Houston’s not just a city of transplants. It also sends interesting people out into the world, individuals who have a great impact on their new communities. In PaperCity‘s “Where Are They Now?” series, we’ll catch up with prominent Houston figures who happen to ply their trade elsewhere. This week, Andre Johnson. Johnson’s a native son of Miami, but he truly made his name in Houston and maintains strong charity ties to the city.
Andre Johnson heard the boos, but he still felt the love. Maybe you’d think he would have no doubt about that. But professional athletes always have doubts. Even when they’re returning to the city in which they built a Hall of Fame-worthy career.
“You never know,” Johnson says, still standing in his body pads in the locker room, more than a half hour after the game’s ended. “When I caught my first pass they booed. I understand that though. They’re fans.”
Still, it’s something of a silly reaction, akin to putting blame for a divorce on the wronged spouse. The Texans, and specifically second-year head coach Bill O’Brien, are the ones who nudged Johnson out the door. They told this proud man that he was good for nothing more than 40 catches this season, that his days as a full-time starter were behind him.
Johnson took his talents to Indianapolis — and returned to score two touchdowns with seeming ease in a 27-20 win over his old team in a nationally televised Thursday Night Football game. It’s the stuff hokey sports stories are made of, but Johnson isn’t very interested in playing the part.
Oh sure, he made a point of going over to give the ball he caught for his first touchdown to Charles Anderson, a Houston friend sitting in the first row, as he did for so many games Johnson played in a Texans uniform at NRG Stadium. But the Texans’ Old No. 80 didn’t gloat. Instead, there seemed to be a sense of melancholy about a bizarro-world night that saw Johnson dressing in the unfamiliar visitors’ locker room at the stadium, rather than the plush home locker room he knows so well.
Johnson is more than just a great talent who brought his gifts to Houston. He really became part of the community. His holiday habit of taking a bunch of kids from rough homes to Toys “R” Us and footing the bill for a shopping spree became a Houston tradition. You sense that Johnson hasn’t let this city completely go.
And for many, the feeling’s mutual.
“Hearing the fans,” Johnson replies, when asked what the best part of his return was. Number. 80’s not talking about the boos now. “When I would be on the sidelines, a lot of fans were screaming, ‘Andre, we still love you! Andre, come home to Houston!'”
When Johnson finally left the field, and a long line of congratulators, when the on-field action was over, he raised one finger toward the sky, then disappeared into the tunnel, a gesture that qualifies as a rare public display of emotion for this soft-spoken, intensely private 34-year-old.
With many misguided Texans fans expressing confidence that Johnson’s very slow start in Indianapolis validated the team’s decision, Johnson answered with his play.
“Everybody knows Andre Johnson can play,” says Matt Hasselbeck, the Colts’ 40-year-old quarterback. “The dude’s for real. I think it’s like fantasy football sends everybody into panic mode.”
On a night when Texans rookie wide receiver Jaelen Strong scored two touchdowns in his NFL debut, including the easiest 42-yard Hail Mary catch you’ll ever see, a night when Arian Foster showed flashes of his “best back in the NFL” potential again, a night when the Texans racked up 444 yards, Johnson had the moments that mattered most.
He beat Johnathan Joseph, the Texans’ $22 Million cornerback, on a sideline route to put the Colts in position to score their first touchdown. Then, he scored it by slipping between a huge gap left by cornerback Kareem Jackson and safety Andre Hal for the type of easy touchdown catch he never seemed to get enough opportunities to make in his Texans days.
The familiar man in that unfamiliar No. 81 continued to haunt the Texans throughout the night. Johnson blew by Jackson and made a difficult sideline catch to set up Indianapolis’ second touchdown. He scored the Colts’ third touchdown by falling backwards and extending into the end zone.
Johnson had only 10 two-touchdown games in 12 seasons with the Texans. Now, he has one in five games with the Colts. Who says the grass isn’t greener (even if it’s FieldTurf)?
“We were happy for him,” Hasselbeck says. “Even if he wouldn’t ever say it, he’s happy.”
Johnson’s happiness still comes out. Always the last man to get dressed and do interviews during his Texans tenure, Johnson literally ran to his first postgame interview Thursday night. Then, he did more interviews in those body pads in the locker room.
“I’m proud of what I did in the community in Houston,” Johnson tells PaperCity.
Johnson wouldn’t have any talk of revenge or point-making. The city of Houston still means too much to him for that.
“You can tell the crowd still loves him,” Hasselbeck says.
Love him or boo him, they definitely miss No. 80. That feeling might not be confined to the stands, either. “He’s a good football player,” Texans star J.J. Watt barks when asked how Johnson ended up getting so open.
Andre Johnson’s not just a heck of a football player. He’s a stand-up guy, too — a gentleman coming home.