How Stevie Johnson lit a flame in Buffalo
The current Buffalo Bills have roots in this wide receiver bursting with swagger. There's no denying it: He did it his way. With Go Long, Johnson details how he changed the team and the position.
Too often in sports, we assume there’s no legacy without longevity.
In truth, some of the most profound legacies are rooted in a fleeting moment in time. A player comes, a player goes, and nothing is the same ever again.
That’s the case with Stevie Johnson. Forget wins and losses. Many locals will agree that the electric wide receiver sincerely did change football in Western New York, that he was a bolt of lightning still felt everywhere from Thanksgiving Day dinners with family to Spot Coffee in the village of Hamburg. The worst place to be as an NFL franchise is both bad and boring and that’s precisely where the Bills resided when they took him in the seventh round of the 2008 NFL Draft.
This team wasn’t only missing the playoffs. They did so in extremely blasé fashion.
Maybe Johnson didn’t end the playoff drought but he’s unquestionably a reason why the Bills’ attitude (and brand) is what it is today. He injected swagger into the very DNA of the organization. The “Bills Mafia” movement — which the franchise distanced itself from for years — claims Johnson as its torchbearer. His overtime drop against the Steelers that 2010 season tipped the first domino.
Beyond infamously asking God why that night, Johnson was the one flashing the “Why So Serious!” undershirt against the self-proclaimed Batman-and-Robin duo of Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson in an absolutely bananas 49-31 win. You never knew what would happen during or after a play with No. 13 on the field.
Johnson remains the only wide receiver in Bills history to string together three straight 1,000-yard seasons as he did 2010-’12.
His approach to the position was beautifully radical. No wide receiver in the NFL ran routes like Johnson because these weren’t really “routes.” There was no way to diagram on a whiteboard exactly what Johnson was doing on Sundays. The field was Johnson’s personal canvas and he essentially turned wide receiver into basketball by cutting and juking and crossing over to waste the best cornerbacks in the game. Even Darrelle Revis.
Now, some of the best receivers in the game — like current Bills star Stefon Diggs — are using those same moves.
“Stevie Styles” sure had fun doing it his way, too.
Tonight, the Bills (7-4) host the New England Patriots (8-4) in what’s arguably one of the biggest regular season games in franchise history. It sure seemed like the Bills left Bill Belichick in the dust in 2020 only to see the 2021 Patriots completely regroup with a new roster, a new quarterback and win six straight. Maybe the Bills are front-runners but that can be a good thing. These Bills are capable of getting a lead, building on that lead and flexing all over the team that’s haunted them for years.
Right about now, it sure wouldn’t be a bad idea for Buffalo to think back to how Johnson attacked every day.
Go Long recently chatted for an hour with the wide receiver all about how he tried to change everything in Buffalo to his unique route running to how he’s taking kids under his wing today with his HBHF (“HandleBizHaveFun”) mentorship program.
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You’re living in San Diego right now with your family but still come back in Buffalo a good amount, right?
Johnson: I’ve got to stay around. They showed love to me throughout my career so I can’t stay retired and not show love back. I’m a creator. I create for the communities and Buffalo is one of the communities I represent.
Everything that we see here now — the team is good, the hype is real — but this level of buzz probably doesn’t exist without you. You were a forefather. And not only the team, but the position.
Johnson: It’s good for the city right now. Because just what you said? That’s exactly what I envisioned for everybody, man. They saw what we were fighting for. They saw what I brought. It’s good for them to have this type of team right now. Not just one star at each position. We have multiple stars at positions, so it’s entertainment for the fans.
The swagger people around here have started back with Stevie Johnson and “Why so serious?” and mocking Plaxico Burress and all of your celebrations. Nobody really thought the Bills were “cool,” and it seemed like you made the Bills cool even if it wasn’t showing up in the win column, you know?
Johnson: I was always one of those dudes who watched the TV as a kid and said, “I wonder where these people came from?” You don’t see those stars. So, growing up, we do whatever we want. We have fun. We handle our business, and have fun. So when I got in the position when I was on TV, I ultimately looked into the stands and understood, “These people are paying money to watch us entertain.” We’re making big plays. We had guys making nice first downs and stuff but they wouldn’t do any connecting with the fans! I said, “I promise, when I get in here, I’m making a connection with the fans” because they deserve a show. And at the time, they were losing. I was like, “No matter what the end of the game is, the people who come to that game are going to have fun because of me.” That’s where my vision was.
