By Mark Newman
It remains to be seen whether Daryl Johnston will try to help keep the tradition of the fullback position alive as he assembles this San Antonio Commanders roster along with head coach Mike Riley for the first season of The Alliance of American Football starting in February.
All “Moose” wants is to build another Texas pro football tradition and help aspiring players reach their dreams in the process, the way he did a few decades back.
“It’s been a long time since San Antonio has been able to call a football team their own at the professional level,” said Johnston, the Commanders’ new general manager and a Dallas Cowboys legend. “We were really excited to be a part of this, and I know Mike Riley has made the statement, and I’m the same way, this has been a great opportunity for both of us, but we weren’t going to do this if it wasn’t going to be in the city of San Antonio. Mike has ties from his previous time here, and my tie is just being in the state of Texas and understanding that it was very important for us to be an important part of San Antonio.”
The Commanders have a majority of the Texas college territorial imprint through the new player allocation process. There will be plenty of local and regional ties to help attract fans to the new team, based on roster signings so far, and having Johnston in a leadership position helps steer that popularity.
“There are so many talented athletes who are right on the cusp of making an NFL roster, but for one reason or another end up on a practice squad or out of football completely,” Johnston said. “We’re going to give them the chance to show the football world what they can do, that they do belong. A number of these guys are from the great state of Texas, where football is a way of life, and we look forward to having them in San Antonio uniforms.”
Johnston, 52, earned three Super Bowl rings with Dallas before going onto a successful broadcasting career, one he will hold onto as a FOX Sports analyst while serving in this new capacity. Troy Aikman, Jimmy Johnson, Michael Irvin, Deion Sanders, Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Don Meredith and even Roger Staubach tried their hand at broadcasting after their Cowboys days, many of them to longtime acclaim, but Johnston is unique in that he now re-enters the game in an executive capacity.
You’re not likely to find another Daryl Johnston on the Commanders roster, as fullbacks are few and far between. But you definitely will find a Daryl Richardson, the former NFL running back from Abilene Christian. Or former NFL running back Khiry Robinson from West Texas A&M. They are more of the prototype backs, the kinds Johnston can easily size up with his top-notch football IQ.
Johnston cleared a path for all-time NFL rushing leader Emmitt Smith in those heady days, and many people will never forget the part of Smith’s 2010 Hall of Fame speech where he had Johnston stand up amid crowd chants of “MOOOOOOSE” and then broke down at the podium while saying: “You took care of me as though you were taking care of your little brother.”
Just as The Alliance represents a big opportunity for players looking for the pinnacle of their profession, so too did Johnston see it as a way to utilize his strengths. Maybe he will even be seen as “the unsung hero” for this team, the way Smith remembers him.
Smith told interviewer Graham Bensinger recently. “He would go in and do all the dirty groundwork that most people would not recognize. He did not get a lot of notoriety for it. Although ‘Moose’ became a household name because of who he was as a person and what he meant to our offense and what he did on the football field. He would go in and uproot linebackers and had to go up against guys that sometimes outweighed him by 10 or 20 pounds.”
Anyone who calls Johnston “Daryl” or “DJ” typically knows him from before his Cowboy days. Credit backup quarterback Babe Laufenberg for that. It was 1989, Johnston’s rookie year after being drafted in the second round. Practice would start and the team would break up into individual groups, with running backs at the far end of the field, and then the entire offense would come together.
“So when we walked up to the group, Babe just very innocently made the comment, ‘You look like a Moose walking in a field of deer,’” Johnston told NBC Sports. “He was talking about the running back group because everybody was a lot smaller than I was at the time. Even Broderick Sargent, who was my backup fullback at the time, was a 5-10, 245-pound stocky guy, but not a tall guy. It made it to the radio in Dallas with Brad Sham, and then John Madden got a hold of it a couple years later, and that’s when I lost my real first name.”
Johnston has no doubts that Texas football will succeed on this platform and is sure that The Alliance will benefit from the Commanders’ big-time fan base. He holds vivid memories of days in the 1990s when the Cowboys trained at St. Edward’s University in Austin, and so many fans from San Antonio driving up I-35, standing out in 88 degrees plus humidity in the morning, 102 in the afternoon, with their kids, watching Johnston and his teammates practice – practice! – the game of football.
“So now for San Antonio to really be able to get behind somebody that’s their team, this is our group. I’m really excited about that,” he told Sports2Nite in San Antonio. “It’s not just talk. We are going to engage the fans. We want the fans to be part of our family. This is going to be fun.”