You can take the kid out of Florida, but you can’t take the Texan out of the kid.
Andre Johnson’s roots are firmly implanted in Miami, Florida. As a young boy, Johnson remembers cheering on the Miami Hurricanes and Miami Dolphins with equal fervor. In his mind, Johnson was going to grow up to play for “The U,” as a member of the hometown Hurricanes, before being drafted by the Dolphins.
Life had other ideas, and though Johnson steadfastly hangs onto the idea that “you never forget where you came from,” he’s also perfectly content with where he ended up. He’s a Texan now, specifically a hero of Space City.
“It’s kind of weird – for years I’d go back home (to Miami) and spend time in the offseason,” Johnson said. “But now I live in Houston, and I really love the city. I guess you could call me a Houstonian now.”
Equal parts palm tree and pecan tree, Johnson will join the ranks of the Texas Sports Hall of Fame as part of another illustrious seven-member class on Saturday.
Many a Texan understands the symptoms of football fever. What you need to grasp, though, is that it’s a condition not exclusive to the Lone Star State. As a youngster in Miami, Johnson played baseball, basketball and ran track, but mostly those other sports were just time-fillers before the next football season rolled around.
“You really don’t understand how big football is to Miami unless you grow up there,” Johnson said. “You’d be amazed just how big a thing football is, how much people love it. My family were all Dolphins fans, and I grew up going to games at what was called Joe Robbie Stadium then. Football was always my thing.”
He started out as a running back in his youth football days, and dabbled at quarterback as well. By the time he reached his freshman year at Miami Senior High School, Johnson’s abilities as a receiver had emerged to the point where there was no denying where to put him anymore.
His senior year, he averaged more than 29 yards per catch on his way to being named a Parade All-American. At 6-foot-3 with track star speed, Johnson was coveted by college coaches everywhere.
A Hurricane at heart
He took visits to the University of Florida and USC, but let’s get real – Miami had won over his heart many years before.
“Growing up and knowing who had come before me at Miami, it was just a tradition you wanted to be a part of,” Johnson said. “I enjoyed following the ‘Canes when I was kid, just watching them play and the kinds of players they were able to recruit. They had a swagger as a team that you just wanted to be a part of. So when I first got to run out, through the fire and the smoke as part of the team, it was a feeling I’ll never forget. I always tell people, those were some of the best days of my life.”
Johnson didn’t see much action his freshman year of 2000, but he’ll still never forget that season. It was a year that proved essential to his transition to the college game, as some of his older teammates on the Hurricanes made a lifelong impact on Johnson as de facto professors in the subject of College Football 101.
“When Miami gave me a chance, I had some older players, guys I looked up to, like Reggie Wayne and Santana Moss, who helped teach me the college game,” Johnson said. “They took me under their wing, showed me the ropes, and what they said really rubbed off on me. From them, I learned to look at the game a new way. I learned to watch film and then try to apply things I’d learned on game day.”
Over the next two seasons, Johnson took his rightful place as one of the nation’s most unstoppable receivers. He amassed 682 yards and 10 touchdowns his sophomore season, then detonated for 1,092 yards and nine TDs as a junior in 2002. Best of all that year, Johnson helped spur the Hurricanes to the Rose Bowl, where a 37-14 win over Nebraska cemented the program’s fifth national championship. Johnson tallied 199 yards receiving and two touchdowns in that game, winning co-MVP honors.
He turned pro after that nothing-left-to-prove junior year. But instead of hooking a job with the hometown Dolphins, the fledgling Houston Texans selected Johnson with the No. 3 overall pick of the 2003 NFL Draft.
At age 22, Johnson moved to Houston to start his new career, admittedly a bit overwhelmed by the wonder of it all. Remember, all he’d ever known was Miami.
“It was different, because I wasn’t used to being away from home. Now I was in a whole new city and I had to learn all about the city, how to get around,” he said. “But Houston was very welcoming. People brought me in with open arms.”
Baby steps to success
The Texans hadn’t even reached their toddler years as an NFL franchise when Johnson arrived on the scene. Houston played its first season as an expansion team just a year before, going 4-12 and finishing last in the AFC South.
Johnson was expected to man the controls of the time machine that would carry the Texans into the future. And he was perfectly fine with that job.
