Andre Johnson may have been a bit underrated because he didn’t play in a big market or for an iconic franchise, but for many years he was one of the better wide receivers in the National Football League.
His height and size made him a terrific target while allowing him to stay in the league for 14 seasons.
All the while, he carried much of the burden of an expansion franchise and became arguably its greatest player ever.
A Challenging Childhood
Andre Lamont Johnson was born on July 11, 1981 in Miami, Fla. to Karen Johnson and Leroy Richardson.
Young Johnson’s family was dealing with instability when he entered the world, and it was something that he would have to navigate in his early years.
Although Richardson spent some time around Johnson when the latter was young, he was not a prime influence in his life, and Johnson came to resent him as a result.
When Johnson was within the vicinity of his father, he would refuse to speak to him.
“I didn’t go,” Andre said about one possible encounter. “Because I was just like, ‘What in the hell you want with me? I’ve been here this whole time and you stay not far away, so why even speak to me now?’ ”
It placed a burden on Karen Johnson, who was essentially a single mother forced to support Johnson financially. She worked jobs such as a position on the school board, and she even spent some time in the Army Reserve.
The Johnson household wasn’t exactly well-off financially, and they lived in a small household in a not-so-good neighborhood.
With Richardson absent, Karen Johnson’s brother Andre Melton, whom Andre Johnson would call “Dre,” became like a father figure to him, and the two would forge a close relationship that you last over the years.
Johnson fell in love with the game of football starting at the age of six. He could often be found playing the game on the streets of the inner-city as a young child with his friends from the neighborhood.
In his early years, he was seen as withdrawn, but as he grew and made friends in junior high, he started to blossom, personality-wise. However, his mother was stern and perhaps even cold, and fairly or not, she thought that Johnson’s friends were bad news.
As a result, she suddenly enrolled him in a different school 30 miles away from home, forcing Johnson to start over from scratch when it came to his social life and social connections.
But at Miami Senior High School, he found himself. Lettering in basketball, track and football, he started to prove that he was something special.
In his junior season he had 618 yards and 12 touchdowns on 25 catches, and he upped those figures to 908 yards and 15 touchdowns on 31 receptions as a senior. That season he also added 310 yards and two touchdowns on kick returns and 190 yards and a touchdown on punt returns.
With a 4.4 second time in the 40-yard dash and a 35-inch vertical leap, Johnson made himself into an attractive college football candidate. He was named a Parade All-American, and numerous outlets considered him a top college prospect.
A Forming Hurricane
Johnson decided to attend the University of Miami, allowing him to play for a college football powerhouse while staying close to home.
In his very first game as a Hurricane, he caught a 32-yard pass for his first touchdown as a member of the team. For his freshman season, he only had three receptions for 57 yards and was used more as a kick returner, as he ran back 12 kickoffs for 249 yards.
His sophomore season of 2001 was when he really started to shine. He scored 10 touchdowns, which led the Big East, and gained 682 yards on 37 receptions.
When Miami beat the Florida State Seminoles to end their 10-year unbeaten streak at home, Johnson led the way with 111 yards and two touchdowns, earning him Big East Offensive Player of the Week honors.
After going undefeated, the Hurricanes made their way to the Rose Bowl. Thanks to Johnson’s monster performance of 199 yards and two touchdowns on just seven catches, Miami easily brushed aside the Nebraska Cornhuskers 37-14 to win the national championship, which earned Johnson co-MVP honors for the contest.
In honor of Andre Johnson's retirement, here he is going over, around & thru Nebraska's D in 2002 Rose Bowl.
👉 7 REC, 199 YDS, 2 TDs pic.twitter.com/izSHrZqPzk
— Jim Weber (@JimMWeber) October 31, 2016
Things were looking rosy for Johnson. He was on his way to becoming one of the top NFL prospects, and his personal life was also on the upswing, as he was seriously considering reconnecting and forming a relationship with his estranged father.
Then, in the summer of 2002, he found out that Richardson, the man who help procreate him, but never really raised him, had been fatally shot in Mississippi. Years of hurt came out at once in the form of tears, like a dam bursting after a tropical storm.
It was the type of situation that could’ve been like an emotional albatross for many other men. But Johnson found a way to move on and focus on himself and his craft.
