Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson Jr. breaks out of the huddle, jogs over to the right side of the line of scrimmage, and assumes his familiar stance: Slightly bent at the waist, his long arms dangling, fingers slowly twitching, one leg in front of the other, poised to execute his route as soon as the ball is snapped to quarterback Matt Stafford.
The ball is snapped and Stafford drops back as Johnson explodes straight forward for between 10 and 20 yards.
“It was a post route,” Nate Burleson, another Lions wide receiver, says with a grin.
After gliding through those first few yards, Johnson abruptly cuts left and accelerates toward midfield and the facing goalpost — thus, the name of the route — a graceful 6-foot 5-inch, 235-pounds as he leaves behind his thoroughly faked-out defender and sprints toward the landing spot of the spiral that has just left Stafford’s hand. It looks to be yet another execution of timing and precision by the quarterback and his favorite target — except for one problem.
“It was clear to everybody on the field that Calvin wasn’t going to get to the ball,” Burleson says. “I mean, he was probably 50 yards downfield.”
That’s when something amazing happens — or maybe not so amazing, when it comes to the player many also know as Megatron — after the robot in the Transformers film series — because of his size, stature, and ability to consistently make the big, seemingly impossible play.
“He looked up,” Burleson says, “tracked the ball, hit another gear, and got to it. And it was one of those things that kind of makes you take a deep breath and appreciate who he is.” Especially because this spectacular catch comes not in a game, but in one of the Lions’ late spring, voluntary training sessions. It’s business as usual for Johnson and his appreciative and often incredulous teammates.
“He wants to be great,” Stafford says. “His work ethic is outstanding. He understands that the game isn’t just about being bigger, faster, and stronger. He works at it mentally and works at his craft. He’s a great teammate.”
“He’s the hardest worker on the team,” echoes Burleson, who’s also Calvin’s closest friend on the Lions. “He’s like a sponge, like a rookie player, trying to learn his way and make the team. That’s how he approaches every day.”
The friend is clearly also a fan.
“Usually a guy with his physical skills is gonna be a diva — to the max,” Burleson says. “But he’s the complete opposite, doing everything he can to improve, like he’s trying to make the squad.”
Shawn Jefferson, the Lions wide-receivers coach, says he sometimes has to tell Johnson to slow down at practice. “If I don’t stop him, he’ll run himself to death,” Jefferson says. “It’s just his work ethic. He told me on day one he wants to be the greatest, and every day he steps on that field he works like that, prepares like that.”
Last season, it all paid off when Johnson officially arrived as a premier performer in the NFL.
During the Lions run to a 10-6 record and a playoff berth, Johnson reached career highs in catches (96), yards (1,681, which led the NFL), and touchdowns (16, a Lions franchise record). He had another 12 catches for 211 yards and two more touchdowns in the Lions opening round playoff loss against the New Orleans Saints, the team’s first post-season appearance since 1999.
Last spring, the 26-year-old Johnson was rewarded with an eight-year, approximately $132-million contract, the biggest deal for any receiver in NFL history. Soon after that announcement, there was another one, from the folks behind the popular video game Madden NFL: Johnson, aka Megatron, would receive the honor of the cover of the latest version, edging out another young and dynamic NFL luminary, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
That’s heady stuff. But any attempt to prod Johnson into talking about his accomplishments in a substantive way is futile.
“We used to have kind of a joke,” says Carlos Monarrez, who covers the Lions for the Free Press. “You didn’t talk to Calvin Johnson, you talked to his shoulder, because he’d be sitting in front of his locker, just staring into it. He wasn’t a jerk or anything, he was just quiet. And that’s just Calvin.”
He’s come a long way since those early days, Monarrez adds, but his point is clear: Johnson is the antithesis of what has become the standard of brazen self-promotion by, in particular, virtually every other NFL wide receiver. (Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco, are you listening?) He’s guarded and reserved when it comes to revealing his personal life.
In short, Johnson just isn’t very good “copy.” And yet there’s not a shred of resentment toward him from those whose livelihoods depend on it. In fact, the opposite is true.
“He is what he is and he’s special,” says Chris McCosky of The Detroit News, who’s been covering sports in Michigan for 30-plus years, and the Lions since 2010. “Because it’s not an act. He’s not fake humble. He’s just a good dude, and this city’s blessed to have a talent and a guy like him.”
So while Johnson is relaxed and cordial during an interview just after he’s one of the last players to leave the practice field, he deflects all personal questions, saying only he gets his work ethic from his parents. (His mother, Arica, has a Ph.D. in education and works for the Atlanta Public School System; his father, Calvin, retired as a freight-train conductor.) “They set an example for me from an early age,” Johnson Jr. says.
With that, Detroit Lion No. 81 steps away from the personal as deftly as one of his on-field maneuvers. Switching topics, he says, being on the Madden cover is “a big honor, seeing all those guys that you looked up to that were on the cover before, to be able to be that guy for kids nowadays, that’s pretty cool.”
