Just a little after 3 p.m. Saturday, Tyron Johnson will do what he always does before leaving the locker room.
He’ll make a cross across his chest, then take both hands and form the letters “A” and “P.”
A.P. was the nickname of Elie Billy, Tyron’s older brother, who was murdered in May 2010.
Then, the senior wide receiver will trot onto the Mercedes-Benz Superdome turf and play in the biggest game of his life, and the most important one in Warren Easton’s recent memory.
Having grown up in the rough Calliope Projects, Johnson welcomes the opportunity.
“I’m very thankful,” he said. “You know in New Orleans, you can be here one minute and gone the next. Especially when you look at what I went through.”
Johnson was in the eighth grade when his big brother was killed, the victim of another senseless murder in New Orleans.
“When he died, I remember thinking, ‘I don’t really have anything to live for,’ ” Johnson said. “I remember thinking, ‘I could either go kill those dudes, or I could play ball and try to be something.’ Before I even had time to really think about it, I remember those dudes ending up going to jail for something. It must’ve been a sign that I was supposed to be playing football.”
Johnson knows he could’ve easily gone astray. But he chose to play football, putting up huge statistics instead of becoming one.
“What kept me out of trouble?” he asked, repeating the question as he paused to think about the answer. “Park ball. And I had mentors and stuff who kept me out the streets. I was playing football, basketball and running track, so my time was always occupied so I never got off track.”
It was in park ball where Johnson first began making his mark on the football field. It was there when one of his coaches called him “Houdini” because of his magical elusiveness once he gets the ball in his hands.
He has blossomed into a 6-foot-1, 190-pound star who is rated the top receiver in the country by some. He is rated a five-star recruit and has coaches from all over the country making their way to try to get his signature in February, when National Signing Day rolls around.
Johnson narrowed his list to five (LSU, Auburn, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Georgia) last week. He had an in-home visit with Oklahoma State on Wednesday, just three days before Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. showdown with Neville for the Class 4A state championship.
“It’s been crazy,” Johnson said. “I can’t really focus on recruiting, because I’m trying to focus on the state championship. And you can’t really focus on state, because I have recruiting.
“It’s hard trying to balance. When you go this far in the playoffs, it just means it will take that much longer to make a decision.”
As of now, he plans to make his decision in January, when he plays in the prestigious Under Armour All-America Game. It’s the same place where fellow New Orleanians Leonard Fournette (St. Augustine), Gerald Willis (Karr) and Speedy Noil (Karr) announced their college choices last season.
But before Johnson announces his, he would like to do something that those three didn’t do: win a state title his senior year.
Easton hasn’t played for a state title since 1958, and the school’s only championships came in 1921 and 1942. Johnson and his senior teammates won just four games as freshmen.
“We came from nothing,” he said. “We turned the whole program around. No other teams around can really say that. Karr has been winning for years. Landry-Walker has been winning. St. Aug was always winning. When you can turn around a whole program from winning four games to getting to the state championship, that shows a lot of character.”
Some late heroics by Johnson rescued Easton last week in the semifinals.
The Eagles trailed 36-35 with a little over 30 seconds left.
Easton coach Tony Hull had just called a timeout, his last of the game, and depending on his decision, the last of the season.
Johnson wanted the ball: “Coach, put the ball in my hand. Jet sweep. Give it to me on the jet sweep!”
On the jet sweep, Johnson comes in motion and takes the handoff. If he scores, the Eagles are headed to the Dome.
But if he doesn’t, the game and Easton’s dream season is probably over.
Oh, and one more thing?
“If they stop him, I will be the laughingstock of Louisiana,” Hull recalled thinking as Johnson begged a little more.
“Coach, I put this on my brother. I promise you, I’m going to score!”
“I have never not listened to Tyron,” Hull said. “He sees the game from a coach’s perspective on the field. It’s mind-blowing the way he understands the game. People think it’s just natural ability, but he is just a student of the game.”
Johnson was never worried.
“I felt like if we were going to lose, put it all on me,” Johnson said. “Put the ball in my hand or (quarterback Deshawn Capers-Smith’s) hands. If we are going to lose, I wanted the ball in my hands or Deshawn’s hands. I felt like the team needed me and told them to give me the ball. I was very confident.”
Johnson delivered, scoring yet another touchdown that he knows would’ve made A.P. proud. It was Johnson’s second rushing touchdown of the season to go with his 17 receiving TDs. He has 1,494 receiving yards.
“Oh, he would be very proud,” Johnson said. “When I was a little snotty-nosed kid, he used to always brag on me.”
Johnson gets one final moment to put on his Easton jersey and make his brother proud Saturday.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” he said. “I’m still wrapping my head around everything. We are all like family. We’ve lost together, so to win together would be a great feeling. It’s amazing, and it lets you know that dreams really do come true.”