September 6, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Lions' soft-spoken star Calvin Johnson poised for encore

Allen Park — It was staged, but it was clever. And as life imitating art imitating life, it was pretty good live theater.

Calvin Johnson never would’ve done this, but the Lions new split-personality all-pro receiver did Thursday, interrupting his own news conference after practice to act out a scene from his latest Nike commercial.

Johnson answered a handful of questions about his health (he “feels good”) and his team’s outlook (he’s “excited”) heading into Sunday’s season opener against the Vikings. But then someone asked him about the ad that went viral online this week — the first in a three-part series featuring Johnson and hip-hop mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs.

In the “Calvin & Johnson” campaign, the Lions wideout plays a reticent football star (“Calvin”) while Diddy assumes the “Johnson” role, handling all the public attention, including his media obligations.

“So I think Johnson should handle the rest of this,” Johnson said Thursday, trying his best to deadpan the delivery. “I ain’t even supposed to be up here. It’s time to go.”

With that, he stepped off the podium and pretended to head for the door exiting the Lions indoor practice field. He quickly returned, laughing, and good-naturedly played Johnson’s role for several more questions, including a few about his alter-ego reality turn.

A larger-than-life star, Johnson became the highest-paid non-quarterback in the NFL a year ago, then followed it by shattering Hall of Famer Jerry Rice’s season receiving record last fall, the lone bright spot in the Lions’ 4-12 season.

And yet, as Lions fans have come to understand since Johnson was drafted No. 2 overall in 2007, the man widely known (and respected) around the league as “Megatron” — the one voted No. 3 on NFL.com’s list of the top 100 players — still prefers to steer clear of the spotlight, whenever possible.

As veteran receiver Nate Burleson said late last season during Johnson’s record chase, “I’ve never seen a guy that talented, and that far removed from being a diva.” Johnson isn’t just the best player for the Lions since Barry Sanders. In some ways, it’s as if he’s impersonating him.

Keeping it low-key

So this new Nike ad?

“Yeah, it’s pretty accurate, if you know Calvin,” said Burleson, who certainly does. “I think if it was up to Calvin, he’d be a mute.”

That might be a bit of an exaggeration. In fact, don’t tell anybody, but Burleson says the teammate he has taken to calling “LeBron” lately “quietly enjoys” these acting cameos.

Still, outside of a trip to New York for the 2012 NFL draft as the new Madden video game cover athlete — including a guest appearance reading the “Top Ten List” on David Letterman’s “Late Show” — Johnson generally has avoided self-promotion. And opted for non-speaking parts.

There was the Acura commercial a couple of years ago when he was seen — and undressed — but not heard. (“It was a silent movie, that’s what it was,” Burleson jokes.) There also was the Nike ad last fall in which regular folks all talk about Johnson, but no one ever sees him — as if he’s the Tooth Fairy or something.

This latest one includes his own voiceover, but as he admitted, “I didn’t even want to do it because of the timing of it.” A bit reluctantly, then, he spent four days on set in Los Angeles filming, a week before the start of training camp in late July.

Johnson said he hadn’t gotten around to watching the pre-release clips in his email inbox by the time Nike posted it on YouTube — and by the time his teammates watched it — this week. But it played to good reviews in the locker room, at least in part because players were jealous he spent a few days in L.A. with Diddy. Johnson called the experience “cool” and said he enjoyed hanging out with “him and his entourage.”

But he’s quick to add, “I don’t have an entourage,” and when teammates asked him if he got Diddy’s phone number, his response was typical Calvin.

“I’m like, ‘For what?’ ” he said.

What's next?

The more pertinent question, of course, is “Now what?” as everyone wonders what Johnson can do for an encore. Last season, he led the league in receptions (122, fourth in NFL history) and receiving yards (1,964, surpassing Rice’s 1,848 total from 1995) despite facing consistent double and triple coverage.

This season, the Lions have Reggie Bush in the backfield, and Burleson and Ryan Broyles back on the field. And as Johnson put it Thursday, “We’ve got a ton of weapons. So shame on us if we don’t use ’em all, you know?”

Yeah, we know. But this kind of talk is inevitable leading up the season opener. Particularly this year. Because Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, a fellow member of the 2007 draft class, has talked openly about targeting another 2,000-yard rushing season — even 2,500 yards, he says — after last season’s remarkable run to MVP honors on a surgically-repaired knee.

Johnson’s goal?

“Every year, it’s just to do better than last year,” he said. “It gets harder and harder every year, but that doesn’t change. You can’t backtrack.”

So, then, I asked him if that meant he was targeting a 2,000-yard season in 2013.

“I didn’t say that,” he laughed.

That’s Calvin talking, of course. Johnson was unavailable for comment.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/JohnNiyo