“When you’re a child and your dad is within arm distance of you and never reach out to you, that’s a very hurt feeling,” Melton said. “And some kids could grow up angry that way. But by the supporting cast that he had … that helped him through that rough time.”
Johnson continued to raise his national profile as a junior in the fall of 2002 with 1,092 receiving yards and nine touchdowns while improving his yards-per-catch average from 18.4 to 21.0. This made him only the second Hurricane to ever notch at least 1,000 receiving yards in one season.
Rival coaches honored Johnson by naming him to the All-Big East First Team.
That year, he also was a standout on Miami’s track and field team, winning the 60-meter dash competition with a time of 6.81 seconds at the Big East Indoor Championship. He also won the 100-meter dash at the Big East Outdoor Championships and the 200-meter dash at the 2003 GMAC Championships.
Johnson finished near the top of several career categories in Hurricanes history and is considered one of the best players the school has ever had. In fact, NFL great Michael Irvin, who was once a standout himself with the Hurricanes, once said that Johnson was the greatest wideout in their history.
Off To Houston
The Houston Texans were the NFL’s newest expansion team during the 2002 season, and their founding came in the wake of the Houston Oilers leaving town for Tennessee several years earlier.
Their first season, not surprisingly, was rocky and led to a 4-12 finish. With the third pick in the 2003 NFL Draft, they had a prime opportunity to add a foundational player, and they did just that by taking Johnson.
Soon after the draft, he fired agents Michael Huyghue and Jeff Moorad and decided to have Melton represent him while also tapping Don West Jr., a sports attorney, to help him negotiate his first NFL contract, which was worth a fortune: $39 million over six years.
He got his pro career off to a nice start by gaining 76 yards in an upset win in Week 1 over the Miami Dolphins. He finished the campaign with 976 yards and four touchdowns, good enough for a spot on the NFL All-Rookie Team.
The Texans’ starting quarterback was David Carr, who was nothing more than a decent signal-caller, but it didn’t prevent Johnson from quickly growing into his best self. In 2004 he had his first Pro Bowl season with 1,142 yards and six touchdowns, and the Texans improved from 5-11 the year before to 7-9.
Johnson’s third season was when frustration started to set in. He missed three games due to injury, and his production saw a major dip to just 688 yards and two touchdowns.
It was a miserable season in general for the Texans, who won just two games, and Johnson hated the fact that the team had made marginal progress in his first two years, only to suffer a major dip in his third season, like the stock market dropping 1,000 points in a single day.
Some star athletes accept playing on a bad team, especially if they’re getting theirs, but that was unacceptable for Johnson.
“There were times when I didn’t want to get up and come to work,” he acknowledged. “It’s hard because you’re working your butt off and you just can’t get the job done. That’s the biggest thing I tell the guys. You don’t ever want to experience that because it’s not a good feeling.”
The reality of the NFL is that it usually takes a long time to build a winner, partly because football is a game of specialists. A star like Johnson will only take a team so far when he lacks support.
Some players in that type of situation become malcontent and demand a trade. But Johnson decided to dig in.
“There’s always frustration, but that’s the thing that makes you grow as a player, as a person,” he said. “You’ve got to find out a lot about yourself — if you’re going to be loyal, if you’re going to run away from it.”
Johnson certainly grew in 2006. He caught 103 passes, which led everyone in the NFL, and had 1,147 yards and five touchdowns. That production sent him to the Pro Bowl for the second time.
Prior to the season, the Texans front office looked to hold up its end of the bargain by firing head coach Don Capers and replacing him with Gary Kubiak, who had won two Super Bowls as the Denver Broncos’ offensive coordinator in the late 1990s.
In the ’06 NFL Draft, the Texans had the number one and the opportunity to draft University of Southern California star running back Reggie Bush or University of Texas QB Vince Young. Instead, Houston went with defensive end Mario Williams, which was an unpopular move for its fans.
The Texans won six games in ’06, and their progress would be slow and painful over the next few years. Their offense would gradually improve, but their defense remained weak.
Johnson started the 2007 season on a good note. Months before training camp, he received a generous six-year contract extension that was worth $60 million, $15 million of which was guaranteed.
Despite missing seven games due to injury, he had a solid year with 851 receiving yards and eight touchdowns, while his 94.6 yards per game were tops in the league.
In his first five seasons in the NFL, Johnson was a good wide receiver. But starting in 2008, he would go from good to great.
