PHILADELPHIA - It was perfectly understandable if you missed the moment Damaris Johnson set a Philadelphia Eagles' team record.
After all, with less than a minute to play and his team down 11 points to the Dallas Cowboys, who else - other than diehard fans and gamblers interested in the point spread - was really paying attention when he dropped back to receive a punt?
You could even argue the rookie from the University of Tulsa wasn't completely aware of the situation, since he elected to field the ball at his own 2, rather than letting it go into the end zone.
But 98 untouched yards later, there was Damaris Johnson in the end zone, celebrating his first NFL touchdown and shattering the franchise mark of 87 yards set by Vai Sikahema in 1992.
Considering the 5-foot-8, 175-pound Johnson's longest prior runback had been 20 yards, and considering he was performing so ineffectively earlier in the season he was benched for two games, this was totally unexpected.
But in the eyes of the 23-year-old Eagle, it was long overdue.
"The first 60 yards I was somewhat numb," admitted Johnson, who also caught one 13-yard pass in Sunday's 38-33 loss in Dallas, the 3-9 Eagles' eighth straight setback. "Running down the field I'm thinking, 'I'm about to score my first NFL touchdown.'
"Once I got in the end zone it just felt great. My adrenaline was pumping, I didn't realize until after the game how far it was."
Take away that one shining moment and it's been a season of growing pains for Johnson and the Eagles. "Knowing it's a very long season with a lot of ups and downs, you can't get too high or too low," said Johnson, who has heard from family, friends and former teammates since Sunday. "That's one thing I've learned through the course of this season. "It's gonna work out for the best."
It seldom has this season for the underachieving Eagles, who have drawn the wrath of a fan base longing for the end of coach Andy Reid's 14-year era.
"We've been practicing hard and preparing hard," said Johnson, who picked Philadelphia over a half-dozen other teams after being undrafted and signing as a free agent for the highest undrafted player signing bonus. "We just haven't gotten the breaks on game day."
Johnson said the similarities between the Eagles' and Tulsa's offenses helped draw him to Philadelphia.
"I wanted to come here because we kind of play a spread offense, like we did at Tulsa. I thought it would give me the best opportunity to show what I could do. I looked at the team and looked at the receivers. But most of all, it was a gut feeling. I just felt here it was real genuine. They were real excited to have me and give me every opportunity.
"They showed me a lot of love, and I really appreciated it."
The affection actually started prior to the NFL draft last April, even though Johnson, the NCAA's career all-purpose yardage and kick return leader with 7,796 yards, hadn't played his senior season after being suspended for felony embezzlement.
Those charges were expunged from his record after Johnson made restitution and completed community service, but they did cause his draft stock to drop. After Johnson went undrafted, the Eagles were still willing to take the gamble.
"At the end of the day for a lot of teams, it's a poker game," said Johnson's agent Kevin Omell, whose firm handles some 30 NFL players, including Bart Scott, Lardarius Webb and former Tulsa star Charles Clay. "But you don't have to be a top-10 pick to be involved.
"I told Damaris he was about 50-50 to get drafted, because he hadn't played football in a year. But this kid had never been in trouble before this.
"He made a mistake, and he owned it."
As far as football goes, it has taken some time for Johnson to scrape the rust off his game. Johnson has caught 13 passes for 203 yards this season. But even in limited doses, the Eagles like what they see.
"He can run with the ball," said Eagles' special teams coordinator Bobby April, who did much of the background checks on Johnson before the Eagles signed him. "He's got real good quickness and he's tough. You don't see the ball hit the ground much, because he's not afraid to run through traffic. I think he can be an exceptional return man.
"He was confident prior to that, but certainly success always adds an intangible dimension. He'll benefit from that."
His teammates have noticed, too.
"You look at a player who doesn't really look at what's against him, with his size and all," said veteran wide receiver Jason Avant. "But he has the heart to compete."
The skills are there, too. They've just taken a while to surface. But since being deactivated on consecutive weeks after fumbling one punt and making poor decisions handling others, Johnson has bounced back.
"It definitely woke me up," said Johnson of being benched. "You have to pay attention to detail.
"Every little thing matters in this league. I've been focusing on watching the ball in ... reading my blocks ... making sure I'm catching the ball in the right situations.
"I took that as time off for me to watch from the sidelines and see things I could do to better my game."
Since coming back, he has been more effective, catching an occasional ball from fellow rookie Nick Foles, who has taken over for the injured Michael Vick, while doing a better job handling punts.
The culmination of that, of course, came last Sunday when he broke the big one. Now Johnson expects even more.
"Definitely my confidence goes up, since before that I'd never scored an NFL touchdown," said Johnson, who scored 29 touchdowns in his three seasons with the Golden Hurricane. "But now that I know what it takes to do it, I know the feeling of being in the end zone.
"I'm pretty proud of myself."
Johnson probably has just one wish now for his career going forward: The next time something memorable happens, everyone's paying attention.
Damaris Johnson: By the numbers
236: Punt return yards this season, 15th in the NFL
13.9: Yards per punt return, fifth in the NFL.
1: Punt return for a touchdown this season
20.3: Average receiving yards per game this season.
Original Print Headline: Former TU star leaving an impression
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