Fame can be fleeting, here one moment, gone the next. In this respect fame and Trumaine Johnson have much in common. Johnson, the speedball rookie wide receiver for the Chicago Blitz, is the most electric body in the Unusual Spring Football League (a.k.a. USFL). At 22, and after only 10 games of pro football, he's so accomplished, so exciting that even Blitz Coach George Allen—the same George Allen who used to regard rookies as cattle—has all but nominated Johnson for the Hall of Fame. "I've seen them all," says Allen. "I've coached some of the best. Trumaine is that kind. A faster Charley Taylor."
Johnson's league-leading 51 catches, for 759 yards, have helped the Blitz, a 31-3 winner over the Washington Federals last Sunday, to a share of first place with the Tampa Bay Bandits in the USFL's Central Division. And if his exploits this season have Allen pop-eyed, just imagine what younger generations think. "He's like Paul Warfield, a complete football player," says 36-year-old Blitz Quarterback Greg Landry.
"He's a combination of John Jefferson and James Lofton," adds Blitz Safety Luther Bradley, a five-year NFL veteran. "He executes with precision underneath. He can catch, and he's got that speed to go deep, plus size and moves. He's the package." Another Blitz defender says cattily, "Truth is, Anthony Carter is a good little player, but he can't carry Trumaine Johnson's shoes."
Carter is the three-time All-America receiver from Michigan who signed a $2.4 million, four-year contract with the USFL Michigan Panthers but is now tied for third in receptions on his own team. While Johnson's four-year contract contains goodies like the endowment of a four-year, $5,000-per-year scholarship fund at his alma mater, Grambling, and a $250,000 life-insurance policy, it pales beside Carter's. To the notion that he might have been a more valuable commodity had he played in the Big Ten instead of in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, Johnson flashes his brilliant smile. "If I knew what I know now when I left high school," he says, "I'd have done the same thing. I was a Grambling wingback, and that makes me part of a tradition."
Scouts don't time headlines, but they did get Johnson at a world-class 4.39 for the 40. That speed helped him to score 32 touchdowns in college. When the NFL had its draft last month, Johnson was the first USFL player picked, the San Diego Chargers selecting him in the sixth round. "Picking Johnson was strictly a bet on the come," says a Charger spokesman. "We like offense. Our feeling is that if something happens in Chicago, we've got the equivalent of a first-round choice."
Johnson signed in January with the Blitz because, he says, "Nothing in the NFL is guaranteed. You never know what city you'll go to. My decision wasn't based so much on the money as on the uncertainty. I wanted to play my game."
"Trumaine was always a playful child. He's always loved to play his games," says his mother, Clementine, who along with her husband, Hosie, a private contractor, raised Trumaine, his three brothers and three sisters—Trumaine is the next to youngest—in Baker, a village outside Baton Rouge. Trumaine was named by an aunt—Clementine's older sister Arabella—who had an appreciation for the euphonious.
At Baker High, Johnson was the MVP in football, basketball and track, a long and triple jumper/sprint relay runner and flanker-kick returner who scored 22.7 points a game as a basketball forward as a junior. In his senior year he missed half the football season after tearing a groin muscle and badly scarring his upper body in a motorbike accident. He recovered to average 23.7 points a game in hoops that year and received basketball scholarship offers from places like LSU and Louisville. "I only had a few football offers because of the accident," says Johnson. "But I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Charlie Joiner, Frank Lewis and Sammy White at Grambling. I wanted that association."
Lewis and White were both All-Pro in the sort of cold-weather cities—respectively, Buffalo and, in its pre-dome days, Minneapolis—that generally hamper receivers. Both played wingback in Coach Eddie Robinson's version of the wing T formation at Grambling and arrived in the pros well-schooled. White was NFC Rookie of the Year in 1976 with 51 catches, 10 of them for touchdowns. "Every year they came back to work out before going to their camps," says Johnson. "I worked with them and analyzed them."
"Everybody would come back by to make sure Trumaine knew what was going on," says Robinson. "Essex Johnson, Charlie Smith and Charlie Joiner, Sammy, Frank. Originally we thought of the wingback as a position for a receiver-runner. As soon as we saw Trumaine we knew he'd redefine it. On sweeps he'd wall-block the linebacker, deck him at times. He's quick, but very strong [at 6'3", 185 pounds]. Then he'd make the great catch—I mean, something different. The position's been a tradition at our place, but Trumaine was so gifted and disciplined he just put the thing out of sight."
The 64-year-old Robinson would stay after practices and tutor Johnson on refinements—recognizing defenses, how to defeat the double team, and the use of body feints and speed as levers against aggressive defensive backs. "It would be just me and him, no passer, no defenders," says Johnson. One night last fall Robinson told a reporter, "Trumaine is the most exciting football player in America." The next evening Johnson scored three touchdowns on two receptions and a 64-yard punt return, in less than five minutes of the fourth quarter against Florida A&M to give Robinson his 300th career win.
Allen knew enough of this to trade three picks in the USFL draft for the Boston Breakers' first-round choice and to use it to select Johnson. In Chicago Johnson's roommate is fellow starting Wide Receiver Wamon Buggs, who was a final cut from the Lofton-Jefferson Packers last year. Buggs is a bright talent whose only problem has been his proximity to brighter ones. Johnson carried a quick screen pass 33 yards in the season opener, a 28-7 win over the Federals in Washington, only to fumble the ball into the end zone, where Buggs fell on it for the first touchdown in Blitz history. "I can't even get balls in practice," says Buggs. "I work with the second team just to see the thing. I figured once they started double-teaming and tilting the field his way, things would even out. But Trumaine keeps defeating the double team. Just eats it up. He stays open. What can you say about Tru?"
The temptation is to call him otherworldly—eel-like, pantherish—but that's misleading because his style is so intensely studied. His calves are tight balloons of muscle, and it bothers him when they are covered with fabric, so he lets his white socks hit them just below their billow. But league rules call for stockings to be pulled up to the knee. "Officials have already asked me to leave the game to fix my socks, but that takes something away from me," says Johnson. "I do all my own taping because if it's not right, I'm not right."
He's a quiet, friendly sort who doesn't gyrate in the end zone after scoring and who's a bit bemused by the crush of the Chicago Loop. He doesn't often venture downtown, preferring the solitude of his suburban apartment or the cockpit of his Mercedes-Benz 380 SEC. "I like being by myself," he says. "I'm not conceited. I just like myself. Nobody has to know about it, but it's important to me."
For now Johnson has no plans beyond the USFL. "San Diego is the kind of team I always wanted to play for," he says, "because the Chargers throw. Someday I'd like to test myself with the best, to see what my limitations are. But I could easily play here my whole career. It doesn't matter what quarterback I work with, or what defensive back I go against. I always play the same way. Even practice. I go all out on my routes. I can't help it. I think it was that past company."
The present company can't help being impressed.