JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Stevie Johnson’s right forearm is consumed by a tattoo flame that rises from a name inscribed on his wrist.
“Rhonda” flows in cursive.
Rhonda Lewis is his mother. She died Saturday at her home in Northern California. She was 48.
Johnson received a call from his stepfather, Bay Area neighborhood activist and hip-hop figure Andre “Herm” Lewis, Saturday night. A family associate who didn’t want to be identified told The Buffalo News that Johnson’s mother hadn’t been ill and the news “devastated” him.
Johnson had a decision to make: Play against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday afternoon or fly back home to gather his family before heading West.
Johnson deliberated with Bills coach Doug Marrone and cornerback Ron Brooks, a close friend.
“I was going to back up his decision either way,” Brooks said.
Johnson chose to play.
“Once he told me he was going to play, I said I didn’t expect anything different from him,” Brooks said. “It’s in him. He’s a competitor. He’s a fighter.”
Johnson made one, essentially meaningless catch in a 27-20 victory over the Jaguars. But his performance carried meaning.
“I felt I went all week with the boys and whatever I can do to help out the team,” Johnson said. “I felt I should give it my all no matter what. It was tough, but we got the win, and I’m happy about that. I’m sure she’s happy about that.”
Johnson has other tattoos near the tribute to his mother. On the back of his right hand is written “Handle Biz.” His right biceps reads “Focused.”
He wrote Lewis a message on his eye-black stickers Sunday: “Hi” under his right eye and “MOM,” with a heart where the “O” should be, under his left eye.
“She loved to watch him play football,” Brooks said.
Johnson didn’t tell many teammates, not even quarterback EJ Manuel, who found out after the game.
“My mom had breast cancer and nobody knew for six months,” Manuel said. “Those types of things, you just want to keep them in, especially when you’re on a team. You don’t want them to be a distraction – even though we all would have came like we’re about to and show him love.”
Bills receiver T.J. Graham still hadn’t heard by the time he walked toward the team bus. His mouth fell open at the news.
“I could tell something was wrong with him,” Graham said. “He’s usually more focused. He was a little more to himself today. It was clear his mind was elsewhere.
“He’s a strong guy. For him not to even … Man, I can’t even put it into words. For him to come out there and play with his brothers in a hard time … ”
Graham needed more time to gather his thoughts.
Johnson admitted he wasn’t always lucid. He was targeted three times, dropping his first chance and not turning around fast enough to see Manuel’s throw that would have converted a third down in the third quarter. Johnson’s lone catch was for 4 yards in the first quarter.
“I was in and out, but I knew what the main goal was,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t taking away from the team and thinking about my mother. It was trying to get the victory since I’m here. I think I played it well.”
Johnson flew back to Buffalo on the team’s charter plane Sunday night.
“I couldn’t imagine doing what he went through,” Bills safety Jairus Byrd said. “It doesn’t get much bigger than that. To be able to fight through that and go out there and handle business, everybody can use that as an example.”
Said Graham: “You know, some of the comments he makes sometimes sound selfish, but he’s a team player. The actions speak louder than words.”
The Bills recorded five sacks Sunday, putting them one away from the club record set in 1964. The sacks were spread around, with Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, Jerry Hughes, Manny Lawson and Nickell Robey tallying one apiece.
Williams and Dareus each have a career-high eight sacks. Hughes is up to nine. Along with team-leader Mario Williams’ 12 sacks, four Bills have at least eight of them for the first time in club history since sacks became an official stat in 1982 and for the first time in the NFL since the Baltimore Ravens in 2006.
Bills running backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller combined for 147 rushing yards. Jackson had 17 carries for a team-high 80 yards, while Spiller had the highest average, running 13 times for 67 yards.
Spiller has 745 yards. Jackson has 725 yards.
They became the second duo in Bills history with at least 700 yards in the same season, joining O.J. Simpson and Jim Braxton in 1975.
The Bills received good medical reports on a pair of game-time decisions. Leading tackler Kiko Alonso (knee) and right guard Kraig Urbik (foot) were cleared to play and started.
Running back Ronnie Wingo didn’t dress and was replaced on the roster by fullback Frank Summers, a healthy scratch last week.
Bills tight end Tony Moeaki, signed last week, remained inactive.
The Jaguars were without four starters, including their top two offensive weapons, because of injuries.
Their absences were felt in Las Vegas before kickoff. With so much money wagered on Buffalo, the spread moved from Buffalo minus-2 points to minus-3.5 points. Some offshore sports books shifted their spreads to 4.5 points, said Joel Staniszewski, a Las Vegas handicapper from Sloan.
Star running back Maurice Jones-Drew (hamstring) and receiver Cecil Shorts (groin) were deactivated. Jones-Drew has 958 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns. Shorts leads the Jaguars with 66 catches and 777 receiving yards with three TDs.
Also out were left guard Will Rackley, who has been dealing with concussion issues this year and told the Jaguars’ medical staff Saturday he didn’t feel right. Starting strong safety Johnathan Cyprien was sidelined with a thigh injury.