The only reason Ron Brooks knew the crushing weight Stevie Johnson was carrying when the Buffalo Bills played the Jaguars on Dec. 15 was because Brooks happened to be in the same Jacksonville, Fla., hotel room when Johnson’s cellphone buzzed the night before the game.
The person on the other end was calling from California. Johnson’s mother, Rhonda Lewis, had passed away. She was only 48, she hadn’t been ill and he wasn’t prepared. She had been the sun and moon to Johnson, the Bills’ star wide receiver. He had had her name tattooed in large, cursive letters on his right forearm.
And now she was gone.
“I asked him how he felt about playing,” said Brooks, a Bills cornerback and Johnson’s best friend on the team. “We had a long conversation, and he felt like he wanted to play. But he didn’t want anyone else to know. My respect for him grew even more that day. And I’d had the utmost respect for him before then.”
Johnson’s trade to the 49ers last week came with mixed feelings.
For years, Johnson had been the top target for Buffalo and had been a favorite in the Bills’ locker room. Now he’s the fourth-most-recognizable name in San Francisco’s receiving corps after Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Brandon Lloyd, who played for the 49ers from 2003 to 2005.
But the trade brought him back to the Bay Area, where he was raised and where he helped bury his mother just six months ago.
Johnson grew up watching his mom cheer for the 49ers; she and his stepfather, Andre “Herm” Lewis, lived in the shadow of Candlestick Park in San Francisco’s Hunters Point neighborhood. He could hear the roar of the crowd on game days. Family members sold candy and snacks inside the stadium. Johnson learned to drive on the parking lots that sprawl from the east side of the stadium to the edge of the bay.
The family eventually moved to Fairfield, where Johnson became a star at Rodriguez High School. He spent two seasons at Chabot College in Hayward, where he learned to play wide receiver, before going to the University of Kentucky.
Asked this week which Bay Area town could rightfully claim him, Johnson – he has the Giants’ “SF” logo tattooed on his right shoulder, just above the Golden State Warriors’ logo – laughed and said all of them.
“I represent the whole Bay Area,” he said. “I grew up in San Francisco, went to high school in Fairfield and played my junior college ball out near Oakland. So I represent the Bay, I represent everyone out there that’s a 49ers Faithful.”
He represents the Sacramento area, too.
Johnson bought a house in Elk Grove shortly after joining the Bills, and that’s where he’s lived with his wife and three children during the offseasons. He was home last week when he learned he’d been traded.
Family members rarely were able to attend games when he was with Buffalo, but there always was plenty to read about.
Despite being an afterthought in the 2008 draft – the 224th of 252 players selected that year – he led the Bills in receptions and receiving yards in three of the last four seasons. He made splashes in other ways, too.
In 2011, he made fun of Jets opponent Plaxico Burress by pretending to shoot himself in the thigh following a touchdown catch. In 2010, he was fined $5,000 for writing a message on his T-shirt – “why so serious?” – that he revealed after a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals. Another T-shirt message a year later, “Happy New Year,” earned a 15-yard penalty.
“Stevie was a guy who put his own flair on things,” Brooks said. “It wasn’t as if he was going against what the coaches wanted. He just had his own personality.”
Johnson had another message for a game against the Jaguars. He wrote “Hi” on one of his eye-black stickers and “MOM,” with a heart where the “O” should be, under the other.
He insists he’ll take a serious approach with the 49ers.
For one, a critical drop in the end zone in overtime against the Pittsburgh Steelers late in the 2010 season taught him to be more business-like. He’s also behind the other receivers on the 49ers because he is a newcomer.
Johnson has been part of the 49ers’ “football school” practices since meeting coach Jim Harbaugh for the first time Sunday.
“I don’t want to go too fast,” Johnson said. “Like Coach Harbaugh says, ‘Glide into it.’ That’s what I’m trying to do now. Just getting my feet under me and glide into it with the guys … even though I have to glide into it a little faster because they’re faster, or more ahead of the curve, than I am. But I think we’ll get there as a team.”