Calvin Johnson might be on the cover of “Madden NFL 13,” but when it comes to spending some quality time with his Xbox 360, it’s another type of football that captures his every button press.
“I’m a ‘FIFA’ fan,” Johnson tells me as we meet up in Times Square to talk video games. “Man City is my team. I like [Carlos] Tevez.
“I’ve been a soccer fan ever since the 2006 World Cup. That’s when I started playing ‘FIFA,’ and since then, it just took over from ‘Madden.’”
And while Johnson might not play as much “Madden” as he did growing up, he still knows the dominance of his character in the game.
“My friends call me Cheat Code all the time,” he says with a laugh. “They say it’s unfair when I throw the ball to myself.”
Jon Robinson: You’re on the cover of “Madden 13,” Barry Sanders is on the cover of “NCAA Football 13,” and Justin Verlander is on the cover of “MLB 2K12.” What’s up with Detroit taking over video games?
Calvin Johnson: A lot of pride going on in Detroit right now. We’re doing big things, and we’re trying to restore the city’s confidence right now. I believe that Detroit has some of the greatest, most loyal fans. It’s crazy when you meet people in Detroit because they’ll be like, “Man, I’ve been with y’all since 1990, and I’m still with you.” Even though we went 0-16, they still stuck with us. It’s such a big sports city, from the Red Wings to the Tigers to the Pistons.
Jon Robinson: So when you first saw the 64 names in the “Madden” cover vote, did you think you had any chance of winning?
Calvin Johnson: I didn’t think I was going to beat out all those guys. There are guys who are big names, guys who won Super Bowls, fan favorites. But with 20 million people voting, it’s an honor to come out on top.
Jon Robinson: Then they do the live reveal out in the middle of Times Square and I think a lot of people thought Cam Newton was going to win, but your fans came through.
Calvin Johnson: I’d like to thank all the people in Detroit, my PR, everyone did a great job of pushing this. It’s big for the city.
Jon Robinson: But what about the dreaded “Madden” cover curse? Nobody ever believes until it’s too late. Peyton Hillis went on and on about how he didn’t believe last year, then he had the worst year of his career and blames the game. Do you believe in curses?
Calvin Johnson: No, I’ve never been superstitious or anything like that. People always ask me if I put my shoes on a certain foot the same way before every game and things like that, but I probably put on my left one day and my right another. It’s not a big deal. I’m not superstitious. I just know there are things I need to go out and do. I’ve been in the league a few years now, so I know what I need to do. I’ll be all right.
Jon Robinson: Besides, you have the number 13 combined with the cover curse. I think that means they cancel each other out.
Calvin Johnson: [laughs] I didn’t even think about that.
Jon Robinson: “Madden” has historically been dominated by tall receivers like yourself. Have you seen your character in “Madden 13” yet? Is he good enough?
Calvin Johnson: I haven’t seen my new character yet, but I can’t wait to check out the ratings. Being the cover, my ratings should definitely be boosted, I think. I just got a call from one of my people earlier, and they said I should definitely be a 99.
Jon Robinson: Megatron might just be the coolest nickname in the NFL. Who first started calling you that? Are you a Transformers fan?
Calvin Johnson: In '07, back when the first Transformers movie came out, my buddy, my old teammate at the time, Roy Williams, he just started calling me Megatron and it just took off. I’ve seen all the movies. I even have the toys.
Jon Robinson: My problem with Transformers is I’d flip them one way, but I wasn’t smart enough …
Calvin Johnson: To flip them back? [laughs] I feel you.
Jon Robinson: The Lions were in the playoffs last year, and it was the first time in over a decade. What’s the key for this team taking the next step and advancing even further this season?
Calvin Johnson: We got our key guys back, and that’s a big thing, so I think it’s key that we keep everybody healthy and on the field in order to produce.
Jon Robinson: How about Matthew Stafford? What makes him such a great leader for your team?
Calvin Johnson: He comes into work every day, he’s in there early, and you know how they say Peyton [Manning] is in there early, he’s like that watching film. He does everything right. When it comes to practice, when it comes to the game, he’s accountable.
Jon Robinson: What is it about the way Stafford throws the ball that elevates him to that next level?
Calvin Johnson: It’s kind of like when you see Michael Vick and he just flicks his wrist and the ball flies 50 yards. It’s the same kind of guy, but he’s just so accurate, and I think that’s where he’s ahead of the curve.
Jon Robinson: In “Madden 13,” one of the new things they added was ball trajectory and the ability to now throw to spots, like aim the ball high and throw at your back shoulder. With Stafford’s accuracy in the game rising thanks to his performance in real life, it should make you guys one of the most potent combinations in the game.
Calvin Johnson: That’s awesome. I can’t wait to see that.
Jon Robinson: Do you play video games a lot against your teammates?
Calvin Johnson: We play, but mostly “FIFA.” At camp and after practice, we’re all on the game. “Call of Duty” is another game that’s fun. It’s even better when all of your teammates are on there at the same time.
Jon Robinson: That way if Stafford throws you a bad pass at practice, you can snipe him later on.
Calvin Johnson: [laughs]
Jon Robinson: How about growing up, did you have a favorite video game?
Calvin Johnson: We had Nintendo coming up, so we’d go hard at “Mario Kart” and “Donkey Kong.” I remember Atari. That was my first system. I even had Dreamcast for however long that lasted.
Jon Robinson: And now you’re not only a video game character, you’re on the cover of the game.
Calvin Johnson: That’s the crazy part. Coming up and seeing guys on the cover like Culpepper and Polamalu and Fitz, then to be on it yourself, it’s surreal.
Jon Robinson: Do you have a favorite player or team to use in “Madden,” besides yourself?
Calvin Johnson: I always played as the Steelers. Good defense. Especially when Polamalu was on the cover, all I did was blitz as him. That Hit Stick is brutal.
Jon Robinson: So what happens when you throw the ball to yourself in “Madden” and virtual Calvin drops the ball. Do you blame yourself or the game?
Calvin Johnson: I get mad at the game. [laughs]
Jon Robinson: I’m from San Francisco, so I wanted to get your take on the dustup between 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and Lions coach Jim Schwartz.
Calvin Johnson: The only thing that was funny about that was my receiver coach got trampled in the whole mess. You can see it if you pay attention to it, but yeah, I gave him a lot of mess about that.
Jon Robinson: But a new rivalry was born instantly.
Calvin Johnson: No doubt.
Jon Robinson: What’s going to happen when you play this year. Is Coach Schwartz going to get you guys extra fired up for that one?
Calvin Johnson: I’m sure there’s going to be a little something extra.
Jon Robinson: What else are you looking forward to heading into the season. You already won the “Madden” cover. Do you set personal goals?
Calvin Johnson: I have personal goals, but it’s always to improve on what we did last year. However hard it might seem to do better than we did last year, we can because there were some things when you look back at the games that we let get away. We want to be consistent, we want to be 100 out there, so it’s all driven by wanting to improve. We’re in a good position right now. It’s our time.
Jon Robinson: Just do like you do in “Madden.” Throw it high and outjump everybody for the ball for the score.
Calvin Johnson: No doubt. Throw it up. Works 99 percent of the time.