Aug. 24, 2016
By Adam Van Brimmer | The Good Word
– As Chan Gailey and seven of his Georgia Tech assistant coaches sat down for a celebratory steak dinner, Gailey suspected they’d just transformed his team into an Atlantic Coast Conference power.
Calvin Johnson was that kind of recruit. Forget star rankings and position grades. Johnson had a once-in-a-generation feel to him, even to Gailey, an NFL coaching veteran who had worked with legends such as John Elway, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith.
What Gailey couldn’t foresee that day in 2003 when Johnson verbally committed to Georgia Tech–hence the post-recruiting visit steak dinner for the staff–was that the gifted wide receiver would do more than make his team an ACC contender, earn All-American honors and rank as arguably the greatest player in Georgia Tech football history. By resetting the standard for character, work ethic and excellence, Johnson left a mark on the program that endures today and will for years to come. The legend of Calvin Johnson, at least at Georgia Tech, was born early. His first official day on campus, the summer before his freshman season, he broke the football program’s vertical leap record, jumping 42 inches.
By the time he took the field for his first official practice, he’d won the respect of a veteran group of defensive backs, many of whom would go on to play in the NFL, by abusing them in summer 7-on-7 scrimmages.
“James Butler, a guy who would play for a decade in the NFL, told me the June before Calvin’s freshman year that Calvin would start from Day 1,” says Wes Durham, Georgia Tech’s play-by-play broadcaster throughout the Johnson years. “Actually, he said, `I don’t know that we can handle him now, and he’s not even a college player yet.’ Hearing that reset my expectation level.”
Respect for Johnson grew at 40-yard-dash speed from there. When Gailey chastised Johnson for his work ethic during his first week of camp–even though he was matching the efforts of his teammates–the freshman raised his play, and his teammates took notice. When he took over a game against Clemson, catching three touchdown passes, including the game-winner in a primetime matchup in Death Valley, the college football world started to pay attention.
But only a lucky few saw the beginnings of the true impact Johnson would have on The Flats.
Ask Derrick Moore for his favorite Calvin Johnson anecdote, and he won’t regale you with memories of one-handed catches, super-human conditioning feats or pancake blocks of safeties and linebackers.
The chaplain and Johnson mentor will tell you instead about the time Johnson, not yet a freshman, accepted an invitation to a team function at Moore’s house.
“He was the first to arrive–almost two hours in advance,” Moore says. “He came to assist me with the set up. After the party, he remained an hour to clean up. I didn’t ask him to do either.
“That display of maturity from somebody who there was so much hype about, that told me he was truly special.”
Johnson’s specialness is hereditary. Only in his family can a future pro football Hall of Famer be considered a slacker. His mother is an educator with two doctorates. His father enjoyed a long career with the railroad, continuing to do the work he loved even after Johnson’s first NFL contract made it financially feasible for him to retire. Johnson’s siblings all either have medical degrees or are working toward one.
“In his family, he’s bringing up the rear,” Moore jokes.
The Johnson family pushed Calvin to the front. He and his sister Erica were playmates and rivals from the time Calvin could walk. Each of them would pair up with one of the neighbor kids for daily games of kickball, baseball, football or basketball.
Erica would often get the best of her brother–she was four years older–but the games were almost always competitive as he and his teammate, Patechia Hartman, were motivated to challenge their sisters.
Johnson’s drive to improve served him well once he started playing football. He took up the game late, as a middle schooler, and suffered early struggles. His pass-catching ability was so suspect he was dubbed “Butterfingers” by teammates during his freshman season at Sandy Creek High School.
The criticism pushed Johnson, just as his sister’s ribbing after the backyard games had done. He worked on his hands until they blistered. Then he grew five inches between his freshman and sophomore years of high school.
With his family’s support, he quickly developed into the burgeoning star Gailey recruited a few years later.
“All his success is a product of his parents and his upbringing,” says Johnson’s Georgia Tech teammate and roommate, Taylor Bennett. “He’s a prodigy in a family of prodigies.”
More to the man
Johnson is remembered by fans, both of Georgia Tech and the NFL, as one of sports’ more reserved megastars.
Those closest to him in college, though, know the off-the-field side of Johnson. A part as fascinating as the one he showed on the football turf.
Eric Ciano, the former Georgia Tech strength and conditioning coach now with the Buffalo Bills, recollects Johnson volunteering to read books to first-graders in Atlanta area schools. Durham remembers the dry latrine Johnson co-designed for use in South American villages without access to running water as part of a summer research job. He chose to build the better toilet over working on energy-friendly luxury condos.
And Bennett recalls Johnson’s fun-loving side–the Johnson who would talk nonstop trash during video game showdowns in the dorm and plan elaborate practical jokes to play on his friends.
“Here’s a guy who would never do anything unsportsmanlike on the field, but is the biggest smack-talking nerd when he’s playing FIFA soccer on the Xbox,” Bennett says. “And then there’s the jokester. Think whipped cream on your hand when you’re napping, only more elaborate.”
All his Georgia Tech friends are interested to see what’s next for Johnson. He confessed to one that he decided to retire from football because it was “time to get life started.” He’s the father of a two-year-old boy and is set to wed his fiancée in June. He plans to resume his degree work in the fall and embark on a business career soon as well.
Wherever life leads Johnson, the world will be better for it, friends say. “We’d been looking for someone like him forever, and now that he’s retired, we’ll be looking for the next Calvin Johnson for a long time,” Bennett says. “He’s the pinnacle of what you look for in someone who is a great athlete but an even better person.”