Stevie Johnson had just arrived in Jacksonville with his Buffalo Bills teammates when he got a call from his stepfather in San Francisco.
Rhonda, Stevie’s 48-year-old mother, had died unexpectedly back home. There was less than a day before the Bills were set to play the Jaguars, and Stevie had a decision to make — stay overnight and Jacksonville and play or return home to help his family prepare for her funeral.
After talking with Bills coach Doug Marrone and cornerback Ron Brooks, one of his closest friends on the team, Stevie Johnson decided he would play.
“We just sat and talked, talked about everything. It wasn’t about football,” Johnson said. “I felt good about that. [Marrone] talked to me like I was his son. It made me feel comfortable with my decision, whichever way it went — to fly right back or to stay.
“We got business here and I’m already here, so let’s take care of business and we’ll take care of everything else after the game.”
With his family gathering across the country to make preparation for his mother’s funeral, Johnson said he wanted to be with his Buffalo Bills family for the game.
“I felt I went all week with the boys and whatever I can do to help out the team,” Johnson said. “I felt I should give it my all no matter what. It was tough, but we got the win, and I’m happy about that. I’m sure she’s happy about that.”
While he decided to play in the game, the sixth-year wide receiver also made another decision — he wouldn’t tell his teammates until after the game.
Stevie and his mother were very close. He has her name tattooed on his arm, and during Sunday’s game he wore a message on his eye black that read “Hi MOM” with a heart replacing the “O” in MOM.
Johnson wasn’t on the field much during the game, seeing just three targets and catching one pass for four yards. He said he understood that his role would be lesser as he was still struggling with the death of his mother.
“I was in and out,” Johnson said. “I knew what the main goal was. It wasn’t about taking away from the team and thinking about my mother. It was trying to get the victory here. I think I played it well.”
While Stevie Johnson was playing a lesser role, only Brooks knew that his mother had died just hours before. A Buffalo Bills beat writer tweeted about her death during the game, but many didn’t find out until after they had already exited the locker room.
The Bills won the game 27-20, only their second win in the last seven games. When quarterback E.J. Manuel found out afterward, he said he was glad the team got a win for Stevie.
“I think it was him not wanting to be a distraction to the team or for anybody to feel bad for him,” Manuel said. “He just wanted us to go out there and get this win. Thank God we did for him and his mother and his family.”
He added: “It was tough, but we got the win. I’m happy and I’m sure she’s happy.”
Wide receiver T.J. Graham didn’t find out that Stevie’s mother had died until after the game when he was asked by a reporter about Stevie’s play. His mouth fell open upon hearing the news.
“I tell something was wrong with him,” Graham said. “He’s usually more focused. He was a little more to himself today. It was clear his mind was elsewhere.
“He’s a strong guy. For him not to even … Man, I can’t even put it into words. For him to come out there and play with his brothers in a hard time … ”
Stevie Johnson is expected to leave the Buffalo Bills during the week for his mother’s funeral.