As the Texans worked to find the right combination that would open the door to title contention, they replaced Carr with Matt Schaub, who gave them better production under center than Carr could even dream of.
Perhaps Schaub wasn’t a truly elite QB, but he and Johnson would start to develop some solid chemistry and trust.
Johnson exploded in 2008 like a summer thunderstorm in Houston. After the Texans lost their first four games of the season, he had more than 140 yards in each of the next three games to help his team improve to 3-4.
With 593 yards and two touchdowns in October, he was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Month for the first time.
In Week 15 against the elite Tennessee Titans, owners of one of the league’s best defenses, Johnson sliced and diced his way to 207 yards and a touchdown in a 13-12 win.
He finished the year on top of the league with 115 yards and 1,575 receiving yards, as well as eight touchdowns. He was not only named to the Pro Bowl but also the All-Pro First-Team.
The 2009 campaign would be much of the same: 101 catches, 1,569 yards, nine touchdowns, earning him Pro Bowl and All-Pro First-Team nods again.
After another inconsistent season, Houston finished with a December surge thanks to Johnson’s exploits, but yet again it missed the playoffs, this time by the slimmest of margins. Its 9-7 record was its best to date, but it lost tiebreakers with the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens.
Johnson was rewarded by the Texans with a two-year extension that would keep him under contract through the 2016 season and was worth up to $38.5 million.
The 2010 season was yet another banner year for Johnson, as he had 1,216 yards and eight touchdowns, sending him to the Pro Bowl for the fifth time. He also became the first player in league history to catch at least 60 passes in each of his first eight seasons.
But it would be marred by one incident.
One the same day Johnson set his reception record, Tennessee Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan pushed up his facemask at one point in the fourth quarter. Johnson didn’t like it, and he reacted by tearing off Finnegan’s helmet and punching him at least twice.
My favorite Andre Johnson memory pic.twitter.com/aCMK9Pvx3d
— Blake Garman (@FrostedBlakes34) September 8, 2021
Both players were ejected and fined, but luckily neither were suspended, and afterward, the low-key, reserved Johnson did the classy thing.
“I would like to apologize to the organization, our owner, my teammates,” he said. “What happened out there wasn’t me. I just lost my cool and I wish I could take back what happened but I can’t. I’m pretty sure I’ll be disciplined for it, I’ll have to deal with it from there.”
Still, he was clearly respected around the league, as his peers ranked him seventh on the annual list of top 100 NFL players in the summer of 2011, ahead of even Aaron Rodgers, who had just led the Green Bay Packers to the world championship.
Finally, The Playoffs
As the Houston Texans entered their 10th season, they still hadn’t reached the postseason. But they were starting to build a respectable squad.
Johnson finally had some help in the form of star running back Arian Foster, as well as Ben Tate, who was a very reliable second-option back. The defense, which had ranked almost dead-last in 2010, was also getting a makeover in the form of draft picks such as J.J. Watt, who would quickly develop into a star defensive end.
But putting it together would be tough.
Johnson feasted in the first three games of the season with at least 93 receiving yards in each contest. But in Week 4, he injured his hamstring, and it was an ailment that would hamper him for the rest of the schedule.
He missed nine of the remaining 12 games, and even when he did play, he didn’t get on the field as much as usual.
The entire team was hit with the injury bug, as Schaub and Foster also missed games.
But unlike in the past, Houston had something to hang its cowboy hats on regardless of who was available to play: its defense, which ranked fourth in points allowed and second in total yards allowed.
This defense drove them to a 10-3 start, and although it lost its last three games, it finally qualified for the NFL playoffs with a 10-6 record.
The wild card round was a long-awaited event in the star-crossed history of Houston sports, as it was the first time the city would host an NFL playoff game since 1994. It would also be a successful event, as the Texans easily beat the Cincinnati Bengals thanks to 91 yards and a touchdown from Johnson.
Although they were no match for the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round, the Texans and their fans had lots to be optimistic about moving forward.
In 2012, things would coalesce even more. This time, there would be no major injury issues, and with Johnson posting 1,598 receiving yards, Houston won 12 games and finished first in the AFC South for the second year in a row.
In Week 11, Johnson had the game of his life against the Jacksonville Jaguars with 273 yards, including a 48-yard touchdown in overtime to give Houston a 43-37 win. It was the ninth-highest one-game yardage output for a receiver in NFL history.
