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Daryl Johnston: The Competitor

The former Dallas Cowboy and broadcaster missed the feeling of winning he got on the gridiron. So he jumped into a brutally competitive business—artificial turf for athletic fields. Now his little startup is fighting an uphill battle.
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"Winning to me was expected," Johnston says. "If we did everything we need to do to prepare, then we should win. Losing to me was an empty, hollow feeling." photography by Trevor Paulhus

When he retired from the Dallas Cowboys in 1999 with a neck injury, fullback Daryl “Moose” Johnston had no idea what he would do for a new career. He was just 34 years old, with an 11-year football résumé highlighted by three Super Bowl rings and selection to the Pro Bowl, a first-ever for his position.

Johnston did have experience in radio and television during his playing days, though, on shows like “The Moose Call” on KRLD/KLIF. So he decided to try broadcasting full-time, and CBS was willing to give him a shot.

A natural in the booth, he demonstrated personality and smarts from his very first broadcast. “There were some situations in the course of the game that showed I wasn’t afraid to take a stance, which is what they like,” Johnston says. Within two years he’d made Fox’s No. 2 broadcast team, where he still works these days alongside play-by-play announcer Kenny Albert and sideline reporter Tony Siragusa.

While broadcasting has been good to Johnston—and it takes a lot of preparation to do well—the job lacks a certain something that he misses from his playing days. “When your football career ends, you miss competition. Once you retire, that’s gone,” he says. “There is no measuring stick in broadcasting. You don’t finish a game and look at a scoreboard and say, ‘We won that one.’ You feel good about a job done, hopefully well done, but there’s an empty feeling.”

To sate the empty feeling, Johnston turned to business. He taps a grass-green brochure for G9 Turf, an artificial turf playing-field startup where he’s one of four owners, and confesses: “In this, I love the competition.”

It’s a good thing he does. Because, for his first foray into business ownership, Johnston has chosen a market where the competition is brutal. A handful of established companies dominate the artificial-turf world, and barriers to entry have proven to be surprisingly steep.

To hear Johnston tell it, though, he wouldn’t have it any other way. His plunge into the business game came three years ago, when he got a phone call from Don McPhearson, a former All-American quarterback he’d played football with at Syracuse University. McPhearson had teamed up with Grant Hendricks Jr., owner of a family construction business in Long Island, N.Y., and the two began planning to launch an artificial-turf company.

Hendricks and McPhearson thought Johnston might want to get involved as a Texas and Southwest sales representative. “I told him, `Donny, I’m a grass guy. I never really liked turf. I don’t know much about turf,’” Johnston recalls. Replied McPhearson: “ ‘Listen, you played on the best grass fields with staffs to maintain them. High schools and park and rec departments don’t have budgets to do that kind of maintenance. With a lot of games, grass burns out and turns into mud.”

Johnston familiarized himself with the product and the business plan McPhearson and Hendricks had mapped out. Then he decided to join the enterprise as a partner.

“He’s very bright, well-spoken and he’s one of those guys who will study every single thing around the topic until he becomes an expert,” Hendricks says of Johnston. “He doesn’t do anything half-way. You can look at the videotapes of him playing, and it was seek and destroy. That’s how he did his job. He’s an extremely motivated guy, determined to be the best at anything he does.”

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G9 Turf has positioned itself at the higher end of the artificial-turf market, with a heavier-weight product and a maintenance regimen that promises to extend a field’s life and make it safer. “With the standard turf, one square yard is going to [weigh] 33 ounces. Ours is 53,” Johnston says. “We’re going to be more expensive and, in a low-bid scenario, we’re not going to get your job.”

G9 Turf fields cost about $1.3 million. By contrast, fields by FieldTurf, the segment’s market leader, run in the $700,000 to $800,000 range. G9’s fields are a combination of a blade-covered carpet surface, plus a pellet-shaped infill made out of rubber or similar material that functions like the sole of an athletic shoe. Over time, because of weather or heavy usage, the infill compacts or is moved to the field’s edges, causing the surface to become harder.

A field’s shock-absorbing properties are measured on a so-called “Gmax” scale. New fields tend to have ratings between 100 and 140, on a scale where lower numbers represent more absorption of force. Ratings above 200 are considered unacceptable by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, although adherence to the standards is voluntary.

“This is what sets us apart,” says Johnston, pointing to a picture of a tractor-mounted maintenance machine that looks like an industrial vacuum cleaner. “This is out of the United Kingdom, and we have exclusive rights to it in North America.”

Without ever touching the surface, the innovative machine blows compressed air into the turf, pulling up the infill from whatever depth desired, while untangling the turf strands at the same time. Thus the infill is cleaned or replaced and distributed back over the field as the final step of a maintenance process that Johnston says lowers Gmax scores and keeps fields safer.

“As I’ve been involved with retired players, everything sort of comes back to the head and concussions, safety,” Johnston says. “I’ve been on Capitol Hill talking about financial problems players have had and injury problems, the problem of concussions. This is something I’m very passionate about.”

So, it makes sense that the business he’s pursuing has a safety component to it. Concussions come from “helmet-to-helmet hits, the knee to the side of the head, and there’s the third hit: the helmet going to the turf,” he says. “Safety is an easy sell for me, but it’s a long slow process in times of tight budgets to make headway, like turning a tanker. Every mom and dad out there wants their kid to be on the safest field. We want to put their kid on the safest field.”

