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DETROIT — Calvin Johnson grabs a chair, turns it around and sits. His mother, Dr. Arica Johnson, has just finished giving a world-class presentation to five young men who have been awarded thousands of dollars in scholarships through her son’s foundation.
The presentation is part of a two-day leadership conference and gala dinner in late June at the Renaissance Center in Detroit for 19 past and present scholarship winners. This session is called “Living Blueprint Transformation, Part 1” and it lasts nearly two hours. It’s tougher than two-a-days and more intense than a graduate-school seminar. There’s a Part 2 still to come that lasts nearly three hours.
Johnson has run the slide projector and has helped his mother moderate the session. But she is gone now, and it is just Johnson and the five boys. Johnson has been standing behind a lectern during the session, but as soon as his mother leaves, he and the young men instinctively huddle. Johnson might be an NFL star receiver for the Detroit Lions, but at 28 he’s only a decade older than the boys.
Johnson straddles the backward chair. He presses his chest against its back and begins to talk about his life and overcoming hardships. He tells the boys a story about getting a D in a class at Georgia Tech and how he refused to fail and was able to raise his grade with extra help from his professor.
But the young men in this group don’t need this lesson. They are excellent athletes and scholars in their own right. One boy finally musters the courage to ask Johnson the question everyone wants to ask.
“When did you know?” he says.
Johnson doesn’t understand and gives him a puzzled look.
Jake Barann is an All-State tight end from Allen Park with a 4.2 grade-point average. He is going to Harvard this fall.
“He wants to know the secret,” Barann told Johnson with a smile.
Now Johnson gets it. So he gives them what they want. He starts to talk football. Johnson likes to use examples from his experience. The boys are listening. But when Johnson drops a bomb on them, they become practically entranced.
“I’m just going to say it. I was garbage,” Johnson said. “They called me butterfingers.”
The boys sit stunned for a few seconds as Johnson talks about his freshman year at Sandy Creek High School in Tyrone, Ga.
There is no single secret to greatness, of course. Johnson continues to harp on the importance of goals and planning and hard work. But he doesn’t discount luck, either, and credits a big growth spurt, about five inches to nearly his present height of 6-feet-5, between his freshman and sophomore years.
The boys want more. They want to hear about training regimens, explosive leg lifts and resistance drills. He gives it to them.
Johnson has never been comfortable speaking publicly to large groups. But here, in a conference room the size of a living room, tucked inside this skyscraper, the NFL’s best receiver is at his best in a small setting, talking casually and revealing more about himself than he ever has.
“I didn’t expect it to be this personal,” Barann said, “where actually you’re sitting down and talking with Calvin Johnson, which is weird to say out loud. But it’s pretty sweet. A little surreal.”
The NFL armor is gone. His helmet and robot-like visor are stripped away. Instead, Johnson looks like a nerdy computer programmer, right down to the tangle of keys he has hooked through a belt loop. He is dressed casually in a short-sleeved blue polo and tan pants. He tucks a red pen behind his right ear and wears a name tag — yes, a name tag — that says “Calvin Johnson Jr., President.”
The outfit is more Steve Urkel than Steve Harvey. Hard to believe Johnson was once so concerned about his appearance as a high school freshman that, before he wore contact lenses, he preferred to let baseballs fly over his head than wear glasses.
“So I’d be out there in the outfield and I’d be playing left field and then the sun would go down right behind the plate, so all I’d hear is tink!” he said. “And I was all, ‘Oh, shoot, I hope he didn’t hit it to me.’
“And the next thing I knew I’d see the ball come into focus and I’m like, ‘Shoot, it’s too late!’ I’m running to the fence to go get the ball.”
Antone Price, a Detroit Cass Tech graduate headed for Michigan State, asked one of Johnson’s favorite questions: “How do you deal with setbacks?”
“I just wanted them to understand that I wasn’t always the best,” Johnson said later. “It took a lot of hard work and it took some getting back up. I just want them to understand you’re going to have some failures, you know? …
“But my thing is I always had people that were very good around me and then I could push myself because I wanted to be the best.”
If there is a central theme to Johnson’s life it’s about being the best he can be at anything he attempts seriously. And it isn’t hard to see where he gets his strongest influence.