“Just coming into a franchise that didn’t have a lot of history, that had experienced a tough year, I didn’t hesitate to be a part of it,” Johnson said. “I always kind of took it on myself and said, ‘You’re going to a place where the team history isn’t established, but you can help build that. And then anything that the team accomplishes, you’ll be one of the first ones to be a part of that.’ That was something I took a lot of pride in.”
Slowly, the Texans improved. Johnson paved the way for that progress, recording the first of his seven 1,000-yard receiving seasons by his second year of 2004. He possessed the size and speed of the prototypical NFL receiver, but where Johnson excelled over many of his peers was found in his fearlessness. He wasn’t scared to go over the middle, to absorb the big hit.
“My approach was this – when you look at playing receiver in the NFL, you’re going to take big hits,” Johnson said. “It’s just going to happen. So, the biggest thing in my mind was, just catch the ball. You see some guys who are worried about taking the big hit, and they’re hesitant. As a result, they don’t hang onto the ball. I always tried to just focus on making the catch.”
That type of no-nonsense attitude aided Johnson in developing into one of the best receivers in football. He became a perennial invitee to the Pro Bowl, making seven in all, and also was honored as an All-Pro four times. He twice led the NFL in receiving yards and three times topped it in catches, as the Texans looked his way early, often, and late.
The 2011 season was a bittersweet one for Johnson and the Texans. The team reached the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, but Johnson suffered a hamstring injury during a Week 4 game against Pittsburgh and played in only seven regular season-games. However, he returned in time for the playoffs, and caught 13 balls for 201 yards and a touchdown in the team’s two playoff games.
Texans fans embraced Johnson, the team’s first true great player, like few others. After touchdown catches, he’d often leap into the waiting arms of the NRG Stadium crowd to celebrate. “That relationship I had with the fans was special, and it’s one of the biggest things I miss now, not playing,” he said.
In addition to his plunges into the end-zone stands, Johnson connected with the fans in other ways. He funded annual Christmas shopping trips for children in the Harris County Family Protective Services, and also gave back to children and teens who grew up in single-parent homes through his Andre Johnson Foundation.
“Andre is a special guy,” Houston coach Bill O’Brien told HoustonTexans.com. “The guy just did so much for the City of Houston, so I think (the Texas Sports Hall of Fame induction) is a much-deserved honor for him.”
In an open letter to Johnson in celebration of his Hall of Fame honor, Texans owner Janice McNair, who took over control of the team following her husband Bob’s death in November 2018, said, “For all the love and support this city heaped on you, you gave it back tenfold.”
Following the 2014 season, after 12 years with the franchise, the Texans informed Johnson that he wouldn’t be starting the next year, and ended up releasing him after failing to complete a trade. He signed with the rival Indianapolis Colts, and in some ways, it was like he was a rookie all over again, as he had to learn a new city and a new system.
Johnson spent one season with the Colts and another with the Tennessee Titans before signing a one-day contract with Houston in April 2017 so that he could retire as a Texan.
“It was emotional,” Johnson said. “I signed a one-day contract so I could retire with the Texans, and I remember as I was driving to the stadium for the press conference all these memories were coming at me, because I knew that was it, that this was the end. But they were nothing bad, all good memories. And the more I reflected on what I’d done in my career, the more I knew it was time to move on to the next chapter.”
Johnson finished his NFL career with 1,062 catches for 14,185 yards and 70 touchdowns. He’s one of 48 players in history in the 10,000-yard receiving cub, and one of only 14 to reach 1,000 receptions. Undoubtedly, he’ll someday find his way to Canton, Ohio.
Since hanging up his gloves, he has moved into a role as a special advisor with the Texans. He said that he has enjoyed seeing a different side of the football business, and he’s looking forward to learning more and expanding his duties in the coming years.
In November 2017, the Texans honored Johnson as the franchise’s first-ever member of the team’s new Ring of Honor. On Saturday, he’ll become the first Texans player to earn enshrinement in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame as well, just a year after his former coach Gary Kubiak was inducted.
Not bad for a kid who grew up wanting to swim with the Dolphins.
“I said that I always wanted to bring a Super Bowl championship to the City of Houston. Unfortunately that didn’t happen, but I’m always going to be a part of the Houston Texans, and I hope when people remember Andre Johnson that they remember that he tried to do everything he could to help his team win, and left it all on the field.”
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