How do you build this up at the grassroots level? Do you remember how you connected with fans way back then?
Johnson: Let’s start with the mindset. We were playing against the Patriots. First of all, I’m in awe because Randy Moss is out there. There were so many legends. It was crazy I’m even here. And then, we made a big play. I looked into the stands and the crowd was going crazy! And then I look back onto the field and the players were just regularly walking back to the huddle. I was like, “This is not what I remember seeing on TV.” I remember what I was thinking at that time: “If I get that opportunity, I’m going to give the fans what they want!” That season went on and I didn’t really get an opportunity like that.
It really hit the fourth preseason game (the next year) when I got my opportunity to play. It was against Detroit. I made a play that really shouldn’t have happened because the quarterback was trying to throw me a slant route but I wanted to make a show for the fans. I said, “Hey, let’s run the go.” And I just ran a go route. They got a picture of me and I was just screaming for the fans. That’s when they noticed they might have something here in this kid with the dreadlocks.
So, you just did your own thing?
Johnson: It was a slant. It was a safe pass. But it’s preseason! C’mon. We don’t want to see a slant. Let me fade this guy and we’ll see what happens from there. They want entertainment. So, (quarterback Gibran Hamdan) was giving me the slant signal and I was giving him the go signal. He said, “Hike!” — the clock was going down — and he could see I was taking off toward the go. So, he put it up to me anyways. I’m thankful he didn’t shrug me off. I made the play and that’s what ignited “Stevie Johnson” and the Bills community. That fourth preseason game.
When you’re coming in, everything’s new. But were you aware of how blah the franchise was, for so long, before you got there?
Johnson: No, I didn’t. All I thought was that we had the facemask like Thurman Thomas. You either had the Eric Dickerson or the Thurman Thomas as a kid in Pop Warner. That and Andre Reed and Kelly. Not even that they lost those Super Bowls. I thought this Buffalo team was cool with those uniforms. And they had one star wearing a facemask like a lineman with the (center bar) but he’s killing it out there. That was my only thought about Buffalo. And it’s cold. That’s all.
And you hear people always looking down on the Bills, and that’s where pride comes in. We were trying to change that.
It’s weird. How does anyone bring a swagger to a place that doesn’t really have it?
Johnson: I was being myself and showing the other kids growing up, you don’t have to be… I don’t want to say “tighten up.” But you don’t have to be business-business-business.
Is that hard to do? In the NFL, especially a decade ago, the individualism isn’t there. The team’s head coach, Chan Gailey, benched you in the second half of a Patriots game to end the 2011 season. (After Johnson showed “Happy New Year” on his under shirt. The Bills led 21-0 and lost 49-21.)
Johnson: Ultimately, it cost us the game. There are so many things that happen to players and all of these things that happen, everything can’t be good. Most of the bad is magnified. So, it hurts people like myself. I’m not perfect. So when I make a mistake, they’ll go straight toward that, “Oh, it’s that ‘Why so serious?’ mentality. That’s why.” What about when it was good? When it was cool? It’s a balancing act. Most of the time when you’re on that other side — my side — it’s going to be tough. You’re going to have challenges but it comes with the territory because you’ll have a lot of positive to gain also.
How do you stay true to yourself? Especially as a wide receiver, playing the way you want to play with a team that hasn’t been good? Your own coach is trying to reel you in.
Johnson: You think about where you came from ultimately. With myself, it was more so, “Am I being disrespectful? Am I showing ill will at somebody?” I know I did the gun dance with Plaxico. But it’s a rivalry with the Jets and he’s back playing with the Jets. I’d never do it if he wasn’t able to play. I would always go back to, “OK. Go ahead. Fine me. I’m still going to have fun.” I know I have people back home that’s watching me and I’ve been having fun since the beginning. I’m the same kid that the coach got on for high-stepping at the 50-yard line from watching Deion.
You were really doing that as a kid? High-stepping from the 50?
