Detroit linebacker Mike Johnson has always been fascinated by structural design and the uses of space. As an only child growing up with his parents in a two-bedroom apartment outside of Washington, D.C., he used to daydream endlessly about having more living space. He would redesign his living quarters over and over in his mind. So strong was this interest that he majored in architecture at Virginia Tech.
"I've always wondered how things went together and how they were taken apart," Johnson says. That fascination may also help explain why he is one of the main players responsible for calling the signals in the Lions' defense.
"One of the big components to being a good player is knowing what everybody else on the field is supposed to be doing," says Johnson, who came to Detroit in April as a free agent after eight seasons in Cleveland and played a large part in the Lions' 28-25 overtime win against the Giants on Sunday with his 48-yard interception return for a touchdown. "We're 11 different pieces that need to come together in a whole. In order for something good to happen, we all have to come together with some harmony."
That search for harmony is a hallmark of Johnson's off-field interests as well. In his senior year at DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md., he enrolled in architectural drawing classes and became engrossed in his projects. Johnson graduated in the top 15% of his high school class and could have gone to an Ivy League school. He opted instead to go to Virginia Tech, where he could study architecture and play big-time football at the same time. But as he quickly found out, that wasn't going to be easy.
"On my first day at college, an assistant dean told me that I didn't belong in architecture," Johnson says. "There was quite a rift between academia and football. However, after the architecture school saw that I was willing to put in the hours, that I was passionate about the subject, they said, 'Well, all right."
It took Johnson four years plus two off-seasons, but he got his architecture degree. In order to qualify for his seal as a registered architect, he must complete a three-year apprenticeship and take a written exam, but that will have to wait until his football career is over. In the meantime, he keeps his skills sharp by designing and building furniture in the basement of his Cleveland home. "It's a relaxation technique," he says.
Johnson also likes to renovate and redesign houses. While he was still a student at Virginia Tech, he knocked down walls in his town house to expand the living room, and a couple of years ago he redid a two-story Tudor-style home he owns near Cleveland. Johnson tore up almost every inch of the house, which had been built in the 1920s and was in total disrepair. He changed the floor plan, updated the kitchen and bathrooms, expanded the bedrooms and replaced the plumbing.
"Football is personal, but architecture is even closer to me," says Johnson. "You have to put certain parts of your insides out there. You have to have a thick, thick skin—thicker than that of a football player. If somebody says something negative about my architecture, it will affect me more deeply than a comment about my football."