The sun always shines on Johnnie Morton. That’s because he has it tattooed on his back. Really. A massive, yellow and orange tattoo of a burning sun, stretching between his shoulder blades. He got it a few years ago, for no particular reason, he says, except that “the sun is life-giving.” Of course, this sun took five hours of excruciating needles. And Morton doesn’t like pain.
But that’s exactly the kind of thing he does. Things you can’t figure out. And I have been trying to figure out Johnnie Morton for a while.
For one thing, he doesn’t move like the other players. While they skulk back to their lockers, Morton shadowboxes and karate-kicks.
And then there’s the way he talks. While other players chat about play-action passes, Johnnie and I had this exchange Tuesday:
Me: “What about a West Coast offense?”
Morton: “I don’t know anything about it.”
Me: “The West Coast offense?”
Morton: “I heard about it.”
Me: “You heard about it?”
Morton: “Do they use a lot of short passes?”
Me: “You really don’t know what the West Coast offense is?”
Morton (shrugging): “I’m not a big football buff.”
That’s Morton. A mystery inside an enigma inside shoulder pads. He caught a 98-yard touchdown pass last game, the second-longest in Lions history, yet he caught only one other pass the whole afternoon. He has big games when he grabs everything, then he has games where he drops more than he holds onto.
Don’t misunderstand. He is a terribly nice fellow. Friendly. Philosophical. It’s true, he spaces out during conversations every now and then. But, hey, he’s from Southern California. Maybe he hears the ocean in his head.
The thing is, when it comes to football, Morton should be a major star — at least with the Lions. It’s simple math. Opposing teams use eight men to deal with Barry Sanders, right? And they put two men on Herman Moore? That’s 10 defenders right there.
Which leaves only one guy to deal with Morton — and Morton is fast! I mean, track star fast. Shouldn’t he be a 20-passes-per-game receiver? Shouldn’t he be leading the league?
“To be honest,” he says, “I didn’t even know how you got into the playoffs until last year.”
OK, maybe not leading the league.
He’s a multicultural man
Johnnie is …different. He’s a fifth-year receiver out of Southern Cal who loves “running fast and catching the ball.” And that’s about all.
So he doesn’t really memorize the names of defenses. And he doesn’t always know what they call this or that coverage. “Even in college, when someone yelled ‘Three Sky!’ ” he admits, “I didn’t know what they were talking about.”
He doesn’t put black under his eyes at home and growl at the mirror. He used to look at linebacker Chris Spielman and shake his head.
“Chris was like straight football, son of a coach, the whole thing,” Morton said. “For me there have always been two paths…” He holds out his hands, one left, one right. “Football,” he says, “and life.”
At this point, I back off, in case Johnnie is going to start sounding like a member of the Zen Surfers again.
But then, you have to understand that when Morton does that, he’s being true to his roots. He did not have your average upbringing. The son of a black man and a Japanese woman, Morton tiptoed between cultures his whole life. During the week he went to a predominantly white elementary school in Los Angeles. On Saturdays, he went to Japanese school, to satisfy his mother’s desires for a Japanese education.
“Did you learn to speak Japanese?”
“Can you speak it now?”
“But you’re half-Japanese.”
“Oh, yeah. I’m as much Japanese as I am black.”
“Have you ever been to Japan?”
“No, but I think I’ll be going.”
He looks off into space.
“Yeah. I need to take a trip somewhere.”
Come back to us, Johnnie. Grab the rope.
Still, NFL is a great life
Now, personally, I like guys who have more to them than lifting weights and crushing heads. Herman Moore is into movies. Lomas Brown used to have a fruit drink business.
So there’s no law against Morton being into kick-boxing, appearing in music videos, and thinking about, well, other things.
But it still seems like he should be a bigger part of this whole Lions picture. Maybe the coaches wonder, “What makes Johnnie run?” as much as the average reporter. Here is a guy who loves watching track but hates watching football, a guy who lives in LA, but doesn’t know the West Coast offense, a guy who didn’t know how you make the playoffs but wants to stay in the NFL.
“No matter what, football is my No. 1 priority,” he says. “I take care of my body, I never go out during the season, I watch what I eat.
“I’m smart enough to know this is like a fantasy. I mean, a job that pays you millions of dollars to play a game and also gives you six months off?”
He smiles. “I want to maximize my time in the NFL.”
What can you say? I can’t figure the guy out. All I know is, the Lions will be a much better team when he can be counted on, week in and week out, for big plays — especially when the defense stacks against Sanders and Moore.
In the meantime, he goes on, happily punching the air. I like the guy. In many ways, he has an enviable life. Multicultured. Multi-talented. Besides, it must be nice to know the sun never goes down on you. Unless you roll over.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.