Johnson: Yes, from the 50. Coach D’Wayne O’Steen — and he was a former NFL player — he pulled me to the side and said, “Don’t you do that again!” I didn’t understand. We’re working so hard. I just didn’t understand it. Right now it’s good in my position as a retired player, when I look back at it, I can say, “I did have fun. I did it my way.” I listened to authority but, at the same time, I could be me. So I’m comfortable with how things went. No matter how my career went. That’s real important for players to understand.
Matt Nagy, the Bears coach, says the “taunting” emphasis is important because kids are watching. You’re watching Deion Sanders do his thing. Your game was fueled by that kind of swagger. That’s probably a huge reason you’re even in the NFL — there’s that side of it, too. The fact that it’s a good thing long term to let players be themselves.
Johnson: Exactly. It’s a business also. They might not shed as much light on the celebration, and call it “taunting,” but there’s a fan base. The team needs that fan base. The “Bills Mafia” skyrocketed after that connection with us. You see where that is now. They’re making millions of dollars off of the fan base. Just by connecting with the fans. Where does that start? From celebrating. From showing emotion. If you don’t have that, you have a fan base that’s not connecting with the team. You probably would’ve moved to Toronto or something.
If you’re cracking down on taunting, “Bills Mafia,” as we know it, isn’t what it is today.
Johnson: There’s none of that. None of that. We trailblazed for that. That’s why I’m proud to see how the Bills Mafia has blown up and how they respect the originators of the crew with the “Bills Mafia” members. I think it’s real cool how they embrace the fans.
If you’re not living how you lived, celebrating how you celebrated — and throw the Steelers drop in there, too — if none of that happens, there’s no “Bills Mafia,” right?
Johnson: Wow, there it is, right? And I like it because it’s all worth learning from.
When that play goes down against Pittsburgh — and you drop a touchdown in overtime — you have no idea what that play is going to lead to, do you?
Johnson: Not at all. I’ve never felt a failure like that before. And then, at the same time, why is it happening now? I devoted my life earlier that season, and for a failure to happen? It messed me up. It was a sense of ignorance in a way and a sense of my first time going through it and not having a mentor early enough to let me know that type of stuff which is why I now have a program where I can mentor kids for every situation even if they haven’t been in it. Because I have. It all turned out to be good, a positive.
In the moment, I’d imagine it’s really bad after you fire that tweet off to God. What was your life like?
Johnson: It was crazy. But it wasn’t as crazy to where it took a toll on my mind because you schedule damn near every minute, every hour in the league. So you have a little bit of time to see what they’re talking about. When that happened, I put that message out because I wanted them to know what I was thinking in my mind. I just put my phone down and was gone. I didn’t see how crazy it got. The next day, they’re like, “Things went crazy.” I’m like, “Wow. OK.” I was aware of it but I wasn’t really looking into social media at that time. It was back to business and trying to get over that.
Did you really get death threats?
Johnson: Yeah, yeah. I had a whole school full of kids — a Christian school — their whole class sent me a letter about what I said. I just took it as, “They don’t understand. It’s cool.” And that’s a testament to my genuine personality for Stevie being Stevie. From the beginning, I wanted to connect with the fans. You got it right there. Everybody’s not going to understand it, and it’s all good. If they want to know, they can ask personally and we can talk about it.
The fan base grew right in that moment, too.
Johnson: They understood what they had in me because there were no seventh-rounders that were making the team or even doing those things at St. John Fisher for training camp. So, it was like “We have a seventh-rounder who’ll actually make this squad? OK, let me stand behind this kid because he is pretty good. He’s our seventh-rounder.” It was wild. That’s why you have to keep believing and working on that craft you have. Whatever got you to that point — for people listening — whatever got you to the point you’re at right now, that skill, that gift, you have to continue to craft it and continue to practice and work at it. Because there’s always another level to get to and you never know when you’ll get an opportunity. I was just always prepared for it. I was always prepared and ready to hone in on the skill I had which was the way I ran my routes. Jukes and all that stuff. I tried it the other way but it wasn’t working for me. So, I honed in on my own craft.
How did that happen? Because I imagine as a kid — high school to college — you’re being taught the route tree, 1 through 9, and running plays. At what point did it go from all of that to whatever the hell you created?