In another win the very next week against the Detroit Lions, Johnson remained in nova mode with 188 yards. This gave him the highest number of receiving yards in back-to-back contests in league history.
His production on the season sent him back to the Pro Bowl after a one-year absence. It was all the more impressive considering that many doubted if he could return to form after last year’s hamstring injury, and also considering that he was limited early in ’12 by a groin ailment.
Once again, the Texans defeated the Bengals in the wild card round, sending them to the divisional round against the defending AFC champion New England Patriots.
Against Tom Brady and company, Johnson had 95 yards, but he was held without a touchdown as New England dominated the second half en route to a 41-28 victory.
In 2013, Johnson continued to do his thing, putting up 1,407 receiving yards and earning his seventh Pro Bowl nod. But the rest of the team struggled mightily, in particular Schaub, and it won just two games all year, leading to Kubiak being fired and replaced with Bill O’Brien.
With new quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, Johnson’s numbers went down in 2014, and despite playing in all but one contest, he failed to reach the 1,000-yard mark. He was now 33, and his game was starting to decline.
After the Texans narrowly missed the playoffs that year, Johnson was told by O’Brien that he would have a greatly reduced role and that he wouldn’t even be in the starting lineup in the coming season, and he didn’t like what he heard.
“I just laughed,” said Johnson. “They gave me my role, and I just laughed at them. How do you tell a guy who is used to catching 80 balls a year that he was going to catch 40?”
After failing to trade Johnson, the Texans cut him in March 2015, making him a free agent, and he signed with the Indianapolis Colts for the 2015 season.
Led by a young, solid QB in Andrew Luck, the Colts were coming off a trip to the AFC Championship Game and had plenty of reason to be optimistic in 2015. Fans were likely hoping that Johnson’s skills and experience would put the team over the top, and perhaps Johnson himself thought he was about to have his best shot yet at a Super Bowl ring.
Instead, the Colts struggled all season long, thanks to injuries to Luck and backup QB Matt Hasselbeck, causing them to sag to an 8-8 record.
One of the few highlights of the 2015 campaign was Week 5 against Johnson’s former team, the Texans, in which he had his best game of the year with 77 yards and two touchdowns in a seven-point win.
But overall, his numbers on the season (503 yards and four touchdowns) were mediocre, and the Colts released him the following March.
Johnson’s last season came in 2016 with the Tennessee Titans. He played in only eight games and started in just four of them, and he posted career-lows of nine receptions and 85 yards.
The Titans missed the playoffs, and Johnson announced his retirement at midseason. In a classy move, he signed a one-day contract with the Texans the following spring so he could officially retire with the team he spent the majority of his career with.
At his retirement press conference, Johnson got very emotional as he thanked the two people who made sacrifices to mold him into the great player and great man he had become.
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) April 19, 2017
He told the world that he was leaving the game with one big regret, a regret that he shares with many other great players.
Andre Johnson: "The only regret I have is not helping this organization win a world championship." #Texans
— Brian T. Smith (@ChronBrianSmith) April 19, 2017
Paying It Forward
It is heartwarming to see people who grew up disadvantaged, only to make it big, give back to the next generation who is facing the same type of challenges. It’s the type of charitable activity that truly enriches our society.
Johnson has done exactly that, but he didn’t exactly wait until he hung up his cleats. In 2003, when he was just a rookie, he started the Andre Johnson Foundation, which is focused on helping children who are being raised by single parents, just as he was.
The organization helps such kids with programs that support them in areas such as academics, healthy living and life skills.
Every year around Christmas time, Johnson takes a group of at-risk children, mostly ones who have been subjected to child abuse, on a shopping spree to buy toys and electronics. This annual spree started to attract national attention in 2012 when a photo of receipts from one such spree surfaced on an online message board.
In late December 2021, the former wideout was chosen as a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. As of this writing, the men who will be inducted will be publicly revealed on February 10, and many feel Johnson should get the nod.
One of my favorite players ever
Andre Johnson should be a first ballot HOFer pic.twitter.com/rS0QEBfU4Z
— Big Game Bengal (@BengalYouTube) September 22, 2021
Away from the public eye, Johnson has also become a family man. He has a daughter, Kylie, who was born in Feb. 2010, and Johnson is committed to being the father for her that his father never was for him.