Andre Johnson is far from quiet

Originally Published: November 23, 2009
By David Fleming | Page 2

Even Chad Ochocinco has tried to help.

Before the Texans and the Bengals played on Oct. 18, Ochocinco invited Andre Johnson to his home in Cincinnati where he tried, unsuccessfully, to get Houston's freakishly talented wideout to join him on Twitter and Ustream for some much-deserved pub. Instead, Johnson used all of his athletic abilities to duck, shift and spin away from Chad's ubiquitous camera lens and keyboard. It figures: Johnson has led the NFL in receiving yards per game since 2006 while simultaneously shunning the receiva diva style that permeates the league's loudest, neediest group of players.

"I just don't get caught up in who gets the most attention," Johnson told me. "It's not that I don't care or don't have an opinion, I'm just not the kind of person who really worries about that kind of thing." Thank god, say his teammates.

"The crime of it all is, in our sports culture we expect our stars to be loud, outspoken and outrageous," says Texans guard Eric Winston. "Andre has shown the league that, hey, you can be the best wide receiver in football and -- guess what? -- you don't have to act like an a--hole."

In truth, the only label Andre Johnson hates is "quiet." Why? Probably because he's not. He simply doesn't warm up to everyone immediately, and because that makes our job in the media a little harder, a little more complicated, we tend to dismiss players like Johnson as "quiet." But a few weeks ago, while working on the current cover story of ESPN The Magazine, I found him to be thoughtful and funny and an unquestioned leader in Houston.

And, after what should be his coming-out party against the Tennessee Titans on "Monday Night Football," I think the world will finally begin to appreciate Andre Johnson as, well, the next closest thing we have to Jerry Rice: a player so talented and driven that he ends up changing the NFL without ever having to change himself. "I. Am. Not. Quiet." Johnson says, emphatically. "Mess with me, talk junk to me, challenge me. I won't run my mouth back at you. But on the next play I'm gonna do everything I can to embarrass you in front of the whole world."

In the end, those who learn about the unspeakable amount of tragedy Johnson has endured on his way to the top of the NFL are usually the ones who end up speechless.

He grew up in Carol City, Fla., in the rough Miami neighborhood known as The Bajas. Raised by Karen Johnson, a single mom working as a letter carrier, Andre met his father, Leroy Richardson, only once, for a few hours when he was 8. (In August 2002, Richardson was shot to death in Mississippi.) Karen, who had Andre after her sophomore year at Tennessee State, where she ran track, asked her older brothers Andre Melton and Keith Francis to watch over her son.

Since then Melton has become Johnson's closest adviser, spending several weeks each year in Houston and traveling to every game. (He's the one who raised quite a stink last week when he told me if the Texans don't start winning -- and pronto, like, ya know, Monday night -- he has an exit strategy in mind for his nephew.)

According to Karen, Melton and Andre Johnson, Francis was a local high school football phenom at Miami Senior High School in the 1970s who was recruited by Barry Switzer and Bobby Bowden. He never played in college, though; instead, the family says he served time for drugs while Melton was a teenager. Andre was only 4 years old when Francis started throwing him a football in the yard at their grandmother's house north of the city where the Miami Dolphins' stadium loomed in the distance. And it was Francis who first recognized the freakish athletic potential in Andre while serving as a powerful warning against the lure of the streets. (Francis was killed in August 2004.) "Because of him, they were on me about everything," says Johnson. "Every conversation I ever had with him ended the same way: Don't make the same mistakes I made."

Johnson followed in his uncle's athletic footsteps, becoming a Parade All-American at Miami Senior before moving on to the University of Miami. As a sophomore, Johnson led the Canes to the 2001 national title with 199 yards and two touchdowns against Nebraska in the Rose Bowl. He followed that up with the 2002 Big East track title in the indoor 60 meters and outdoor 100 meters. On a college team considered the most talent-rich in history (over three drafts, 23 players were taken from Miami's 2001 team, including 11 in the first round) teammates singled out Johnson and began referring to him as "Superman."

Occasionally, teammates mistook his stillness for aloofness or anger, not knowing that in the span of two years, from 2002-04, Johnson's father, his uncle and his best friend, Cyril Jones, had all been shot to death. Texans scouts saw a thoughtful, mature kid who was able to command respect without saying a word. At a chiseled 6-foot-3, 228 pounds with a 4.35 40, Johnson could run over linebackers, run past defensive backs and, literally, beat most coverages with his eyes closed. (Johnson's pre-draft physical revealed the need for corrective Lasik eye surgery.)

Too nervous to sleep the night before the draft, Johnson drove around half of south Florida in a limo with his godson. When his name was called on draft day, Johnson wept openly on his mother's soft shoulder for several minutes. When people call him quiet and grounded and mean it as a compliment, this is what they're thinking of: mother and son, ignoring the phones, well-wishers and cameras and, instead, holding each other tightly to commemorate what is essentially a miracle in a place like Miami.

"That's where a lot of my attitude and approach comes from," says Johnson. "I still feel like I'm living my childhood dream every day, only I know it could all be over at any moment."

It was always a childhood dream of Johnson to own courtside NBA seats. He's got them now, and recently when he tried to sneak out of a Houston Rockets game a few minutes early, fans in Olajuwon jerseys chucked their ThunderStix and chased him out to the concourse. There, a crowd began to form featuring one mother who, without hesitating, handed her toddler over to Johnson for a photo op.

It seemed a little nuts, at the time, just how quickly and completely the woman trusted Johnson with her baby. But the folks in Houston have known for a while now what the rest of the world will probably figure out on Monday night:

In Andre Johnson's hands, that kid was in the safest place in the world.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and the author of the memoir "Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship." And his work will be featured in The Best American Sports Writing 2009 anthology. The Flem File appears every Wednesday during the NFL season with updates on Mondays and Fridays.

David Fleming | email

ESPN Senior Writer