ESPN the Magazine ESPN
In This Issue
Message Board
Customer Service

The Life

December 27, 2002
Game Breaker
ESPN The Magazine

Geez, can they talk. Not just talk, but launch salvo after salvo of verbal cluster bombs that nearly knock the notebook out of your hands. Ask center Brett Romberg about his decision to leave home in Windsor, Ontario, for Miami, and you get an HBO comedy special about having to choose between snow up to your chin strap or rubbing oil on the tanned yams of some bikini-clad UM coed. Sherko Haji-Rasouli, the Hurricanes' left guard, is the same way. Nod in his general direction, and you get 318 pounds of Adam Sandler. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma will chat you up until your tape recorder begs for a double-A transplant. Defensive tackle Matt Walters should travel with his own stenographer. Even Ken Dorsey and Willis McGahee, the QB-RB Heisman tandem, could exhaust pretty boy Carson Daly in a Q&A-thon.

Andre Johnson
Andre lets his game do the talking -- and it won't shut up.
And then there's wide receiver Andre Johnson.

"That's my buddy," says McGahee. "But he's not much of a talker."

Turns out the school that put the yap in Warren Sapp and produced such world-class woofers as Micheal Barrow, Clinton Portis, Ed Reed, Joaquin Gonzalez and Michael Irvin also has room for the strong, silent type. Not that anyone realized it until last January. "I never paid much attention to him," says Romberg. "I never noticed him until, well, actually the Rose Bowl."

The Rose Bowl. Nebraska's Blackshirts still have toaster burns from watching the 6'3", 227-pound Johnson run by them like they had John Deeres strapped to their cleats. Johnson caught seven Dorsey passes for 199 yards and 2 TDs. By the time it was finished, Miami had a national championship, and Johnson and Dorsey had co-MVP awards.

That was it for flying under the radar. Johnson, who redshirted as a freshman in 1999, considered ditching Miami for the NFL. McGahee asked him to stay another year. "You can't leave me," he told him.

So Johnson stayed, worked his tail off in spring practice, and won a Big East sprint title. Then he spent the rest of the off-season serving a suspension for allegedly cheating on a test and plagiarizing a term paper. He was banned from the UM football facilities until August, but returned to lead the Hurricanes in receptions and receiving yards. And you should see him on Miami's kickoff-coverage team. "Dre almost put some people in the hospital," says Walters.

And still, it would take a court order from Judge Judy to get anything close to Romberg-quality material out of him. For someone who loves watching the brash Terrell Owens of the San Francisco 49ers, Johnson chooses his words as carefully as he runs his favorite pass pattern, the classic post. He has no need for a Sharpie, as evidenced by his clueless moment after the recent Fiesta Bowl-clinching win against Virginia Tech.

Reporter: "You know you finished the season with more than 1,000 yards, right?"

Johnson: "Oh."

Maybe this is why Johnson is a team favorite. This, and the fact that on a team of can-you-believe-he-did-that players, he is considered an athletic mutant. "A genetic freak," Romberg says. "If I were a DB, I don't know what I'd do if I saw him coming toward me. I'd definitely turtle. He's like an X-Man, or something."

"He's not human," says Haji-Rasouli.

But Romberg and Haji-Rasouli -- and anyone else who can't see past Johnson's TV guns and 4.35 40 -- have it wrong. Johnson is mortal, all right. You should have seen him after the win against VaTech. He ran a down-and-out to his 2-year-old godson, Cyril Jones Jr., scooped the little guy up in his right arm and gave him a postgame tour of the Orange Bowl field.

Cyril Sr., Johnson's best friend, would have done it himself, except that he was shot to death last December.

And this past August, Johnson's own father was found dead from gunshot wounds. Of course, Johnson hadn't seen his old man since third grade, so it wasn't like he shed any tears when he heard the news. "To tell you the truth, no," he says. "It was just like I didn't even know him."

  • Fiesta fever:
    It's all about matchups
  • Game Breaker:
    Andre Johnson, quiet killer
  • Game Taker:
    Coaches beware, it's Chris Gamble
  • Hard Cover:
    Breaking down Johnson vs. Gamble
  • His family is his mom, Karen, who still looks as if she could run the 400, which is what she did before she had Andre after her sophomore year at Tennessee State. There's Johnson's younger brother, Willie Pope, a senior WR at Norland High School. And Andre Melton, his uncle and namesake, is another constant.

    Johnson wasn't crazy about the publicity generated by his brief romance with the NFL last winter, but what did he expect? And he definitely turtled when the Miami media reported the details of his cheating and subsequent suspension. Not human? Anyone who errs like that has to be human. "Like I say, man, everybody makes mistakes," he says. "It's just something you can learn from."

    It was his Rose Bowl co-MVP who reached out first. Dorsey called and arranged for him, Johnson and other UM players to meet at a local high school and work out. It was Dorsey's way of keeping the banished Johnson part of the team.

    Dorsey has a soft spot for Johnson. They come from opposite ends of the Q-tip, but something clicks. During a recent media day at the Hurricanes' football facility, Dorsey tiptoed his way into a TV interview session featuring Johnson. "Oh, he's spectacular," cooed Dorsey, as the cameras rolled and Johnson shook his head. "Andre Johnson is my hero. I just think that's important for everybody to know."

    Unlike Nebraska, which seemed shocked in last season's national championship game that Johnson could sprint past its press technique and man coverage, Ohio State will be fully aware of the Dre factor. Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel spent part of the off-season at Miami, as a guest of coach Larry Coker and his staff. Plus, he's not an idiot; he can turn on a game tape and see Johnson scorch Virginia Tech for 193 yards and a touchdown.

    That's where Ohio State's 60-minute man -- WR/CB Chris Gamble -- enters the game plan. Last year, as the Hurricanes completed their preparations for the Fiesta Bowl, Johnson overheard Coker tell a UM assistant coach, "We need to get him four deep balls." This time, who knows how many times Dorsey will chuck it long to Johnson. Six? Eight? Gamble might be the designated shadow, but can he put the glove on a guy who averages more than 21 yards and one contrail every time he touches the ball?

    And for those interested in a continuing UM dynasty, will the Fiesta Bowl be the last time Johnson wears a Hurricanes uniform? His confidante, Uncle Andre, says the two have discussed the possibility of Johnson leaving a season early. "I've been hearing first-round pick," says Andre Melton. "We'll talk after the bowl game."

    McGahee, who says, for now, that he's coming back in 2003, isn't about to play the friendship card with Johnson again. He asked his buddy to come back this year as a personal favor. "You push your luck if you ask him two times in a row," McGahee says.

    Especially if Johnson makes noise this Jan. 3 like he did last Jan. 3.

    This article appears in the January 6 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

    Latest Issue

    Also See
    Fiesta Bowl: Point of Attack
    Can Ohio State stop Miami? ...

    Game Taker
    Need a stop on D or a big ...

    Hard Cover
    A closer look at Andre ...'s Fiesta Bowl page
    Break out the chips and salsa
    Who's on the cover today?

    SportsCenter with staples
    Subscribe to ESPN The Magazine for just ...

     ESPN Tools
    Email story
    Most sent
    Print story

    Customer Service


    BACK ISSUES Help | Media Kit | Contact Us | Tools | Site Map | PR
    Copyright ©2002 ESPN Internet Ventures. Terms of Use and Privacy Policy and Safety Information are applicable to this site. For ESPN the Magazine customer service (including back issues) call 1-888-267-3684. Click here if you're having problems with this page.