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He is a postmodern prototype for his position, Randy Moss minus the misanthropy. But Calvin Johnson, Georgia Tech's once-in-a-generation wide receiver, is not perfect. � Yes, the 6'5", 235-pound junior is the biggest reason the Yellow Jackets are 5--1 and one of the favorites to win the ACC. He has great hands and, with his 45-inch vertical leap, greater hops. ("It was probably closer to 47," observes Tech left tackle Andrew Gardner, "but the [measuring device] only went up to 45.") Johnson is unrivaled among wideouts as a blocker. ("We run a sweep one time," recalls Chip Walker, who coached Johnson at Sandy Creek High in Tyrone, Ga., "and he knocks the cornerback into two other guys--takes all three of 'em out.") And Johnson has that optimal blend of talent and work ethic. "God touched him in so many different ways," says Buddy Geis, who coaches Tech's receivers, "but Calvin works like He didn't give him anything."
The problem? Johnson's touchdown celebration--he has performed it eight times this season--is a tad pedestrian. It is a co-production with running back Tashard Choice. They slap right hands (front, then back), bump right shoulders, then slap hands twice more while rotating their right arms 360 degrees--a high five followed by a low five. But Johnson's heart isn't in it. "He's not real big on [celebrating]," Choice says. "I had to talk him into it. I told him, 'Man, you're Calvin Johnson. You've gotta do something.' Because this guy, he's the best I've ever seen."
Choice transferred to Georgia Tech from Oklahoma. The writing on the wall in Norman came into sharp focus early in the 2004 season, when he was beaten out by a freshman named Adrian Peterson. Thus Choice has counted as teammates two of the best players in America. Should Johnson and Peterson enter the NFL draft after this season, they could be two of the top three picks.
Only twice in the history of the draft has a wide receiver been the first selection. The New England Patriots chose Irving Fryar of Nebraska in 1984; the New York Jets took USC's Keyshawn Johnson in 1996. Wideouts "have been looked upon as kind of a luxury," says a veteran scout for an NFC team. Yet that same man recalls that at a recent meeting, his team's scouting director was asked what he thought of Johnson. His reply: "I think he's the top pick in the draft."
Despite near-constant double teams, Johnson has 35 catches for 559 yards through six games. Despite missing a week of practice with a badly bruised quad, he wreaked havoc against Virginia on Sept. 21, catching touchdown passes of 58 and 66 yards on consecutive pass plays. Next up for the Yellow Jackets was Virginia Tech, whose coach, Frank Beamer, deadpanned, "We don't have any defensive backs who are six-five, 235." That was glaringly apparent after the kickoff. Johnson caught a half-dozen passes for 115 yards and two scores. He followed that performance with a 10-reception, 133-yard, one-touchdown afternoon in Tech's win at Maryland.
See for yourself. Pay a visit to RamblinWreck.com, click on the picture of number 21 in the upper-righthand corner, then brace yourself for seven megabytes of circus catches and Gumby-like contortions that defy both physics and reason. There is Johnson in the Auburn game last season, looking inside and then apparently using radar to track a ball thrown over his outside shoulder. Bending his body, he reaches out-of-bounds to snag the pass, a 35-yard touchdown in Tech's upset of the Tigers. There he is against Miami, elevating and bending backward to make a grab, like a man falling out a window. The ball secure, he sails over the sideline, parallel to the ground, but has the presence of mind to tap his right foot on the grass inches inside the boundary. There is Johnson on a crossing route against North Carolina State two years ago, reaching backward--telescoping his right arm like Inspector Gadget--to make a ridiculous one-handed pluck that moved the chains on Tech's game-winning drive. He leaves in his wake a series of traumatized cornerbacks whose thought balloons, had the webmaster provided them, would all say the same thing: But ... but ... I had great coverage!
Johnson isn't looking to humiliate anyone; it just works out that way. "He always had a kind nature about him," says his mother, Arica. "He was one to pick [opponents] off the ground. Sportsmanship was important to him. He grew up going to church and to Sunday school. I always told him, 'If you treat people the way you want to be treated, things will work out.'"
Calvin is the second of the four children of Arica and Calvin Johnson Sr., a conductor for Southern-Pacific Railroad. Their daughter Erica, 25, is enrolled in medical school at Morehouse. Calvin's brother, Wali, is a senior at Sandy Creek; his sister Elan is in eighth grade.
Calvin describes his father as "real cool, calm and collected--kind of like me." Arica, for her part, is a strong, no-nonsense woman with a Ph.D. and a high-powered job in the Atlanta public school system. Her father, she says, was a detective who earned his degree in law enforcement. To hear Calvin Jr. tell it, Arica is the law in the Johnson household, particularly when it comes to her children's academic affairs. "You didn't want to bring home anything but an A or a B," he says. "To my mom, a C was like an F."