On Stevie Johnson’s left ribcage is a tattoo of a boy with alien features. The misfit is leaning against a street post that reads “Memory Lane,” and he’s holding a football in one hand, a basketball in the other. A brick wall is behind him, a boom box at his feet.
“It’s a kid on the block,” Johnson explained in an interview this week.
Johnson rose from a folding chair in the Buffalo Bills field house, lifted his T-shirt and pinned his chin to his chest to examine one of the many illustrations in his dark mural.
“The kid looks like that because he’s alienated,” Johnson said. “That’s me.”
Johnson was an outcast compared to those who succumbed to the gangs, drugs and crime prevalent in the merciless Hunters Point section of San Francisco.
Strengthened by the guidance of his convict-turned-community-activist stepfather and the support of his future wife, Johnson grasped his athletic ambitions and pursued them in earnest, while his gifted AAU teammates – one by one – fell by the wayside.
Johnson will return to Hunters Point this afternoon. He will step on Candlestick Park’s grass for the first time when the Bills play the San Francisco 49ers.
A teenage Johnson behind the wheel of a silver Honda Accord learned how to drive in Candlestick’s enormous parking lots. His family used to barbecue at Gilman Playground across the street. They would order fish from Two Jacks restaurant a few hundred yards from the stadium.
“It’ll be special,” Johnson said of playing the team he grew up rooting for. “That’s where I’m from, and the 49ers are ‘that team.’ To come out of the tunnel, it’s going to feel good.”
Johnson emerged from Hunters Point largely because his personality – perhaps as much as his athletic ability – was unlike that of his peers.
Throughout his life, he stuck out as different. He felt like an alien loner in the hood, but it helped him survive and taught him that long odds could be overcome.
His stepfather’s unexpected success in rap music eventually allowed the family to move to Fairfield, Calif., about 35 miles from San Francisco. Johnson attended a start-up high school that didn’t offer varsity football until he was a junior. He was lightly recruited, went to a junior college and ended up at the University of Kentucky.
The Bills drafted Johnson in the seventh round. Then he was trapped behind receivers Lee Evans, Terrell Owens, Josh Reed and Roscoe Parrish.
But the kid from Hunters Point continued to survive. Johnson became a full-time NFL starter in 2010 and recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, the first by a receiver in Bills history.
“He always tells me he feels like he needs to work from the bottom up, to prove to his coaches and his teammates what he can do,” said Britney Johnson, his wife.
“It’s important in his journey that he’s been humble and knows – that even though it’s in his mind, ‘I’m going to be on top; I’m going to be No. 1’ – it’s not going to always go as planned. But that doesn’t mean you give up. He keeps pushing forward to show everyone what he can do.”
Positive role model
Andre “Herm” Lewis recalled precisely when his stepson’s vision quest to play in the NFL began. It wasn’t some flash of brilliance on the field. It had nothing to do with being challenged by a coach or family member.
The moment erupted through tears while waiting in a McDonald’s drive-through.
At a family gathering that day, Johnson had done something to anger his parents. Nobody can recollect what, but on the way home Lewis reprimanded Johnson for his behavior.
“He always had this competitive spirit,” Lewis said, “and when I would get on him, tears would well up in his eyes, and he would flex his muscles real tight in anger.
“I said, ‘Boy, you better get your act together and start paying attention and be more obedient.’ And he said, ‘It don’t make a difference! I’m going to the League!’
“And he said it with so much confidence, enthusiasm and conviction to where – instead of making another comment to belittle or discourage it – I quit talking. I let that statement linger in the air. That was an awakening moment.”
Lewis admitted he thought Johnson was being foolhardy, that the chances of reaching the NFL were skinny. But Lewis seized on Johnson’s declaration and laid out the criteria his stepson must meet.
“With the way he said it, I didn’t want to throw anything in his face,” Lewis said. “My plan was, ‘OK, you need to do a lot of work. You need to make sure your academics are in order. You respect your parents. You respect the rules and regulations.’ ”
When Lewis spoke, the Bay area listened. He had spent two years in the penitentiary because of drugs but decided before his release that he wanted to make a difference through community work.
On the outside, he met Johnson’s mother, Rhonda, when Johnson was 2 years old. Johnson claimed his father, Steve Sr., remained a positive influence, taking him to the only two games he ever attended at Candlestick Park. But Lewis raised Johnson along with more children that followed.
Hunters Point has an astronomical murder rate and is considered one of the nation’s most dangerous neighborhoods. The soil is toxic from the abandoned shipyards. Drug-related violence dominates the neighborhood.
Lewis in the early 1990s became an influential voice who advocated compassion and neighborhood unity.
The San Francisco rap group RBL Posse approached Lewis to deliver a motivational speech as part of its CD. Lewis then released “Trying to Survive in the Ghetto,” a popular compilation CD of local artists.
He worked with Master P and JT the Bigga Figga and helped Johnson’s first-cousin, Ya Boy, blossom as a performer. Lewis was a regular on the show “Street Soldiers” on San Francisco hip-hop radio station KMEL.
“Every corner, every hood, was beefing with each other,” Johnson said. “But the thing about him was, he would put me in the passenger seat and would drive through every set. And he would get love from every set.
“He dang near had the power to stop any beef. He told me ‘You got to be versatile. Don’t narrow yourself to one group of people. Always show love to others, and they’ll show love to you.’ ”
At the news conference to announce Johnson’s five-year, $36.25 million contract in March, he thanked “the O.G. [original gangster] Herm, the one who made me that SF warrior that you guys see.”
