e-mail, which was then forwarded to me, “Great idea, but I’ll decline right now on DJK. Is there another player he would like to do a positive feature on? [Adrian] Clayborn?”

And that was that — or so I thought.

Three months later, Mike Hlas — a longtime columnist at the Gazette and weekly contributor to the university-controlled postgame radio broadcast — was granted an extensive interview with Johnson-Koulianos for a feature in the newspaper’s Iowa football preseason magazine. The story ran at the beginning of August. Hawkeye officials never made it clear what had changed over that three-month span.

I stayed in contact with Johnson-Koulianos throughout this season — a text here, a text there. I planned on doing my Honors project for the journalism school on him. We scheduled to meet three weeks ago at his house to start the process. Communication faltered, and that meeting never happened.

The sad ending

Johnson-Koulianos’ story was supposed to end this way — with Lauren and Anthony Koulianos embracing their son at midfield of Kinnick Stadium on Senior Day. It was Nov. 20, and tears flowed from all three. This was the ending Johnson-Koulianos wanted. This was how he wanted people to remember him — as a first-team All-Big Ten receiver, as the product of a hard upbringing and a blessed adoption, as a future NFL player.

On March 14, a few days after Ferentz had rebuffed my request to chronicle Johnson-Koulianos’ story, Anthony Koulianos texted me from Johnson-Koulianos’ phone. He said he was honored that I would think his family’s story was worthy of coverage. But he said it was paramount that his son not do anything against Ferentz’s wishes.

His chain of text messages finished with, “Will definitely be talking to you in the future with a draft-day finish. God willing.”

That seems so long ago. Seven drug charges ago. Where will Johnson-Koulianos go from here? Will he make better choices? Will he learn a valuable lesson? Is this sad ending really an ending at all?
We wonder.

But then again, as we’ve learned when it comes to DJK, we never really know.