Johnson: We didn’t even learn the route tree. We were just on the block playing two-hand touch. The streets were narrow. You had one quarterback and everybody else was receivers and DBs. And, you know, “get open.” (laughs) We didn’t know routes, like running 10 yards and coming in. There were no lines. So when I finally got to play football, I wasn’t even a receiver. I was playing quarterback and running back. I started learning the route tree in junior college. So by that time, we were doing the Wing T in junior college. All I had to do was run a post or a hitch or a slant. Something easy. I made some plays there. I competed against some guys that were “bounce-backs.” At junior college, you’ve got guys who can go Division I college and something happens and they bounce back to junior college. We had a team full of those guys. There was a coach named “Coach Jack.” He had a ton of DBs who were bouncebacks. And he stuck ‘em all on me. I held my own. From there, that’s when I said, “OK, I have the confidence of a receiver. After playing against all of these guys.” And then I just worked on my skill.
It really started in the streets? With pickup ball? What neighborhood?
Johnson: Yeah, Bayview-Hunters Point. San Francisco, Calif. That’s where we grew up. That’s where we played our games. Mainly basketball and football. And then I moved for high school and that’s where I did the quarterback and running back. Then I went to junior college in the east bay near Oakland (Chabot College) and that’s where I became a receiver and competed against people from all around northern California. From there, I went to Kentucky. There, it was mostly routes. I could get open with a little wiggle. When I got to the league, I was going against our first-rounder Leodis McKelvin. He was so fast. His quick-twitch was unbelievable. So when I was running regular routes, he was all over me. So I just took it back to what I knew. I took it back to basketball moves. None of these football guys practiced for basketball so I knew they couldn’t guard me. So I just incorporated my basketball moves into the routes and I realized I was getting more space than I was. And I was like, “Yeah, I’ve got something. I can produce. I can give myself an opportunity in this league.”
Nobody was doing this before you then, right? This is something you created on your own?
Johnson: Yeah, I had to figure out a way. I had a daughter coming out of college. So I had to make sure she was good. And the way I was running my routes coming out of college, it was just good enough to make a play. Like a 50-50 ball. The route would be good enough but the DB was good also. I might catch it, I might not catch it. It was too tough. So once I had that experience with Leodis, I changed my mindset and I started doing different things and figured out I’ve got more space to catch the ball and make a move. That’s when it hit me: “I can feed my family with this.”
When you’re that young and you find out you’re going to be a Dad, what goes through your mind?
Johnson: It was great. I always wanted to be a Dad. I found my wife in high school and I knew it was going to be us. Even when I got to college, to my senior year, my coach said I might have the opportunity to play a lot. So to be honest, we kind of took a chance with it. Anything could’ve happened from there. I could’ve been struggling to raise our daughter. Through God, it worked out.
And you’re still with your high school sweetheart?
Johnson: Yeah, yeah. We’re solid.
Do you have other kids now, too?
Johnson: We had two more. Miyah was our eldest, coming out of high school. Then, we had Armani, our boy. And Mia. So now we have three soldiers here.
The way you play the position, with your route running, just as an observer it seems like since the 10 years since, other wide receivers are doing what you did. Diggs does now. How do you think it caught on? And how would you even describe your style?
Johnson: How I was on the field was my personality off the field. The aura. When I was doing that, the guys who are balling now were kids in the streets trying to play. It wasn’t big on social media or anything like that with them saying, “Hey, I’m doing Stevie’s moves.” They were doing that in the streets, in the underground. So now, it’s their time and they’re seeing how I was different from the original receivers. And, boom, they get the opportunity and it’s what they know. It’s in their blood now. It’s pretty cool to see. Some guys give the homage. Other guys, once they see it, always salute it and respect it.
Who is really bringing it to life most?
Johnson: Right now, my main one is Keenan Allen. Just talking about technique-wise, when you watch routes, with certain little things. He has everything that I would have in my route game if I was still going now. His strength. His wiggle. And he’s not the only one but he’s the one I know the most.
Is it really about getting to a spot? Did you need to get to a spot for Ryan Fitzpatrick so you just need to waste the cornerback in front of you by any means?
