Former Jayhawks, teammates and roommates to face off Sunday in NFL playoffs
When the San Diego Chargers visit the Denver Broncos at 3:40 p.m. Sunday, the game will pit three former Kansas University football players vying for a spot in the AFC championship game.
The meeting between San Diego's Darrell Stuckey (25 above) and Denver's Chris Harris (16 above) and Steven Johnson represents arguably the biggest NFL game in quite some time that features former Jayhawks on both sides.
And the reunion is made even cooler by the fact that the trio of KU alums played on the same Jayhawk teams for two seasons and even lived together for a short time during their college careers.
Although Sunday's meeting brings the three former teammates together at the same key point in time, their paths to get there were significantly different.
Stuckey was the first of the three to reach the NFL, drafted by San Diego in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft.
During his first four seasons in the league, the Kansas City, Kan., native has made a name for himself as a special teams standout. His 12 special teams tackles in 2012 were tops on the team and his total of nearly 40 special teams tackles during the past three seasons rank in the Top 10 in the NFL despite Stuckey having played in fewer games than most players on the list above him.
Of late, Stuckey has begun to make a greater impact on defense, as well, finishing last week's playoff victory over Cincinnati with a career-high five tackles and two passes defended. His 26 tackles this season came through both defense and special teams, where he has garnered mention for a spot in the pro bowl during the past couple of seasons.
"Stuck might be the best I've seen in my 11 years," San Diego punter Mike Scifres said in a recent interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Some of the things he can do, the way he can change games, it's almost second to none right now."
Added Chargers place kicker Nick Novak: "He's virtually unstoppable because his technique is that good. He's such a student of the game. He just has, it seems, a counter move for every move they're bringing at him. Of course, he's human, but sometimes you think he's made for special teams."
Harris followed Stuckey into the league in 2011 but went the route of joining the Broncos as an undrafted free agent following the NFL lockout. Like Stuckey, the Bixby, Okla., native first made his mark on special teams, but when the Broncos' secondary endured key injuries, Harris was tossed into the lineup on defense and quickly became one of the team's top utility men, thanks largely to the many roles he played while at Kansas.
He has been referred to by some as the NFL's best coverage guy on slot receivers and his intelligence, physicality and tackling ability have made him one of the most valuable defensive players on the AFC's top seeded team that finished 13-3 during back-to-back seasons.
Harris' contributions to the Mile High City have reached far beyond the field. He's one of the team's most active members in the community and, recently, was given the Darrent Williams Good Guy award by the Denver media.
"He’s a stand-up guy even when times aren’t going real well," Denver coach John Fox said of Harris. "He’s, I think, mature beyond his years. I think he’s done a tremendous job just where he came from and what he’s accomplished in a short time here with the Broncos. It doesn’t surprise me.”
Johnson, who, like Stuckey, was invited to the NFL combine, went undrafted but quickly agreed to a free-agent deal with Denver following the completion of the 2012 draft.
The former Jayhawk, who led Kansas in tackles during his junior and senior seasons, said Harris' trailblazing paved the way for him to land in Denver.
“It actually meant a lot,” Johnson told the Journal-World at the time. “He was the one who called me and told me they were trying to draft me. He called me and told me all about Denver and told me they were a team on the rise, and I wanted to go to a team that could contend and win Super Bowls and stuff like that.”
Johnson spent his early days at Kansas as a walk-on desperate for an opportunity. He spent a chunk of time living on teammates couches and had to overcome a couple of major injuries prior to college that slowed his development. Despite all the adversity, Johnson stuck it out and wound up becoming one of the top tacklers in the Big 12 before leaving college.
That relentless style and attitude seems to be serving him well in the NFL, too.
"He's the guy that if anything happens, he's so into the game he's like, 'Now, Coach? I'm ready,' " Denver defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio told the Denver Post.
Sunday is not the first NFL meeting between these three former Jayhawks. The Broncos and Chargers played twice during the regular season in 2012 and twice this season, as well. Denver won three of the four meetings, but San Diego emerged victorious during the most recent match-up, which has added significant intrigue to the showdown between the AFC's top-seeded and bottom-seeded teams this weekend.
Because of each team's Jayhawk ties, that showdown figures to be even more interesting for Kansas football fans.
As an appetizer, former KU All-American Aqib Talib and the New England Patriots will face the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday night in the weekend's other AFC playoff game. If Talib and the Patriots prevail, they'll play the winner of the San Diego-Denver game on Jan. 19 for the right to go to the Super Bowl, and the book of biggest pro football games between former Jayhawks will include another chapter.