His maternal grandfather, Heulet Arnold, is a reverend and a retired police detective from Dayton, Ohio. Arnold raised his family, worked for the police and at a part-time job in security while pursuing a college degree in law enforcement. He is proud of saying he graduated from college the same year as his daughter, Arica.
“I heard my granddad talking to (the scholars) earlier,” Johnson said. “He said, ‘I always wanted to be the best at everything.’ And that’s the way I feel about everything I do. I’m trying to win every time I do something.”
If you really want to know where Johnson gets his strongest desire to excel, just look at the back of the conference room. Arica Johnson, who has a doctorate in education and serves as the vice president of her son’s foundation, is guiding the group of five young men through a barrage of goal-setting exercises. She is impeccably dressed in a crisp suit and she doesn’t let up, constantly challenging the boys with questions and demanding answers.
Johnson’s mother stands for almost the entire six hours in the two sessions she leads. Three months earlier, she went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for a Whipple procedure to remove a cancerous tumor on her pancreas. The tumor is gone, but she moves slowly around the conference room and her hands tremble slightly.
Dealing with pain, however, is not unique in Johnson’s family. In fact, if a doctor had gotten his way, Johnson would have quit football and sports altogether in high school.
“I remember my mom took me to the doctor,” Johnson said. “He had told me I wasn’t going to be able to play sports anymore or too much longer because of the thing I had in my knee.
“I actually hurt all the time. If I just got touched on my knee, if someone did just like that (slight tap) to my knee it would hurt so bad. When you grow so fast, I guess — I forget exactly what the doctor told me — but when you grow so fast I guess it’s something that happens.”
For Johnson, there was only one option: play through the pain. And it wasn’t even a hard decision.
“Not when you love playing,” he said.
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After Arica Johnson is done with her sessions, it is privately suggested that such a taxing strain might not be ideal. Her children only smile politely and shake their heads a little. “She is,” a family friend confided, “the straw that stirs the drink.”
And it has been an impressive cocktail. Johnson’s sister, Erica, is 32, has a Ph.D. in biomedical science and studies infectious diseases in the department of pediatrics at Emory University. His brother, Wali, is 25 and in his third year at Morehouse School of Medicine. His youngest sibling, Elan, is 21 and working on her degree at Georgia State. Johnson himself has about a year left to finish his degree in business management, which he plans to resume soon.
Johnson’s siblings and his parents are major participants in his foundation. Erica is the co-executive director and grant writer, Wali is an advisory board member and runs a session on graduate school and a career panel for the scholars. There are more than 50 volunteers who help pull off the foundation’s initiatives, which include football camps, a health fair, mentorship and support for the needy among other things.
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The Calvin Johnson Jr. Foundation began in 2008 and the scholarship conference has completed its sixth year and alternates between Detroit and Atlanta. Forty-one student-athletes have been awarded scholarships to 23 universities. They receive awards typically in the $5,000 to $6,000 range as well as financial support for books and other educational materials.
It could be bigger. They all know this. But there has been a determined effort to keep it small and for a good reason.
“Well, this is a family-oriented situation,” Arica Johnson said, “where we actually sit down and we communicate a lot and we talk about the things that really benefitted Calvin growing up. And we find that keeping it family oriented will actually help it stayed more unified and true to the goals of the program.”
The two-day event culminates with a black-tie dinner for about 200 people and no media. With Johnson’s celebrity, he could attract 2,000 and enough TV trucks to create their own traffic logjam. Instead, and at least for now, it remains small.
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“Definitely want to see it grow,” Johnson says. “I like the intimacy we have right now because there’s not a lot of outside influence. We have family, we have extended family that helps out a ton.”
There are helpers, but Johnson and his immediate family never stop hustling. When boxed lunches arrive, Johnson helps hand them out. When the scholars attend a bowling event, Johnson is there with them. When he is dressed for dinner in a gray pinstripe suit, he helps carry the flower arrangements. Everyone in the family helps with the smallest detail.
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Most of the NFL is on vacation during the few weeks before training camp starts in late July. Johnson loves the water and he could be there right now. Sun in his eyes, wind in his hair, drink in his hand. He could swoop into Detroit, take pictures, deliver a check and be gone. And who would say anything?
