By LARRY VAUGHT
12:25 PM EST, February 29, 2012
LEXINGTON — He had three game-winning touchdown catches his senior season at Kentucky, including one against Louisville. He’s had back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons for the Buffalo Bills and now has 170 catches for 2,189 yards and 19 touchdowns in his NFL career.
Yet Stevie Johnson said getting a chance to go to midcourt at Rupp Arena on Saturday during the Kentucky-Vanderbilt game ranks among his “top five best feelings by far” and was something he never imagined possible.
“Just the whole flight back to Kentucky and going through the airport and seeing all the blue was great,” Johnson said. “It was just crazy coming back. I got to the Campbell¿House, and that is where we stayed before all our home football games. It all came back to me. I was thinking back to me and (former UK wide receiver) Dicky (Lyons) fighting in our room before games.
“Then being right there in the student section with all the students going crazy.¿It was amazing. It’s not completely like being there and going on the court showed that I¿had finally made it, but in a way it does mean I have made it big if I got on the Rupp Arena court. It’s a lot of work. People see games on Sunday and all the fun, but it’s a lot of work and getting introduced to the crowd like that makes me legit.”
Johnson said he had “no idea” he would be brought on the court. Actually, he didn’t even plan to be part of the E-Rupp-tion Zone, either. Kentucky had provided his with tickets in the upper section of the lower arena, but coming into the game he ran into UK¿football coach Joker Phillips, his position coach when he was at Kentucky.
“I told him¿I wanted to sit in the student section.¿He pulled some strings and got me in there,” Johnson said.
Johnson came to the game wearing a Demarcus Cousins Sacramento Kings jersey.
“I¿am from San Francisco, but I bought a place in the Sacramento area. I¿like the Warriors, Kings, Clippers, Lakers,” Johnson said. “But when Demarcus was drafted by the Kings, it was so sweet. We hung out a couple of times. I¿wanted to show my support for him and Kentucky because he represents Kentucky in Sacramento. Why not wear a Boogie Cousins jersey?”
Ironically, he has a Golden State Warriors tattoo.
“That’s one of my favorite tattoos, too,” Johnson said.
He found a familiar face in the student section, Vincent Swope.¿He’s the student always wearing the referee’s shirt and is the one who hit the half-court shot earlier this season that won him $10,000 from Kroger.
“When I was at Kentucky,¿I¿had this kid hit me up on the Internet. I am sociable and he told me he was a fan and liked how I¿played,” Johnson said. “We had a relationship. I ended up seeing him in the student section and was hanging with him and having a good time. It’s pretty weird that I ran into him of all people.”
Some might consider it “weird” that Johnson has turned into the star he has. He only played two years of high school football because Angelo Rodriguez High School in Fairfield, Calif., didn’t have a team until his junior year. He became an all-state player and went to Chabot Junior College in California before transferring to Kentucky.
His first season at UK¿in 2006, he had 12 catches for 159 yards. However, his breakout game came in the Music City Bowl win over Clemson when he caught three passes for 67 yards. As a senior, he had 61 receptionsfor 1,052 yards and 13 touchdowns and became a star on a team that also had Andre Woodson, Keenan Burton, Jacob Tamme, Rafael Little, Wesley Woodyard and Dicky Lyons.
The Bills made him a seventh-round draft pick, but he didn’t get his first scoring catch until week 15. He finished his rookie season with 10 receptions for 102 yards and two scores. The next year, though, he managed just two catches for 10 yards after battling a severe rib injury most of the year.
“I have come a long way in the last four years,” Johnson, a free agent, said. “I have seen it all in my four years. I¿have had ups and downs. When you flat line, it all comes down. Everything has been crazy the last two years especially, but that makes you appreciate the good times more.
“I am coming of age as a NFL player. Outside of football, I am going to always be the same. I will have fun and talk to everyone. I’ve had my celebrations and all that stuff (in the NFL). I will continue to have fun, but it’s more business now. My name is known now. Now it is time to get to the next level. I want to play in the Pro Bowl, go to the Super Bowl.”
He became a starter in 2010 and his breakout game came when he made eight catches for 158 yards and a score against Baltimore midway through the season. Two weeks later he had a career-high 11 catches for 145 yards against Chicago.
But he also had his cantankeous monents. He imitated a minuteman firing a rifle and fell to the ground backward pretending to be shot after scoring against New England and was fined $10,000.
He had eight catches for 137 yards and three touchdowns against Cincinnati, but also poked fun at Cincinnati receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco with a message he revealed on his T-shirt under his jersey and was fined another $5,000.
He had two more controversial moments in 2011. The first came when he pretended to shoot his leg and then fly like a jet and pretended to crash, imitating New York Jets wide receiver Plaxico Burress. The second penalty called on Johnson was in week 17 against New England. Johnson lifted his jersey, revealing "Happy New Year" written on his undershirt. Coach Chan Gailey benched Johnson for the rest of the game.
“You can learn from anything and I have been through a lot of things,” Johnson said. “People who know me know the things I did were not personal against anybody. You go through things and it will mold you. I feel like I¿listen and learn from everything. I listen to the good and the bad. If you listen to too much good, you never learn. If you take all the negative attention and mix it in with what you need to do, it shows you how to grow up, something we all have to do sometime.
“The NFL is going to be there forever. I¿have to change to last longer. I want to continue to be there and help people. There’s a lot I can still do and a lot of people I can help.”
Johnson knows he’s already surprised many people, including UK¿fans who probably didn’t think he might turn out to be the biggest NFL star off that 2007 team.
“I came to Kentucky out of junior college and nobody knew me,” he said. “I was not expect to shine. Keenan had been here since his freshman days and playing with big dogs like Glenn Holt. He was established. Tamme was the man. Rafael was a star. They were all talented guys.
“I guess I was just blessed to be in a great spot. It’s all about where you end up. Those guys (from UK) are still probably better or at least equal in talent to me, but it’s about where you end up. I was fortunate to end up in Buffalo and got to play. The coaches saw something in me and I got an opportunity. It’s a weird league. There’s a lot of talent you never get to see because of the team’s style of play where a guy lands.”
Where Johnson lands next year remains in doubt. He insists he would like to stay in Buffalo, where quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has signed a new deal. Buffalo could use the franchise tag on him to keep him, or let Johnson test the free agent market.
“I was already planning on making a change as far as the type of mentality I have on and off the field,” Johnson said. “I have put in time with my quarterback. I know my quarterback will be there for the long run. If I sing a long-term deal, I¿can do all I can to build up the organization. I am going to change and become a better player and person around the (team) facility.”
He says the expected financial windfall won’t change his personality or hunger to star on the field.
“I am not going to relax because of the money,” he said. “My family will be good. The main thing is to take care of my family. I have a lot of couins, aunties, mom and dad. I¿want to make sure they are all taken care of and with the new contract that happens and then I can just focus on my craft and getting to a Super Bowl. The only change with the contract will be for the good.”
The contract negotiations have not deterred him from one thing — following Kentucky sports.
“I try to keep up with as much Kentucky sports as I can. I try to watch the girls hoops team, and they are really good,” Johnson said. “I was at the basketball game (in Rupp). I saw the Mississippi State game on ESPN. I try to keep up with the football team. They beat Tennessee and nobody cared what happened the rest of the season.
“I try to do as much as I can to check out Kentucky all I can.¿I love Kentucky, and that’s what made getting to go out there at Rupp Arena so cool. I¿just never thought Stevie Johnson would ever get to do that.”
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