On Johnson’s right shoulder is a tattoo of the “SF” logo used by the San Francisco Giants above the Golden State Warriors logo.
A neophyte NFL fan probably could walk into the Bills’ locker room and easily pick out the guy from San Francisco.
Johnson laughed at the idea of somebody pointing at each player and identifying them.
“Football player, football player, football player … weirdo,” Johnson said. “I don’t know anyone else in the league with a dermal anchor in their face.”
That’s the stud Johnson has implanted his left cheek. He has more ink in his body than this morning’s edition of The Buffalo News. He frequently displays his tattoos in magazines and advertisements. And he’s a fashionista with a penchant for the flamboyant.
Johnson, who has dabbled in rap and has performed with the artist Game, is an eclectic spirit.
He possesses that freethinking, cool, sexy, funky hipness that San Francisco is known for.
His swag has helped him assemble an impressive endorsement portfolio. He’s a spokesman for VIZIO televisions, Skullcandy headphones, Hornell-based Pant Saggin Dezign apparel, Deuce watches and Northtown Auto.
Johnson has a show, “Street Games,” on YouTube channel The NOC (Network of Champions). Johnson approaches random people in New York City and asks them to perform challenges or participate in pranks.
“Stevie was a guy we pinpointed early on as somebody we wanted to work with,” said Erik Kesten, executive producer for the NOC. “He’s an up-and-coming player with a big cool factor off the field. He’s really magnetic.
“We’re trying to create a brand that’s a cool place for sports fans to see what athletes are like off the field and away from mainstream outlets. A guy like that is perfect for us.”
Sponsors who spoke to The Buffalo News were unanimous in their praise of Johnson as a regular guy who’s a joy to work with, especially when compared to other athletes or celebrities.
“Stevie’s got a big heart,” said Curt Flaitz, co-founder of Pant Saggin. “He’ll do anything for anybody. He’s happy to be where he’s at.
“He’s accomplished things, and he’s had better offers since he met us. But he’s stuck with us. He’s loyal and just true to his word.”
Johnson and his stepfather quickly affirm Johnson’s flamboyance comes from his mother. Johnson expresses his connection – how else? – with a tattoo that takes up his entire right forearm. Flames rise from his wrist, where “Rhonda” is written in script, up to his elbow. A bird takes flight amid the fire. Above, it says “Live to stay fly.” Underneath, “Why not?”
Over the past couple years, Johnson’s expressiveness and independent streak have captivated and infuriated Bills fans.
In 2010, he revealed his “Why so serious?” T-shirt against the Cincinnati Bengals and made the infamous God tweet after dropping the winning overtime touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In 2011, the NFL fined him for mocking New York Jets receiver Plaxico Burress, who had accidentally shot himself in the leg and went to prison. Bills coach Chan Gailey yanked Johnson from the season finale after being penalized for another T-shirt message.
For all of Johnson’s cosmopolitan tastes, outside-the-box thinking and financial wherewithal, however, the people closest to him seem to have a lot of fond Wal-Mart memories.
At the store on Southwestern Boulevard in Hamburg, agent C.J. LaBoy has witnessed Johnson pay for a stranger’s television, and for a man’s whole cart of food and clothes for his family.
“The guy was speechless, total shock,” LaBoy said of Johnson’s cart purchase. “Afterwards, they hugged. The man thanked Stevie profusely, and they took some pictures.
“I’ve seen him do it many times, and this was before his new contract. He does it because he feels so blessed that he wants to do something for somebody else.”
Wal-Mart also is where Johnson and his wife bought their first wedding rings. When Johnson went to play for Kentucky in 2006, he summoned Britney from California to help keep him centered.
Each other was all they had. They got married in a Lexington courthouse. Nobody from Johnson’s family was there. He had no best man. The witnesses were one of Britney’s coworkers and the coworker’s mother.
“We didn’t have much, but we worked with whatever we had,” Britney Johnson said. “I was just thankful to have someone I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.”
They’ve been married for five years and have three children, but Johnson has promised to renew their vows with a traditional wedding. Johnson will formally propose to her – he didn’t the first time – and they’ll throw what should be the biggest reception of Johnson’s life.
“I can’t tell you that I would be in the NFL if it wasn’t for her,” Johnson said.
With his first NFL paycheck, Johnson went to the McKinley Mall and bought Britney a diamond ring. He slid it into the box of a video-game he’d also purchased and tried to spring a surprise by asking her to play it with him. Problem was, she doesn’t particularly enjoy video games.
“She wasn’t going for it at all,” Johnson said. “I thought, ‘Man, this isn’t working out like I expected it to.’ I almost forced her to open up the video game.
“My proposal, I’m still working on that to give her something special. I’ve got to make it work because that was so weak.”
Until then, Johnson’s homecoming today will do just fine as a party.
Britney said her husband is on the hook for about 50 tickets for family and friends, but about 100 people are expected for a pregame tailgate in the same Candlestick parking lot where Johnson learned to drive.
“Every single person I know that’s going to be watching this game,” Johnson said, “is going to go, ‘Good job, Steve.’ But they’re going to be going for the 49ers. So I want my Buffalo Bills brothers to go out there and win this game.
“Then when I go back home I can go, ‘Yeah, we beat y’all in your house.’”