He says his goal for the 2012 season is “to do better than the year before, whether it be route running, working on my hands, my eye-hand coordination, more time in the film room, more time with my quarterback, whatever it may be.”
Then, after generously complimenting Stafford, vowing the team will settle for nothing less than a Super Bowl berth, and remembering to credit a trainer for an off-season conditioning program, which Johnson says has immeasurably strengthened his tendons and joints, he smiles, shakes hands, and slips away to the sanctuary and comfort of the locker room and his teammates.
That’s “just Calvin,” is the thought that comes to mind — an old-school kind of guy who prefers that his actions speak louder than words. Those actions include his Calvin Johnson Jr. Foundation, a non-profit founded in 2008 for the education, training, and social development of at-risk youth and providing financial assistance to community organizations.
Last June, the foundation, whose motto is “Catching Dreams,” held a fundraiser at the Westin Book Cadillac to raise scholarship funds for metro Detroit high-school athletes. In July, he conducted a wide-receiver football camp at his former high school in Tyrone, Ga., a community of 7,000 south of Atlanta.
Tyrone residents speak as glowingly of Johnson as his teammates here. Chip Walker, offensive coordinator during Johnson’s time at Sandy Creek High School, remembers him as a naturally talented athlete who never gave anyone any grief.
“[Johnson] was an absolute joy to work with,” Walker says. “He was the hardest-working guy on the team. His work ethic at such a young age was incredible. I mean, obviously he made good plays.”
Johnson also grew up in a family that never made football a priority, Walker recalls. What Johnson saw for his future, the coach says, wasn’t stardom in the NFL, but a solid education. His parents made it known to all four of their children, Walker says, that education was always the priority.
“Johnson never planned to be the second pick in the NFL draft [which he was in 2007],” Walker says. “The purpose was to always get a good education — and that maybe football would pay for it.”
At Georgia Tech, Johnson was a building-construction major with a sterling collegiate football career. That still-young career already has quite a highlight reel.
There’s the overtime game against Minnesota last season. Stafford, backpedaling under heavy pressure, heaves the ball down the left sideline and Johnson, bent backwards at the hip, looking over his head, somehow makes the catch and sets up the team for a winning field goal. Only one defensive back is covering Johnson on the play.
“You can’t do that,” says Lions cornerback Chris Houston. “It was good coverage, but you gotta put two people on Calvin, no matter where he is on the field. He can out-leap anybody. He’s too fast, too athletic, and he just finds the ball.”
Forget about double coverage. In a game against Dallas, there are three Cowboys defenders swarming around Johnson as he runs into the end zone and points skyward with his left hand, a not-so-subtle signal for Stafford to throw it high. Johnson easily out-jumps the coverage for another touchdown, helping the Lions overcome a 20-point halftime deficit for another win.
“Everybody talks about his size and his jumping ability and how fast he is,” Stafford says, “but the guy just flat out doesn’t drop the ball, you know? You throw it to him and he’s gonna catch it. So it’s fun for him to know if he’s 60, 70 yards downfield he’s not out of range, and it’s fun for me knowing that if he’s covered I can put it up there and he can go up and get it.”
Johnson’s talent certainly accounts in large part for his ability to do the remarkable things he does on Sunday afternoons. But Burleson says attitude and temperament are also a critical part of the equation.
“He’s so quiet and he’s such a nice guy, you know?” says Burleson, “so I thought to myself, man, if he’s a nice guy and he’s that good, what if I turn him into a little bit of a jerk?”
Burleson chuckles and adds: “Maybe get him pissed off a little bit, you know? Everybody plays with a little more passion once they have emotion involved, so I’m not saying I added that to his game, I just go out there with a ton of energy and sometimes it rubs off on guys.”
It seemed to rub off on Johnson in that Cowboys game last season. After beating those three defenders, he celebrated the touchdown in a way that belied his off-field persona, taking a giant stride toward the wall behind the end zone and rifling the ball directly at one of the Cowboys signature stars hanging over it, before strutting into the arms of his teammates.
“I’ll take a tad of credit for that,” Burleson says with a sly smile, “and those are the type of things I like to see out of Calvin because when he plays with passion, he’s even that much more unstoppable.”
All of which gives credence to the notion that the reserved and humble guy who answers to Calvin six days a week, transforms — like his animated alter ego — into a seemingly unstoppable force on game days. The Sunday transition from Calvin to Megatron recalls another action hero who spends most of his time as a mild-mannered reporter — until a threat requires him to find the nearest phone booth.
“Calvin and Clark Kent? Oh, for sure,” Burleson says, “Glasses and tie, yeah, and we can see the cape hanging out of the suit a little bit. And then on Sunday, you know, he goes into that booth and he changes and he truly is Superman.”