ALLEN PARK, Mich. – So it turns out Calvin Johnson has a dark side.
Last season, during a blowout win in Denver, the Detroit Lions' all-pro wideout felt he was hit with a questionable shot by an unspecified Broncos linebacker. The normally serene Johnson came over to teammate Nate Burleson and asked to jump into the slot for the next series. Burleson agreed, and Johnson went from Megatron to Megatrain, bulldozing the defender and putting him on his posterior. "If you piss him off," Burleson says, "he'll turn into the Hulk."
Lions receivers coach Shawn Jefferson even does a Hulk impression of No. 81, with grimace and growl, saying Johnson "speaks softly and carries a damn big-ass stick."
This edginess may surprise fans who see Johnson as polite to a fault. The team's best player reminds many in Detroit of legendary running back Barry Sanders, not only in good ways (humble, low-maintenance, ridiculously talented) but also in concerning ways (can't he get a little more excited?). Football's a blood sport and Johnson, as teammate Dominic Raiola says, "is the nicest guy ever." Burleson tries to "gas up" his buddy by arranging a season-long deal with Johnson, insisting he must complete at least two end-zone celebrations per year. Burleson got Johnson to deliver on two-of-16 regular-season chances last season. Now, Burleson is asking for three this year, but says "I'm not optimistic."
Burleson, like many receivers, plans his end-zone dances just as offensive coordinators script the first 15 plays of a game, and is a little perplexed as to why Johnson isn't more theatrical when he scores.
"I've never been that way," Johnson told Burleson. "I'm a guy who just wants to work."
And if there's one thing you should know about Calvin Johnson's personality, it's that. He's a workaholic. He gets it from his father, Calvin Sr. who spent long days and nights as a train conductor throughout the Southeast. Calvin Sr. has moved up to a higher-ranking position over 30 years of service, but he still won't retire. Nor will Calvin's mom, Arica, who has her doctorate and works in the Atlanta school district.
The Johnsons' only son has begged them to stop working and enjoy some of his millions, but they won't do it. (Calvin Sr. even needed shoulder surgery and refused to use that as an excuse to quit.) This frustrates Calvin, but since his parents have worked for decades at their taxing jobs, he figures he can put in long hours at his. Jefferson has a favorite story from Johnson's pro day at Georgia Tech, when he suggested to Calvin Sr. that great things were about to happen for his son. The elder CJ offered a quiet "yes" and then spun on his kid. "Isn't that right, Calvin?" The eventual 2007 No. 2 overall pick quickly nodded and replied, "Yes, sir."
Jefferson, who was schooled in the Bill Parcells belief that you recruit the parent, not the child, was blown away. "His mom is all about business," Jefferson says. "His dad is all about business." And the son, well, Jefferson says he's never even seen Calvin Jr. allow himself a piece of chewing gum.
But the Lions receivers coach would have an unexpected problem with Johnson: He works too hard. While pretty much every other football coach obsesses about ways to motivate players to give a little more, Jefferson spends his time figuring out ways to make Johnson scale back.
"Everything is full speed with him," Jefferson says. "He's scared to go any other speed. Sometimes I have to pull him out of practice to slow him down. It definitely worries me."
Head coach Jim Schwartz was just as rattled on the first day of training camp last week when Johnson laid out for a throw he had no business going anywhere near. Johnson has been known to run bubble routes in practice – not as the prized target inside the bubble, but as the sacrificial blocker at the tip of the bubble. And then there was the Megatrain episode in Denver, which was brave but certainly risky.
It helps that Johnson benches 375 pounds and does extra offseason work to strengthen his legs against the cheap shots that are sure to come, but still. "When he falls down," says Jefferson, "it's not like a 6-foot-5 guy falling. It's like a sequoia falling."
But there are worse problems to have on a Lions team that's becoming known for playing too hard off the field. A rash of offseason arrests and drunk-driving charges has made one of the best stories of 2011 into one of the most troubling this calendar year. Even former first-round picks like Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley have had run-ins with the law. Johnson, asked if he'd ever get behind the wheel of a car after having a drink, said, "Nooooo. Can't do that."
If only the rest of the Lions thought that clearly.
While some of his teammates were partying over the summer, Johnson was working. Despite getting an obscenely lucrative $132 million contract and landing on the cover of Madden '13, Johnson says he trained harder with quarterback Matthew Stafford this offseason than the year before. He still complained about not being able to spend more time at his craft, and when asked what his goals are for the upcoming season, he said he wanted to be "be coachable."
As if he's an unbearable miscreant.
Even during a 10-minute post-practice interview, Johnson couldn't sit still. He moved around the locker room as he spoke, undressing and rearranging his locker, not a moment to waste. He walked just slow enough to stay within speaking distance, but never stopped shuttling back and forth from his stall to the laundry bin. He wasn't being rude, or shy; he was being efficient.
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Teammates marvel. They are much quicker to talk about Johnson's obsessive methods than his crazy game. "You can't help but notice his work ethic," says tight end Brandon Pettigrew. "He's always putting in time. It's always what I've seen from him. He's here as much as anyone. People feed off that."
Now, Johnson isn't going to get in teammates' faces (maybe because he doesn't have the time), but he gives the vocal Lions plenty of ammo. "Whenever anyone's got a quarrel," says Raiola, "I just point at Calvin and say, 'We have the best player on the planet and look how he works.' "
Teammates also insist Johnson is about to have an even more dynamic campaign than 2011 when he averaged one touchdown and 100 yards receiving a game. Tight end Tony Scheffler says Johnson has an "aura" about him that indicates the upcoming year will be special. It better be if the Madden Curse is to be broken, and if the running-light and defense-lighter Lions are going to improve on their 10-6 record in a division with Aaron Rodgers and a healthy Jay Cutler. The Lions do have something the others don't: the game's best receiving threat, who happens to hustle like a scout team lackey.
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This summer, Raiola invited Johnson over for some jet skiing on his Sea Doo. A rope got caught and the boat broke, so Raiola went looking for a fix. When he returned, he found Johnson had docked the boat himself and wandered over to visit with Raiola's 70-year-old neighbor, Rose. The two were chatting and sharing some pizza.
Johnson didn't linger too long, of course. He had to get back to work.
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