At 6-foot-5, Georgia Tech football legend and NFL Hall of Famer Calvin “Megatron” Johnson bends down to be eye-to-eye with some of his new young fans.
The Georgia Tech record-holder and retired Detroit Lions’ wide receiver gives autographs, poses for pictures, and hands out ducks to some patients at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC
Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC
Johnson, 37, has a full day ahead of him. It’s Sept. 1, and later in the day, he’ll be cheering on his Yellow Jackets as they take on the Louisville (Ky.) Cardinals in college football’s premier kickoff event, hosted formerly by Chick-fil-A and now Aflac.
At this moment, Johnson is focused on 15 children, including Nathan Carter, 12, who are patients at the AFLAC Cancer and Blood Disorder Center and battling cancer, sickle cell disease, and other blood disorders.
“Nathan’s eyes popped open when he heard Calvin talking,” said Tony Carter of Bremen, Nathan’s grandfather. “It felt good to meet the Hall of Famer in person.”
Johnson retired from pro football in 2015 after nine seasons with the Detroit Lions. He is considered one of the best, if not the best, to ever play for Tech, with a record 178 receptions and 28 touchdowns. He was a first-ballot NFL Hall of Fame inductee in 2021 and a College Football Hall of Fame inductee in 2018.
Johnson has never forgotten either of the cities that helped him parlay talent into success and millions of dollars. (He has homes in both cities.)
And he’s kept a commitment he made a year after he was drafted into the NFL to create a nonprofit and pay it forward, said his mother, Arica Johnson of Fayette County.
An ordained minister and educator, she said her son is a person of faith and takes to heart the teachings of Luke 12:48, translated: “To whom much is given, much is required.”
Arica Johnson serves as vice president and treasurer of the foundation that bears her son’s name and has multiple missions, all geared toward uplifting others. The whole family is involved – Johnson, his wife, mother, father and three siblings.
No one in the family accepts money for their work with the foundation. And young people who participate in life-skills conferences, annual football camps and other foundation events do so at no cost to them.
Some of Johnson’s former NFL colleagues volunteer for the conferences and the camps, held annually in Detroit and in metro Atlanta at Johnson’s alma mater, Sandy Creek High School in Tyrone, a small town in Fayette County.
The goal of the conferences is to work with at-risk youngsters to “change their mindset from struggle to goal setting and become productive members of society,” Johnson said.
His foundation has given scholarships to 84 youngsters who want to play college sports but did not receive full scholarships. All the scholarship recipients have gone on to graduate, and most come back to volunteer with the foundation, Arica Johnson said.
The nonprofit has fed the homeless, provided school backpacks to at-risk children, held toy drives for more than 200 youngsters in Detroit and Atlanta who are either homeless or have a parent in prison, and given Johnson the opportunity to visit Children’s and other hospitals to raise sick patients’ spirits.
One of the foundation’s priorities is dear to the Johnson family’s heart. It involves fundraising for pancreatic cancer research and giving scholarships to students who have that type of research as a career goal. Both are tributes to his mother’s survivorship.
Several years ago, Arica Johnson fell, heading to the airport after a Lions game in Philadelphia. Doctors initially thought that she had a sprained rib cage. Further tests brought devastating news: she had pancreatic cancer that had metastasized. But, later, “an angel doctor” at Johns Hopkins University found and successfully removed the head of her pancreas that contained a cancerous tumor, she said.
“We went purple after that,” said Calvin Johnson, referring to the international symbol of advocates for a cure for one of the deadliest cancers.
He said he’s very interested in the work that Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorder Center is doing, given his mother’s cancer and his concern about sickle cell disease in the Black community, particularly in the South. Johnson, his wife, and mother are silent carriers of the sickle cell trait, he said.
“It really sparked my interest in what they’re doing [at Aflac] especially when I see they are looking out for those who can’t look out for themselves,” Johnson said.
Aflac President Virgil Miller said his company has contributed $170 million to the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorder Center since 1995. The center treats about 8,900 children with cancer every year and about 2,000 others through its sickle cell program, the largest pediatric program of its kind in America, Miller said.
A week after Johnson’s visit to Children’s, staff, patients, and families were still talking about meeting the football legend, said Meg Echausse, a clinical educator at Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorder Center.
Nathan’s grandfather, Carter, was one of those still savoring the moment. He’s been by Nathan’s side through his nearly three years of treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, remission, and then the cancer’s recent return.
“It made me want to cry,” Carter said of Johnson’s visit to the children. “It is so wonderful. It shows people still care.”
HOW TO HELP
To learn more about Johnson’s charitable work, go to Calvin Johnson Jr. Foundation at calvinjohnsonjrfoundation.com
To learn more about the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, go to Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders | Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at choa.org