NEW YORK – Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson could have played to the media contingent assembled to talk to him and four other top prospects for the NFL draft this weekend. He could have spoken indignantly about how his confidential admission to NFL teams that he has tried marijuana at one point in his life was made public to hurt his draft status.
Johnson could have crowed about how the media has ignored a spoon-fed angle about his hard work to make the world safer for kids in Third World countries. Instead, Johnson stayed true to who he is: glib, honest and apparently very classy.
"I'm an honest person. It's nothing that's going to hurt me," Johnson said on Thursday during a media luncheon.
Johnson admitted to being bothered about the story last week in which he, Clemson defensive end Gaines Adams and Louisville defensive tackle Amobi Okoye were identified as admitting in taped interviews with the NFL to having tried marijuana. However, Johnson conveyed his disappointment with all the emotion of someone buying a box of nails at a hardware store.
"It was a little disturbing with that being confidential information," Johnson admitted. "It wasn't anything that scared me with the teams. They already knew. They already had the interviews. But it was a little disturbing that it came out."
Asked to give specifics about his past use, Johnson politely declined.
"That was all confidential. But no, I do not do drugs. I don't condone drugs," he said.
The leak was believed to be made in an attempt to hurt the players' draft status. Thus far, there has been little indication that their stock has fallen in a significant way. In fact, Johnson was one of three prospects that the Oakland Raiders, owners of the No. 1 pick, began contract talks with his agent.
And while helping to build a winner is likely in his immediate future, he's quite familiar with constructing things. A little less than a year ago, Johnson chose to spend his summer building a better latrine.
While it sounds funny, the goal is telling about Johnson. The latrines he helped design are for developing countries that have sanitation problems. Ultimately, the goal is to help lessen the high disease rates that plague children and prevent them from going to school.
Johnson spent four to five hours a day for 10 weeks during July and August in the blazing Atlanta heat pouring concrete and carrying bricks. He helped draw a prototype as well.
"It was a chance for us to help out the community and that's something I feel strongly about," Johnson said.
Yeah, but pouring concrete in the heat doesn't sound like fun.
"It wasn't, but I'm not afraid of a little hard work," he said.
"When I brought the idea up to him and he said yes, I asked him again, 'Are you sure?'" said Kevin Cavarati, who ran the project for the Georgia Tech Research Institute. Cavarati had another project working on nearby condos that would have been far easier. He figured Johnson would likely take that one and was a little surprised at Johnson's decision.
Instead, Johnson was quietly steadfast.
"He paused for a second or two while he considered his answer and then he said, 'I want to help the less fortunate,'" Cavarati said.
It doesn't take long to understand that Johnson is different. Those attributes are evident on the football field and figure to play out in this draft.
At 6-foot-5, 239 pounds, Johnson ran a stunning 4.37 at the NFL scouting combine in February. He is so clearly the most accomplished receiver in the draft that the distance between him and the next guy is almost immeasurable.
As a true sophomore and junior the past two years, he was an All-American selection. He was a unanimous selection this season, when he caught 76 passes for 1,202 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also was the ACC Player of the Year and won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver.
Johnson could become only the third wide receiver to be selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 72-year history of the NFL draft. Irving Fryar with the New England Patriots in 1984 and Keyshawn Johnson in 1996 with the New York Jets are the others.
"Amazing player," said coach Jon Gruden, whose Tampa Bay Buccaneers own the No. 4 overall pick and are reportedly very interested in selecting Johnson. "You draw 'em up like that, man. I mean, what else do you want?"
The point about Johnson is that you get more. You get a person who, in the NFL's Year of the Problem Child, is anything but a problem. As Pro Football Weekly summed it up in its annual draft publication, Johnson is "a bigger, more athletic Randy Moss with none of the baggage."
The Moss comparison is one that Johnson has heard many times.
"But my character on the field, I'm like Marvin Harrison. Just trying to get the job done," Johnson said. "I'm not going to be the one to have any problems. I haven't had any problems through high school and college. I tend to stay away from trouble. So it won't be a problem for me off the field."
The Moss comparison is apt because the Raiders, who have tried to trade Moss this offseason, may end up with Johnson. There are many people who believe that Raiders owner Al Davis may take Johnson No. 1 overall, particularly if he is able to trade Moss.
There are others who believe Davis may take Johnson and trade him to Tampa Bay in an exchange that nets the Raiders either one of the top quarterbacks (JaMarcus Russell or Brady Quinn) and more picks.
Either way, Johnson figures to be a serious factor at the top of the draft. That's rare throughout the history of the NFL because the common belief is that receivers can be found later on in the draft.
Much of that belief is also rooted in the old notion that the passing game is not as important as the running game. Over the years, that has drastically changed, leading to a much stronger emphasis on the passing game and, ultimately, on receivers.
"You're seeing all sorts of great athletes out there now," Gruden said. "Big, strong, fast guys who can really change the game in a hurry. You gotta like those types of guys."
In that regard, Johnson is the prototype. What makes people feel so at ease is that he has a strong sense of confidence that doesn't cross over into attitude problems.
"He knows he's a good player, but it doesn't rub you the wrong way," said former Houston Texans and Washington Redskins general manager Charley Casserly, now an analyst for CBS. "He's not caught up in himself. I hear that all the time. You can trust that he's going to do the right things."
That was evident at the combine. At a time when players are angling about whether to run at the combine or wait for their pro day back on their college campus, Johnson just ran without worrying about it, concerned more about the impact he might have on his former college teammates.
Johnson initially did not want to run, but changed his mind when scouts told him that he would be the focus of his pro day, taking away attention from his teammates.
Instead of putting himself first, Johnson thought about others. The same was true last summer when he took the latrine-building job.
"We were out there in 95-degree heat with 90 percent humidity," Cavarati said. "He'd be out there after doing his conditioning work with the team in the morning and never complained once. Never once tried to get out of it … Every once in awhile I'd look over at him and say, 'Calvin, it's pretty hot, huh?' He'd just bow his head, smile and laugh a little. He really worked at it."
It's the kind of approach that makes for a wonderfully complete portrait of a potential star. A more than perfect portrait, as Johnson's agent Bus Cook has been hearing from NFL people.
"I had one head coach come up to me and tell me: 'When people say this kid's a 10, that's wrong. He's an 11,'" Cook said.