Johnson: Yeah, by any means, but everything matters because it’s all about timing. You get to that spot however you want to but at a specific time for each particular play. So there’s a lot of work you need to get in to run routes like this. And I say this a lot to the young receivers that I train — get with a DB. I got with a DB named Drayton Florence who was a savvy DB. We’d chop it up every lunchtime to talk about what he’s thinking. He’ll give me game. I’ll give him game. That ultimately cracked the shell for me on how DB’s think.
So, Florence would just take you inside of his mind?
Johnson: I was so comfortable beating DBs in Buffalo before he came that I wouldn’t need to even think about it. But then when he came, he’d line up different. He’d line up all the way inside. Think Troy Polamalu. You know how he lines up in different places and he can disguise well. He’s not just doing it for nothing. It’s not reckless. It’s organized chaos. So, I’d ask Drayton, “How did you know I was going to go to this area? With you being lined up in this place?” He’d instantly say, “Wherever you lined up, I knew exactly where you were going to go because you lined up there every time you do this certain route.” I was like, “Dang. I didn’t even know that.” So, I started lining up different. My stance would be different. All of that started talking to him. When Stephon Gilmore came in, I passed down what Drayton did into Stephon. So every lunch, we would be talking and picking each other’s brains.
I imagine you’re getting resistance from coaches on the way they always did things, too. Is it hard to carve your own path — be it X’s and O’s or the way you want to carry yourself on the field — when you’re getting pushback?
Johnson: It’s hard mentally. But it’s not as hard as it seems. Whenever you hear someone oppose what you’re doing, it’s a natural feeling. Coach Gailey had to do what he had to do at the time. He talked to me and told me where he was coming from. I give my props to Coach Gailey because he gave me a lot of freedom within the routes. If I wouldn’t have done what I did, who knows what the legacy would’ve been in Buffalo?
They did give you the big contract after that benching, too.
Johnson: Right. But once they gave me the contract, they got rid of the coach and the quarterback. Not to mention, as soon as I step on the scene, Lee Evans is gone. What!? Are we building a team or breaking a team?
Everything you see right now with the Buffalo Bills — this hope, this hype — has some roots in a Bills team that went 6-10 and 4-12. How do you best connect those dots for people?
Johnson: And it’s not even all me that torched through the hard times. We had Fred Jackson. CJ Spiller came in. When Jairus Byrd came in, he was a phenomenal talent with his safety range. When we signed Mario Williams for $100 million, I think that’s when guys were like, “OK, we’re trying to build a team now.” It’s all cycles. I guess when you go to four Super Bowls, your downfall has to be just as big as your rise. But it’s a cycle. Now, we’re about to go back up. Last year, we were one game away. Hopefully, we can shake this finesse feeling we have and get back into warrior mode and start dominating.
What do you see out of the Bills’ offense with Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs? Because that next step is the Super Bowl. That’s the expectation.
Johnson: Obviously our running game is what everyone’s talking about but we can balance that out with short passes. With Beasley. We can be simple and still dominate teams. We can run the same offense and still beat teams each week. We just don’t want to make it too complicated. We have to believe in our athletes. Beasley can get open on anybody. Diggs obviously can get open on anybody. Sanders is the same way. Gabe, the same way. We just have to play more hungry. Don’t be as finesse with the “new kids on the block”-type of thing. We want to be dominators through the rest of this season.
Do you see your attitude in this team?
Johnson: They’re on another level because they’re collective with it and they’re comfortable. That’s what it’s like when you have a full squad of hitters basically. This is what the Bills are. That’s what’s great to see when I’m going to different teams to train and do different camps. You see these Bills colors.
And you’re coaching receivers today?
Johnson: Yeah, gotta pass on the gift. I’m always available on social media. Any way we can connect. From the youth all the way up to college and the pros training. I’m here.
Your career went by in a blink, but when you watch any game, it feels like you’ve left an impact 11 years later.
Johnson: I must’ve did something good. This is what I tell my guys also: “You’re going to get a lot of backlash.” Even when you run different kinds of routes, coaches may not understand. They’re going to be on you about it but you have to keep going. As long as you’re winning, believe it. Believe in your skill because it’s going to pay off when the gametime comes and you’re in a position of, “This wasn’t in the script. He wasn’t supposed to be lined up here.” Man, believe it. Work on your game.
