Thursday, December 2, 2010
Stevie Johnson plans to make it fun again
By Tim Graham
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- A lot has happened since I started writing this Stevie Johnson story more than a week ago.
It looks nothing like what I intended, and yet it's about the same thing.
The Buffalo Bills receiver is a natural entertainer in shoulder pads. He comes from a musical family and was known as Stevie Styles at the University of Kentucky with rousing pregame poetry. Johnson projects on television. He has that innate ability to relate with an audience. He wants to move people, bring them joy.
Johnson was doing that a week ago. A colorful interview on Jim Rome's radio show included a freestyle rap that made him an immediate smash. Rome brought him back to appear on his television show. Johnson was on ESPN's "First Take." He was doing one-on-one interviews with outlets across the country.
It's been a whirlwind season for Stevie Johnson, who's on pace to break the Bills' single-season record for TD catches.
"I didn't really expect this much attention," Johnson told me last week at One Bills Drive. "I always knew I could produce anywhere as long as I got the opportunity, but how it's blowing up, I didn't see that coming."
His breakout season started the whirlwind. He was a 2008 seventh-round draft choice who had trouble getting on the field until this year, yet he's tied for third in the NFL with nine touchdown catches, two away from the club record. He had a streak of five games with a touchdown.
Johnson scored three touchdowns in a stunning comeback victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 11. His playfulness was revealed on his undershirt, lifting his jersey to reveal the hand-scrawled query "Why So Serious?" It was a reference to the Joker, and a tweak of former teammate Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco (aka Batman and Robin).
His stepfather, Andre Lewis, is a noted record producer in the Bay Area. So, using parlance to which he's well attuned, I asked Johnson how he prevents being a one-hit wonder.
The assumption was that he was blaming God for making him drop the pass. Johnson clarified the next day, claiming he merely was making a rhetorical appeal.
Johnson's drop-and-tweet Sunday launched him into the media mainstream in a way he never wanted. Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Kimmel included Johnson jokes in their Monday night monologues. Johnson was a topic on "The View" and celebrity gossip site TMZ.com. He was the lead story on CNN.com's religion page.
I met up with Johnson again Wednesday at his locker stall. I'm no psychologist, but it appeared the incident was behind him. He was smiling again, confident he had adequately explained his poorly calculated tweet -- even though he still couldn't explain the drop.
As he beat Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor and looked skyward over his left shoulder, he saw the ball on its way and could tell by the trajectory.
"Money," Johnson said, re-enacting the play in the locker room. He held his hands out for the imaginary ball. "I got this. It's over."
From there, he doesn't know how the ball didn't land into the palms of what Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips (he didn't get the "Why So Serious" reference, by the way) told me "were some of the strongest hands I've ever seen." The tip of the ball somehow glanced off Johnson's right upper arm and fell incomplete.
I wondered if Johnson knew the story of Jackie Smith, the Hall of Fame tight end who dropped a pass in the end zone against the Steelers in Super Bowl XIII. The Dallas Cowboys had to kick a field goal and lost by four points.
Johnson said he wasn't familiar with Smith's tale, so I sent Johnson a link to a story about him. What struck Johnson most was that it was Smith's last play in the NFL.
Johnson will have more opportunities, including this year. With five games left, he's only two touchdown receptions from Bill Brooks' club record of 11.
"This Johnson boy has emerged," legendary Bills receiver Andre Reed said. "He catches the ball well in traffic. He finds seams in defenses. He's very confident about what he's doing and that's No. 1 what you have to have when you go out there. Plus, [Bills quarterback] Ryan Fitzpatrick is looking for him. Defenses are going to pay attention to him."
How amazing that a kid who didn't play football until he was a junior in high school and didn't play receiver until he got to college is on pace to score more touchdowns in a season for the Bills than Eric Moulds or Reed or James Lofton or Frank Lewis or Haven Moses or Elbert Dubenion.
When I mentioned that a week ago, I was more surprised at his reaction than I was at the fact he might break the record. It was almost as though he didn't realize how impressive the record would be.
"So you're saying, like, if I get these two touchdowns, I'll be the single-team leader in touchdowns? When you say Lofton, Reed and Moulds, that's huge. That's unbelievable," Johnson said.
"When I came into the season, I wasn't thinking about scoring 15 or 13 touchdowns or getting a record. I was just trying to fill a vacancy and be the guy next to Lee Evans to make plays."
There's a lot of aw-shucks in Johnson, and that's what makes him so easy to root for.
Phillips, the head coach at Kentucky who was Johnson's position coach there, explained how Johnson struggled in his transition from San Francisco to Lexington because he couldn't be with his future wife, Britney. She moved there to be with him, got a job, centered him.
"That says a lot about a young man who's going off to college," Phillips said. "He's a big-time family guy. He loves his daughter, loves his wife. From the day he got here, all he talked about was getting his [future] wife out here with him."
Johnson expressed a similar sentiment Wednesday, noting by the time he walked up to Britney in the kitchen after Sunday's heartbreaking defeat, he was all smiles -- because it was better than crying.
Why so serious?
"After looking at this season," Johnson said, "it's pretty evident: 'OK, Stevie. You probably can make some noise in this league. Just go out there next Sunday and do it again.' You can't be settled. I have to continue to prove to myself I can be with those guys."