LIONS’ JOHNSON RUNS THE RIGHT PROGRAM

The network TV guys wanted little Richard Johnson. They grabbed him as he trotted off the field. “Me?” he seemed to say. Someone slapped a headphone set over his ears.

“Hello?” said Johnson, fidgeting with the cord. “Hello?”

“Richard,” said the voice from the booth, “the guys want to talk to you about your great game today.”

“Hey thanks. It was really a –“

“Not yet, Richard . . . they’re setting up. . . . Hey, that really was some performance. Eight catches. I guess that’s your best ever, huh?”

“Yes, it was. I was just happy to —“

“Not yet, Richard. . . . “

Ah, well. He can wait. He waited this long, didn’t he? His whole life? Here, football fans, is a tale for every pencil pusher who thinks his sporting days are over. Wasn’t it just last winter that Johnson was out of football, working for IBM in downtown Los Angeles, programming computers at $13 an hour?

Yep. And there he was Sunday, NFL wide receiver, all 66 inches of him, slicing through the New Orleans Saints’ secondary and pulling in eight passes for 248 yards — which, not too long ago, used to represent the entire output of the Detroit offense. The Lions won. They won? He was the star. He was?

“Does anybody even know you on the streets of Detroit?” he was asked, after the Lions’ 21-14 upset of the Saints, their third victory in the last four tries. “Does anyone stop you and say, ‘Hey. Aren’t you Richard Johnson from the Lions?’ “

“No,” he answered, smiling. “But some of them think I’m Barry Sanders.” A Clydesdale among thoroughbreds

Well. That’s a bit of a stretch. Sanders is the $5.9 million man, with legs like tree trunks and the speed of a Corvette. Johnson is more the man who came in from the cold, with legs like, well, legs, and the speed of a Yugo. At least as far as receivers are concerned.

“I guess I’m the slowest of our wide receivers,” he admitted. “I only run the 40 in 4.5.”

The reporters were puzzled. “But on that long touchdown play, you outran the defenders down the sideline.”

He stared at them.

“I did?”

He did. It was a beautiful thing to watch. In the third quarter, Johnson, darting across the turf, took a short pass from Bob Gagliano and turned upfield. He followed a great block and sprinted down the sidelines, 50, 60, 75 yards as the defenders gave chase. No one came close. The crowd rose to its feet. Touchdown. The game winner.

Johnson had seven other catches to boot. Look over the middle, and there he was, in the naked seam of the defense, pulling in a pass. Look down the sideline and there he was, between the up man and deep man, pulling in a pass.

It is the kind of day a receiver dreams of, where the ball is your baby and your hands are its womb. The kind of day, quite frankly, that Lions fans have been robbed of for years. Heck. Wasn’t it just two months ago that these receivers — including Johnson — couldn’t seem to catch a bus?

And now, this. The Lions win a game by air — thanks largely to the threat of Sanders on the ground, which forced the Saints’ defense to gamble. In a perfect world, that’s the way the run ‘n’ shoot is supposed to work. Is it possible critics were wrong about this thing?

But wait. Let’s get back to Johnson, 28, who last year at this time was only catching lunch. “I got pretty heavy working for IBM,” he said. “I was up to 205 pounds from 170, mostly from eating, drinking beer and partying. I had pretty much given up on football.

“Then I got the call from Mouse Davis, who I knew from the USFL. He asked if I was in shape. I said, ‘Well, you know, a little. . . . ‘

“After that, I began to diet and work out. We had a minicamp in March, and I didn’t want him to think I was pregnant.” He adapts into record book

On Sunday, Johnson was better than pregnant. He delivered. And that has become suddenly crucial, with the news that Rodney Peete (sprained knee) may be finished for the season. Peete and Johnson were on the verge of becoming a Stabler-Biletnikoff of the Motor City. Favorite targets. Now, Johnson may have to get used to Gagliano, or — who knows? — Chuck Long.

No problem. We are dealing, after all, with a master adapter. He has already played in two leagues (USFL, NFL), in strike games and regular-season games, and, of course, in the game of life. Now he is in the Lions’ record books with the second-biggest receiving day in franchise history (Cloyce Box set the record with 302 yards in 1950). And, of course, he has been interviewed on network TV. He is a hero for short people, for the working man, and for computer programmers everywhere.

“It’s still hard to believe that last year I was working 9 to 5 like you reporters,” he said, obviously confusing us with someone else. “I never dreamed something like this would happen.”

“Do you still talk with your old IBM office?”

“Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact, I talked to my boss just last week.”

“What did you say?”

He smiled. “I asked him if my old job was still there. You know . . . just in case.”

Smart, too.

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