“I just know all the effort that my family puts into it,” he says. “Especially with my name being on it and my face being on this thing, I need to come in here and at least put in some work because, like I said, they’re working on this thing all year-round, not just for this event we have tonight but for all the initiatives that we do in Atlanta and in Detroit.”
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Johnson’s family is never far from his thoughts. But ask him who his best friend in the NFL is and he struggles.
“That’s tough,” he says. “I have a lot more acquaintances, I would say, than friends in the NFL.”
He thinks for a while. Matthew Stafford, Nate Burleson and Willie Young come to mind. But Johnson doesn’t live the life of a typical NFL star. He doesn’t hang out with celebrities or other athletes. He rarely wears any bling. Entourage? Forget it.
“Well, my family’s my entourage,” he said. “They’ll definitely tap me on my shoulder and let me know when it’s time to do something.”
But ask Johnson who his closest friend and confidant is outside of football and there’s no hesitation. It’s Derrick Moore, the team chaplain for Georgia Tech’s football team and, as a coincidence, a former Lions running back who had a locker next to Barry Sanders in 1992-93.
Moore is the emcee of the scholarship dinner. He speaks with a booming voice, but up close he draws you in, laughing easily and speaking quietly, like he is telling you a secret. It’s infectious and endearing and you can see why Johnson loves him. The two met the summer before Johnson began his first season at Tech. Moore invited him to his annual pool party for new players.
“Not only did he show up, but he was the first to show up,” Moore said. “And not only was he the first to show up, he was the last to leave. He stayed to help me clean things up.
“And I watched and observed how he interacted with his future teammates and the way he served me and this situation. I said, ‘Greatness is in that kid’s future.’ “
Johnson quickly reminded Moore of Sanders.
“Arguably two of the greatest players to ever play for the Lions, when it’s all said and done,” he said. “But I thought also that their personality types were similar in their real quiet, introverted, humble approach; very human-focused, cares deeply for people, was an international superstar but had the presence of a guy who’s trying to make the team.”
It’s simply called “the notebook.” Johnson carries it everywhere. It’s a small volume with a cross in the corner of each page. If it’s not on his kitchen table, it’s by his side while he is traveling. And Moore’s thoughts and influence are scribbled all over it.
“The majority is probably notes I’ve taken from sermons, from church and stuff like that,” Johnson says, flipping through the notebook. “But I use that as a tool so it’s easy for me to go back and reference whenever I need something.”
It’s clear that Moore is a mentor and a major part of Johnson’s life. He flies in from Atlanta to visit Johnson briefly but regularly. They rarely talk about football. Instead, Moore gives Johnson homework and credos like: “Listen to everybody. Respond to few.”
“So if I can go through these things on a daily basis,” Johnson said, “it will kind of limit the amount of, just say temptation that’s out there and keep me on a straight path.”
Moore even had Johnson write a life mission statement a few years ago.
“This is how I wanted to be seen, this is how I wanted to live,” Johnson says. “To flow in spirit, loving God and others, believing that through hard work our potential can become actualization through faith and to be an example to others through my actions.”
Parents are one thing. Siblings are another. A trusted friend is something entirely different, someone who can harbor secrets and make you accountable. This is the role Moore inhabits in Johnson’s life, and he doesn’t go easy on Johnson.
“To whom much is given, much is required,” Moore said, quoting the Gospel of Luke. “So you can’t have all these successes and all of this financial achievement and not have any accountability and responsibility. And I tell him that.
“You are responsible for your actions. Hey, you’ve got it big daddy. It’s yours. But be responsible. Don’t be reckless.”
If you think Johnson moves fast on the football field, you haven’t seen him in a ballroom a few hours before his scholarship dinner. He is a flash of movement. It becomes obvious that Johnson, like Luke’s “Parable of the Faithful Servant,” not only knows that he must help others but that he sincerely enjoys toiling in the effort.
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“He always taught us to give back,” Johnson said, again invoking his grandfather, “and if we’re blessed enough to be able to do so, then it’s something that’s expected of us.
“But we find joy in doing it and I think that joy comes from when you actually do it the more and more people you see that you touch, whether it be children or families in general. You understand the impact that it has, so it gets contagious at that point.”
©2014 Detroit Free Press
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