MARTINSVILLE, N.J. — It wasn't the Christmas break that Delano Johnson had hoped for.
He sat in his father's house in Baltimore, Md., on Christmas Eve, a college freshman who had typical plans of unwrapping gifts the next morning, catching up with friends from high school during the next few weeks and of course, sleeping in. Lots of sleeping in. It was supposed to be a carefree time for Johnson, but instead what happened next forever changed his life. Johnson was set to lose a person who he called his "hero and inspiration."
The phone rang with a call that came from his aunt's house, telling him that his mother had passed away. He was raised by her along with his three brothers, a woman who he said "put all of us on her back." His mother had succumbed to a "health problem that she had."
Instead of planning his winter break from college, Johnson readied himself for a funeral.
"I walked into the room and she was passed out - she wouldn't wake up," Johnson told Yahoo! Sports.
"They called an ambulance. They tried to revive and bring her back. They couldn't."
It never was an easy life for Johnson, who remembers following his mother from "home to home to home" as she tried to make ends meet and keep the family together. At 12 years old he was taken to live with his father, where he learned "how to be a man."
But at no point in time did he think that he was going to lose his mother without warning. And certainly not at a difficult time in his life when he was adjusting from high school to college, all while playing two sports at Bowie State.
Johnson was understandably depressed afterwards. But his mother's death became a rallying cry for him over time. He was always blessed with incredible physical gifts, but now he began to harness his ability on the football field and in the weight room. Solace was found with his teammates and workouts.
"I believe it was all from God - He gave it to me as an opportunity to show me that I need to take advantage of this opportunity and get serious about school, serious about work," Johnson said.
"But just going back home, realizing my situation and where I come from - I dealt with depression, a lot. I'd be up at nights and crying. Then it hit me that 'It's your time.' It felt to me like God did this for a reason, that it was a wake-up call for me to take advantage of college and sports."
Having grown up as a basketball star at Dunbar High School in Baltimore, Johnson picked up football in his junior year in high school. There was basketball offers from the College of Charleston and Kent State, and he was being recruited by Maryland, but he chose Bowie State because the school said he could play both sports. But after his mother's death, Johnson began to enjoy football a bit more. He gave up basketball after his sophomore season, focusing solely on his development as an outside linebacker.
"I wasn't thinking too much about playing football in college, but football was fun to me," Johnson said. "It's just a great game and lets you take away your mind from your stress and troubles.
"My second year in college, I started to put on some weight, started to understand the game more and I really fell in love with it. My coaches sat me down and helped me realize that I had an opportunity in football at the next level that I wouldn't have in basketball due to my size. It was an opportunity for me to help myself, help my family."
After his college career, Johnson prepared for a shot at the NFL. He trained for the draft at TEST Sports Clubs in Martinsville, N.J., where he stood out even among the combine prospects as perhaps the most physically gifted athlete in the group. He is 6-foot-4 and weighs 270 pounds, running a 40-yard time in the 4.6-4.7 range, along with 25-35 reps on the 225-pound bench press and a vertical jump of 36 inches.
"Physically he is one of the most gifted athletes that has attended Bowie State," Damon Wilson, his college head coach, said. "I would go on a limb and say that physically he would sit at the top of a number of universities with his God-given stature. Along with Delano's physical attributes, he has also prepared his mind not only for football but to be successful in life."
Daniel Mogollon, one of the founders of the NFLDraftBible.com, added his own praise. "Johnson is an intriguing small-school prospect. For one, he keeps getting bigger and bigger, which is why some believe he may be best suited to playing defensive end at the next level rather than linebacker.
"If he tips the scales at over 270 pounds he may find his home at the next level playing along the line of scrimmage," Mogollon said. "Another reason is his lack of speed. If he can improve on his speed and quickness, Johnson could get a look as a 3-4 hybrid outside linebacker. Johnson was productive in college and flashed potential at the NFLPA All-Star Game, but CIAA football is far away from the NFL"
Johnson's name wasn't called during the NFL draft, but the Houston Texans couldn't ignore Johnson's potential, inking him to an undrafted-free-agent deal just after the seventh round was completed. The Green Bay Packers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Tennessee Titans had interest as well.
"This is really a dream come true to play in the NFL," Johnson said. "Although basketball was my first love, football has stolen my heart and I love the game. I'm excited, nervous and ready to go all at once.
"I'm very grateful that the Texans have given me this opportunity to be a part of an amazing defense and a great organization. At Bowie State I played multiple positions in our defense, under defensive coordinator Antone' Sewell and Daronte Jones - primarily outside linebacker and all special teams so whatever role the Texans would allow me to play would be a blessing."
That "blessing," as he puts it, will hopefully trickle down to his family.
"Football gave me a chance to go to college, to learn and to grow as a man," Johnson said.
"Now I'm working as hard as I can to see if it can give me a way to help my family and to honor my mom. Not a day goes by that I don't think about her."
Follow Kristian R. Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer