Fond memories and appreciation will be on the menu Friday night at the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center, when Johnson will be one of eight Yellow Jackets greats inducted into Tech’s sports Hall of Fame. Johnson, on a very short list of the greatest athletes that the school has ever produced, left an indelible impact in his three seasons at Tech (2004-06), finishing his stay by winning the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s premier wide receiver. His promise was fulfilled in nine record-breaking seasons with the Detroit Lions, culminating in his March retirement.
In interviews with the AJC, teammates, opponents and others shared their recollections of Johnson’s blazing career.
Lesson learned in practice
Pat Clark was in Johnson’s recruiting class and played the same position for two years. Now a high school coach in Jacksonville, Fla., Clark remembered being anxious in their first summer on campus to see if the reality matched the buildup of the star from Sandy Creek High. Not long into on-field workouts, Clark said he realized that his new teammate was destined to be a first-round pick.
In spring practice after their sophomore season, Clark was moved to cornerback. He was eager to test himself against Johnson.
“I was playing about seven yards off, I’m going to try to challenge this guy,” he said. “And lo and behold, a couple seconds later, I find him running right by me. I kind of took him for granted. You don’t know how fast he is until you cover him. He doesn’t look like he’s running that fast, but he’s fast.”
Clark likes to tell stories about Johnson to his players at Sandalwood High, sharing memories of his unselfishness and drive.
“I just tell our kids, if the best player at his position can be humble, why can’t you?” he said.
Reggie Ball has a confession and clarification about a pass he threw to Johnson in the 2004 N.C. State game that became one of the two most enduring highlights of Johnson’s career. On the play, Johnson went across the middle and then reached back across his body for a stunning one-handed grab.
First, Ball’s clarification — the ball was tipped at the line of scrimmage. Now a personal trainer in Atlanta, Ball recognizes his legacy as a Tech quarterback is mixed, but said, laughing, “I was not that bad of a quarterback to throw a ball like that.”
Second, the confession. Ball also said that, had it not been tipped, it might have been intercepted, as the Wolfpack safety anticipated the play and was making a bid for the ball. But, with the tip, Johnson was able to make the catch away from the safety.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I guess it was on that play and that time, it was meant for Calvin to shine and put us on his back. He did it so many times. That was just one example of it.”
Johnson didn’t say much in the huddle beyond “Let’s go get it,” Ball said, and certainly made no demands for the ball.
Said Ball, “Honestly, if you were to define the prototypical teammate that goes out, works his (expletive) off every day, complains about nothing and check in and out every day and gives it his all every time he laces up his cleats, you’re going to be looking at Calvin Johnson.”
‘Sound of astonishment’
Miami Hurricanes defensive coordinator Manny Diaz was the N.C. State safeties coach in 2004 when Johnson made the famous catch. He remembered the fever pitch in Carter-Finley Stadium that anticipated the third-down play and “there was almost this sound of astonishment from the home fans for a visiting player. And I remember on the headsets, everyone was like, ‘Wow.’”
‘A great play by Megatron’
The safety on that play was Troy Graham, who confirmed Ball’s assessment that he was anticipating either an interception or a big hit on Johnson. Instead, it was an all-time highlight catch.
“There’s only one or two people that could make a play like that,” Graham said. “It had to be him.”
Graham recalled the greater context of the play, that it kept alive a fourth-quarter drive that resulted in a go-ahead touchdown in a Tech victory that damaged the Wolfpack’s bowl chances.
“That’s a great play by Megatron,” said Graham, now a high-school football coach in Huntsville, Ala. “I think every time they show that clip, somebody should be cutting me a check.”
Respect from an official
Van Golmont thought he was officiating a catch in the end zone. He turned out to be the closest witness to the birth of a legend. Golmont was the side judge in the Tech-Clemson game in 2004, when Johnson made a leaping touchdown catch on a fade pass from Ball with 11 seconds left to beat the Tigers. It was the second game of Johnson’s career. Tech voice Wes Durham’s presciently christened the moment, proclaiming, “THE LEGEND IS BORN IN CALVIN JOHNSON!”
Golmont was at the goal line, no more than three yards from Johnson and Tigers cornerback Justin Miller when they both went for Ball’s fade pass.
“I can remember the play, him coming down in the corner and both of them going up and him making the catch,” said Golmont, retired and living in Oviedo, Fla. “I just said, ‘Wow. There it is — the game-winner.’”
Golmont remembered, too, Miller wanting offensive pass interference, “but there was no way. Both players went for the ball. That’s the way it was.”
Over his career, Golmont didn’t interact with Johnson much beyond complimenting him for a nice catch.
“He was a class act on the field,” he said. “He wasn’t one of these hot-dog kids. He did his thing. ‘Here, Mr. Official, here’s the ball.’ We appreciate things like that.”
Golmont, who called his last game in 2007, has another unrelated memory of the Clemson game. He said there was an observer for the officiating crew at the game who gave him grief for missing calls “because he was a Clemson grad. But that was the old-school way back then.”
‘Blessed with everything’
Josh Gattis, who was an All-ACC safety for Wake Forest during Johnson’s career, said that the Demon Deacons bracketed with a cornerback and safety. He was too fast for single coverage and too big for one defender to bring down once he caught the ball. Wake Forest won the 2006 ACC title over the Jackets, he recalled, because of the defense’s singular focus on Johnson.
To Gattis, Johnson could go deep, could outmuscle corners in tight coverage and caught anything in his vicinity.
Said Gattis, now an assistant coach at Penn State, “He was blessed with everything.”
Gattis and Johnson happened to share the same training facility before the 2007 draft, which is when Johnson made the biggest impression on him.
“When I trained with him, he truly showed me what it meant to be determined and what it meant to work hard,” Gattis said. “He was always the first person in the gym. He was always the last person to leave the field.”
A visit from Mom
After a practice, Johnson approached his position coach, Buddy Geis, pleading with him not to leave. Johnson’s mother Arica was there, and she wanted to talk with her son.
“I said, ‘Calvin, I’m as afraid of your mother as you are,’” Geis said. “He says, ‘Come on.’”
Word had gotten back to Johnson’s mother that he had gotten a tattoo. She demanded that Calvin remove his jersey and shoulder pads and show her the tattoo. When he did, Geis wanted to laugh when he saw that the offending ink was smaller than a dime, but knew better than to risk incurring Arica Johnson’s ire.
“She said, ‘Coach Geis, did you know about this?’” Geis recalled. “I said, ‘Mrs. Johnson, I know nothing. I knew nothing about this. Believe me.’ And she says, ‘Calvin, all right, I don’t want to see another thing like this on your body. You understand me?’ ‘Yes, Mom.’”
Eventually, Geis and his receiver turned to go back to the locker room when Arica informed her son that he had forgotten something.
“I think you forgot to hug your mother,” Geis recalled Johnson’s mother saying, imitating her stern voice. “Come back here and do it right now.”
Geis lives in Neptune Beach, Fla., semi-retired and coaching draft prospects, considered his fortune in a career that allowed him to be the position coach for Demaryius Thomas, Troy Aikman, Sterling Sharpe and Johnson, among others. With a quarterback more capable of getting him the ball, Geis said, “there is not a doubt in my mind” that Johnson would have won the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore and junior.
“They couldn’t stop him,” Geis said.
‘He just impressed me’
In the summer of 2004, before Johnson had enrolled, team chaplain Derrick Moore held a cookout for the team at his home. Having heard a little of the hype about Johnson, Moore decided to invite him, doubting he would come. However, not only did Johnson attend, but he showed up an hour early to help set up, Moore recalled. And when the party broke up, Johnson stayed to help Moore clean up and was the last to leave.
“It was a first timer for me,” Moore said. “When you’re 17, 18 years old, you come and get your food, you’re going to take off and leave. But I had no expectations of him other than have a good time with his teammates. But, boy, he far exceeded anything I could think of. He just impressed me, and he’s been impressing me since that day.”
Moore is a frequent visitor to Tech practices, and over the next three years, he said he saw Johnson work with the fervor of a walk-on trying to earn a scholarship. He saw the iconic catch against Clemson and other acrobatic receptions that became routine. Moore played in 42 NFL games between 1993 and 1995, and puts Johnson in his top five of players he played with or against or saw in person. The others are Barry Sanders, Jerry Rice, Reggie White and Brett Favre, all of whom are arguably the best to ever play their respective positions.
The two have remained close, and Moore sees a man who has retained the same quality of the high school graduate who came to his cookout.
“You never felt like he was too big for you,” Moore said, “even though he was bigger than the moon.”