Daryl Johnston comments on incredible football journey to Dallas Cowboys, friendship with Emmitt Smith

By Matt Fitzgerald

Longtime Dallas Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston recently caught up with Rich Salgado on Big Daddy & Friends to discuss his remarkable path to the NFL, his friendship with Cowboys legend Emmitt Smith and how he was following the prolific ball-carrier long before their days as three-time Super Bowl champions in Dallas.

Johnston has served as an NFL game analyst for Fox for two decades, and even served recently as the Dallas Renegades’ director of player personnel in the XFL.

Those accomplishments only add to Johnston’s already incredible resume in the football world, and it’s at least in part a product of the resilience he showed very early on.

Daryl Johnston: Sought out Division III colleges before attending Syracuse

Despite a strong prep career at Lewiston-Porter High School in New York, Johnston wasn’t garnering much interest from big-time college football programs. Because he was a strong student, his highest aspirations on the gridiron revolved around playing at an Ivy League school.

“I was not heavily recruited. I was trying to get into some of the big Division III programs,” Johnston said. Probably at that time, my dream school was actually Cornell.”

Johnston wound up visiting Ithaca when he was on his Cornell visit. The schools were in close proximity to each other, and Ithaca had one of the best D3 programs in the country at the time. An encounter with Ithaca head coach Jim Butterfield proved pivotal when he asked Johnston where he was looking.

After a brief pause when Johnston told him Syracuse had entered the mix in the last couple of weeks, Butterfield responded, “Syracuse? You can’t play at Syracuse!”

That sealed it for Johnston. He knew he wanted to try his hand at Division I after that.

“I was a big prove-you-wrong type of guy,” Johnston explained. “As soon as coach said that to me, I knew where I was going.”

Butterfield was closer to being right than perhaps anyone could’ve foreseen. Johnston got into Syracuse’s recruiting class that year by the skin of his teeth.

“I ended up finding out I was the last scholarship given, because somebody who had verbally committed to Syracuse had changed his mind and was going to go to Penn State,” Johnston said.

Sometimes it’s that down to the wire. From what Johnston implied and understood, Syracuse head coach Dick MacPherson and the staff ruled that the final scholarship should go “to the kid from Western New York.” So, it may have been as simple as the fact that Johnston was an in-state recruit that he got the final scholarship.

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Daryl Johnston: Arriving in NFL was a wake-up call

Johnston was thrilled to land with the Cowboys in 1989, when the team selected him in the second round of the NFL Draft at No. 39 overall.

Fullbacks don’t get drafted so high nowadays. Despite the gaudy status he deservedly earned from the draft, though, Johnston soon discovered he needed to earn his keep in Dallas.

“My first year and a half in the NFL, you kind of exhale, because you think all the hard work is over with. ‘Hey I finally made it. Everything I’ve been dreaming about is here,'” Johnston explained. “I found out pretty quick that the hard work was just beginning, and you had to work harder than you ever worked to stay at that level.”

As a rookie, Johnston appeared in all 16 games and made 10 starts, logging 212 rushing yards along with 16 receptions for 133 yards and three touchdowns.

Unfortunately, the Cowboys suffered through a 1-15 record in head coach Jimmy Johnson’s maiden campaign, as Johnston and his draft classmate, the No. 1 overall pick in quarterback Troy Aikman, took a beating physically and mentally.

Hope was soon on the way in the form of an eventual close friend with whom Johnston was already quite familiar.

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Daryl Johnston, Emmitt Smith forged awesome duo, friendship in Cowboys backfield

Daryl Johnston
Dallas Cowboy fullback Daryl “Moose” Johnston grabs a pass from Troy Aikman good for a first down against the Chicago Bears at Texas Stadium in Irving, TX 28 September. The Cowboys won the contest 27-3. AFP PHOTO/Paul K. BUCK (Photo by PAUL BUCK / AFP)

Yes, the man who would go on to become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith, arrived from the University of Florida during the 1990 draft. Along with players buying in more to the coach, upgraded personnel in other key areas and Aikman’s development, Johnston thrived off having a star alongside him in the Cowboys backfield.

All this culminated in Coach of the Year honors for Johnson, an Offensive Rookie of the Year accolade for Smith and a massive improvement of six wins, which laid the foundation for three championships during the 1990s.

Funny enough, Johnston was definitely familiar with Smith’s work long before they formed a close bond for years to come, and referenced how there always seemed to be a connection between them before they really knew each other. He spoke at length about how thrilled he was by what Smith was accomplishing even before college, when he ran for 8,804 yards at Escambia High School in the Sunshine State:

“I’m reading about the numbers he put up in high school…This guy’s a machine, he’s unbelievable. …[Smith] went to Florida, and for some reason, [he] just connected with me and I continued to follow him. A couple years later, here we are on the same team. […] It was bizarre that some kid in central New York is following some kid down in the panhandle of Florida, then four to five years later, they end up being teammates in Texas. How crazy is that?”

Daryl Johnston on Big Daddy & Friends

Among three key mentor figures Johnston mentioned in his life, two of whom were prior to the NFL, the one man he singled out at the professional level was Norv Turner, who came aboard the Cowboys coaching staff as the offensive coordinator in 1991. Johnston credits him with launching the prime of his career and catering more to his strengths as a player.

“[Turner] coming into my life and bringing in an offense that really fit my skill set, I reflect back [on that] a lot.” Johnston said.

Without Turner dialing up excellent plays, Smith’s presence in the backfield, or his contributions to those Super Bowl-winning Cowboys teams, Johnston was adamant he wouldn’t be where he is today.

But as it turned out, the intersection of Smith being in Dallas with Johnston and Turner arriving right at the beginning of both their careers made for some NFL history.

Johnston wound up playing in 151 games (122 starts) from 1989 through 1999, racking up 294 receptions for 2,227 yards and 14 touchdowns, along with 753 rushing yards and eight more scores.