Where did that backlash come for you?
Johnson: It can come from the position coach because that’s where it starts. Most of them have their own way of teaching the route tree. When you come in, doing it a little bit different, you’re either going to swallow your pride and just add your two cents. Or the other coach is like, “Don’t do that. We teach it here — 1, 2, 3.” That’s where the first backlash comes and you either have to get through it or combine both styles.
When they say, “Do it this way.” How do you process, “No, I will do it my way?”
Johnson: You’ve got to win. If I do it my way and the ball’s overthrown. Way off the spot. Or I miss the pass? It’s going to be way harder to convince him then. Fortunately, I was winning a ton of my battles because I was so wide open. … I had to sacrifice whether I’m listening to the coach who’s only talking to me in the meeting room and not out here on the field or go with my instincts and play it my way and deal with whatever he has to say in the meeting room. But the film doesn’t lie. (laughs)
It was junior college, on to Kentucky. All of the coaches. You’re going to deal with a variety of them and you have to learn how to balance your game and your mindset and personality with these coaches and understand they’re not really upset with you running your own routes. They’re just coaching what they’ve known for years. So, it’s a balancing act. To add to that, I’ll have a program I’m starting in June. I set up an exposure program where I’ll have 16 athletes. I’ll house them and we’ll train them for a month and we’ll have Exposure Academy sessions every Saturday. I’ll have different coaches come in each week so they have the experience of getting trained by different people. It’s a crazy program but it’s going to be big in June, in Sacramento.
So, that’s what’s really important to you – opening kids’ minds to different ways of doing the job?
Johnson: Yes. Absolutely. That’s only on the field. I have former players who are now chefs and financial advisors in wealth management. Off the field, we have workshops during this month. So they’ll learn skills like how to cook for themselves and how to go to the grocery store and buy the appropriate things for when they go off to college. We’re teaching them on and off the field. We have mental health mentors. It’s a great program. This will be our first year of pitching it as a reality show but we’ve been doing it for three years. … We always had this vision. We always wanted to touch the world in some kind of way. This is just the beginning. We found out junior college is the way we wanted to go. Those are the guys who are right there. You’re in tough situations in junior college.
We only take 16 and it’s only for one month. When I left Buffalo, I was so sad but they traded me to San Francisco which was my home team. And I also met one of my best friends in Michael Crabtree. So I’m looking to expand my Exposure Academy out to Dallas where he is so we can start helping more kids and keep expanding with other retired players in different states.
The way you’re describing the way you played the position, and being yourself, it reminds me of Lamar Jackson. We had his coach on the podcast talking about exactly this. Back in South Florida, he’s juking other kids at six, seven years old out of their socks. Everybody’s going nuts. And he just played his way on to Louisville, on to Baltimore, he did his thing when people wanted him to play wide receiver and be something other than himself. And he believed in himself. It starts with that belief in yourself, doesn’t it?
Johnson: Man, it definitely does. And it was unbelievable seeing how he was passed on. Anybody in the world could look at him from high school to college and see — and he won a Heisman in college — that this quarterback was different. Not the player. This quarterback is different. He showed it. He proved it. He’s a testament to it at the highest of levels.
Doesn’t it make you wonder, though? You did your thing. He did his thing. How many talents are out there that get sucked into a system of how everything’s always been done and stifle their own creativity so they never take advantage of their own potential?
Johnson: Indeed. That’s why we do what we do at Exposure Academy. So when they’re coming from this academy, they understand, “OK, that’s Stevie. That’s Crabtree. That’s Keenan.” We have half receivers and half DBs. So they’ll understand, “OK, they come from that group over there. So they understand what to expect.
I’m just trying to do my part. I realized with Covid that I wasn’t really affected when everything was tough. It made me sit back and think, “How can I help?” I listened to the politics but that’s not me. I’m not interested in that. So I thought about, “How am I able to be comfortable during this world situation?” And it’s football and the skill that I have. I figured in 14, 20 years, 24 more years, another something is going to happen. So the people I train, hopefully they make it to the league and are able to be comfortable like I was when it goes down.