To date, the company has installed two fields at Kellenberg Memorial High School in suburban Long Island, plus a multi-purpose field at the track stadium at Syracuse University. It also partnered with one of the most established names in the business, AstroTurf, to install a new field this summer at the Episcopal School of Dallas.

According to Hendricks, one reason G9 entered the artificial turf business was because it’s growing. Terrie Ward, a spokeswoman for the Synthetic Turf Council, an industry group, says the turf industry is growing by 10 percent per year, and currently logs about $1 billion a year in sales. Last year about 1,000 synthetic turf fields were installed in the United States and Canada at schools, colleges, parks and professional sports stadiums. That compares to about 400 fields installed in 2003.

Recalls Johnston: “We met with a local contractor down here who does a lot of high school programs. He said, `Can I ask you a question? You seem like good people. Why do you want to get into this industry? It’s tough. It’s very hard.’ ”

The company that introduced modern artificial turf in the late 1990s, FieldTurf, boasts 60 percent of the market. Other big companies such as AstroTurf, which invented the first synthetic turf in 1965, compete vigorously for the rest.

Competitive bid proposals tend to favor the most established players, since experience standards can require bidders to have as many as 100 previous installations, Johnston says.

On the maintenance side, some installation companies attempt to screen out all possible competitors by backing their warranties only if an “approved” maintenance contractor is used. “We’ve helped a lot of companies out with maintenance problems, but there are people who see us as competition for the next installation,” Johnston explains.

Hendricks and Johnston declined to discuss the company’s annual sales, although Hendricks conceded, “they wouldn’t impress.” He says the company is new and growing with maintenance contracts that have it fielding three crews, mostly at school facilities on the Eastern seaboard.

McPhearson, who won the Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award in 1987 before a professional career that included stints with the Philadelphia Eagles and Houston Oilers, says Johnston has been a good partner in a start-up business where setbacks are inevitable.
“We had a meeting in New York a few months ago that didn’t go the way we had hoped. Not long after, Daryl went back to Dallas. I got an email from him and it was, ‘Okay, we just got kicked, but this is how we’re going to get back up and here’s a good next move,’”

McPhearson recalls. “That is what you want. You don’t want people who, when you take your lumps, are going to panic and set you off from your mission and your path.”

Johnston says that while the company may be a startup, in April “we sat at the table with the NFL and all the big guys, FieldTurf, Astroturf,” in a meeting on field playability and safety. National Football League stadiums are of course the highest-profile venues for the product, but that market is tiny—just 16 teams play on synthetic turf—and fields are often provided for free or at discounted rates by turf companies for marketing purposes. The Superdome in New Orleans, for example, gets a new field every year from its supplier. So most of the artificial-turf market is in the municipal, high school, and college facilities.

Johnston’s work with G9 Turf complements his busy broadcasting schedule, at least during football season. He recently signed a two-year contract extension with Fox, where his work requires about four half-days of study and prep weekdays during football season and, of course, a heavy weekend schedule. “There’s always something to learn,” he says.

Johnston and his wife Diana currently are selling their 7, 930-square-foot North Dallas home—listing price, $3.1 million—but the couple is just moving “across town” to a somewhat smaller place, he says.

Both grew up on the East Coast, but decided after Johnston’s retirement to make Dallas their long-term home. Their son Aidan, 12, and daughter Evan, 10, both attend Episcopal, where Johnston has had a leadership role in student nutrition and wellness matters.

A healthy diet and exercise—he does a “boot camp workout” twice a week and bikes around White Rock Lake “quite a bit”—have left the former fullback looking trim, 20 pounds below his 238-pound playing weight.

Former Dallas quarterback Babe Laufenberg gave Johnston his nickname in 1989, when Johnston, a native of Youngstown, Ohio, came into a team meeting with the Cowboys’ squad of petite running backs. “Here he comes,” Laufenberg said, “a moose among the deer.”

The nickname stuck with the fans, and Johnston’s sturdy blocking opened holes for running back Emmitt Smith and protected quarterback Troy Aikman as the Cowboys won Super Bowl titles following the 1992, 1993, and 1995 seasons. Johnston, who wore No. 48, rushed for 752 yards and eight touchdowns over his career and caught 294 passes for 2,227 yards and 14 scores. But it was his blocking skills and team-mindedness that made him one of the Cowboys’ most popular players. Fans would shout “Moooose!” whenever he touched the ball.

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For a recent interview with D CEO, Johnston suggested meeting at Southpaw’s Organic Cafe in Preston Center. “This place is like Cheers for good health. Everybody knows your name,” he said, fitting his lean frame behind a window table. Dressed for the morning in a T-shirt, shorts and sneakers, he got a manly high-five from owner Reza Anvarian, who has named a menu item after Johnston. The Moose Wrap “is four scrambled eggs and a bunch of vegetables,” Johnston explains.

Johnston says he relaxes by working out or playing golf at charity events—he’s a 16 handicap—and dines with his wife at local favorites such as Abacus and Fearing’s.

But, don’t expect a lot of kicking back from Johnston until the turf business gets further into the air. This past summer he had appointments on his schedule with groups such as the Texas High School Coaches Association—and plenty of work to do.

From his playing days, Johnston says, he doesn’t believe in luck—and he hates to lose more than he likes to win: “Winning to me was expected. If we did everything we need to do to prepare, then we should win. Losing is an empty, hollow feeling.”

And, he’s taking the same approach with the artificial-turf business. “Failure,” Johnston says, “is not an option.”