Johnson takes it all in stride in Lions debut
Oakland, Calif. — You're certainly not at Bobby Dodd Stadium anymore, Mr. Calvin Johnson. Not a single industrial engineering major to be found inside the Oakland Raiders asylum Sunday. Rather, an entire complex filled with nothing but extras from the "Mad Max" movies.
No matter. Setting and level of competition seem incidental. Detroit Lions rookie Calvin Johnson just keeps running his routes and catching about anything in the neighborhood of his reach and quietly bathing in good reviews.
And there were plenty more after a four-catch, one-touchdown NFL debut in Detroit's 36-21 victory over Oakland.
"He played like we thought he'd play as a No. 1 draft pick," quarterback Jon Kitna said. "He can cover some ground in a hurry and he's hard to tackle."
"He's definitely going to be a double-digit touchdown guy," said fellow receiver Roy Williams, giving a fantasy football tip absolutely free.
From Sandy Creek High School, to Georgia Tech and now on to the NFL, where Sunday he was the highest 2007 draft pick playing in the league, Calvin Johnson has been a star in steady assent. The spectacular is nothing but the expected in his world.
Here's how unassuming he has made the rise: Calvin Johnson plays a position whose practitioners could give lessons to a rooster about crowing at dawn. To a wide receiver, every touchdown is performance art. But when Calvin Johnson ran his quick little slant from 16 yards out and crashed into the end zone for his first professional touchdown in the third quarter, he pretty much just dropped the ball. It was up to the veteran Williams to retrieve it and suggest to the rookie he may want to keep this one for a souvenir.
It was also Williams who tried to stoke in Calvin Johnson some sort of personal vendetta against the Oakland Raiders. "I told him, me and him should take it personal against the Oakland Raiders. In 2000, they should have taken me. And in 2007, they should have taken him," Williams said. With the first overall pick, the Oakland Raiders took LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell. He still is unsigned, and greatly missed on this side of the bay.
"I really don't pay a lot of attention to that stuff," Calvin Johnson said.
The Lions didn't draft him with the second pick for his showmanship. He, along with a roster of other highly drafted receivers, are trying to breathe some competitive hope into the woebegone Lions (last winning season: 2000). His style has struck a sweet note with Detroit's blue-collar segment, including teammates. Calvinism is gaining a real foothold in the Motor City.
Even a former Georgia Bulldog can appreciate an import from the Flats. "Hey, he's not a Tech guy now — we're all Lions," Detroit linebacker Boss Bailey said. "Seems like everybody loves Calvin Johnson. He's humble as can be. And he has approached everything the right way."
Aside from the cannibals in the seats, this was a pleasant enough place to begin what may be a special professional career. 'Twas a beautiful, sunny northern California day, featuring a home team with more holes than the Lions.
"A tremendous amount of fun," Calvin Johnson said. "But bigger for our team."
In from Atlanta, his parents didn't have a great view of his touchdown, from their corner perch. "The only way I knew it was a touchdown was that it got real quiet," his father, Calvin Sr., said. "I'll replay it plenty of times when I get home."
If nothing else, Calvin Johnson was well covered in the seats, and likely will be all season. Parents, his sister, one set of grandparents in from Dayton — they all were brave enough to come into the Oakland Raiders den wearing their No. 81 Lions jerseys. A head count at the end revealed they all made it out safely.
This is a family that has been behind Calvin Johnson every long stride of the way — "I know they're always there for me," Calvin Johnson said — and continues to reap the emotional rewards.
"What a beautiful trip," said his mother, Arica. She was speaking of the flight to Oakland, but could have been commenting on the journey from the youth football fields of Georgia to the NFL.
"A blessed day for me and the family," said his grandfather, Rev. Arnold Heulet.
On the secular plane, it remains to be seen how the Lions and offensive coordinator Mike Martz will fully integrate Calvin Johnson into the offense. Sunday was more of a teasing preview than big breakout.
He did not start, and Calvin Johnson was on the field for only about 45 percent of the Lions plays (27 of 59). Of those, he was thrown to but six times. Calvin Johnson made pretty much the most of his opportunity. The first regular-season NFL pass thrown his way was an incompletion, when he slipped on the infield dirt normally reserved for baseball's A's. The other incompletion his way might have been his best catch of the day — a contorted grab of a fade pass in the end zone that ended out of bounds.
"Whatever's working," said Calvin Johnson, when asked about his workload. "If it's not broke, we don't need to fix it."
More than anything, Calvin Johnson's performance helped to feed, at least for the moment, the dream of a football renaissance in Detroit. "Talking to some guys who were here, they tell me it's totally different from last year. That's the terrific thing," he said, looking nowhere but straight ahead.
See more at www.ajc.com