SANTA CLARA -- On the day Stevie Johnson reported for college football duty, the Kentucky equipment manager offered him a choice of uniforms with an array of traditional wide receiver numbers: 80, 82, 83 or 86.
"Then he said, 'Oh, yeah, and we've got No. 13,' " Johnson recalled.
Something about the way the equipment man said it sounded dismissive, as if no one would want that number anyway. Johnson took No. 13 on the spot.
The kid who once navigated the treacherous streets of Bayview-Hunters Point, who didn't play high school football till he was a junior, who was lightly recruited out of Chabot Junior College felt a kinship with a jersey from the reject pile.
"I felt like it was a number that people thought was irrelevant," Johnson says now. "And I wanted to make a name for that 13."
Now, with three 1,000-yard receiving seasons on his NFL résumé, Johnson will bring his number back to San Francisco. The 49ers traded for the six-year veteran earlier this month in hopes that the Buffalo Bills wideout could boost a passing attack that finished 30th out of 32 teams a year ago.
Johnson, too, is coming off a quiet year, managing only 52 catches for 597 yards, his lowest totals as a full-time starter. The drop-off was enough for people to doubt him again, which is fine with Johnson.
His No. 13 jersey is only the start of his symbolism.
Underneath the uniform is a body covered with tattoos. There are scenes from his neighborhood, words that resonate and names of family members. There's one with his mother's name, "Rhonda," next to a flame because he says that's where he got his fire from.
One tattoo, just beneath his left rib cage, depicts a misfit kid leaning against a brick wall, holding a football. The kid has weird, alien-like features. That kid is Johnson.
He had himself inked that way because he felt like an outcast -- alienated -- growing up as the super-focused, upright boy in a neighborhood awash in gangs, drugs and crime.
"When you're in it, you don't realize that you're in a bad neighborhood. I didn't notice until I got out of it. I would tell people I was from Bayview-Hunters Point. They were like, 'Oh, man! It's bad over there,' " Johnson said.
'Weirdo' in pads
This is not a story about a kid from the mean streets who grew up mean. Johnson is a goofball. He once joked to the Buffalo News that if strangers walked into the Bills' locker room, they'd have no trouble spotting the free spirit from San Francisco: "Football player, football player, football player ... weirdo."
In conversation, he is breezy and light. And friends delight in telling their favorite Johnson story. Sarah McLaughlin, who taught Johnson world history at Rodriguez High in Fairfield, recalled how the kid showed up for his senior prom with an LED panel attached to his tuxedo coat so he could display his nickname -- "Stevie Styles" -- in bright lights.
Johnson's prom date that night, Britney, thought it was pretty cool: They've been married since 2006. She's another reason Johnson wears No. 13.
"I call her 'B.' And you take a 1 and a 3 and slide them together. That's a B," he explained. "And now I'm representing my family."
He has messages on the back of his hands. The left features the words "Have Fun." That's the Stevie Styles side. His right is inscribed with "Handle Biz." That's the Stevie Johnson side. That's the side that worked his way out of Hunters Point.
It was his stepfather, Andre "Herm" Lewis, who taught him how to handle his business. Lewis, a onetime convict, turned his life around to become a community activist and accomplished rap producer.
Herm and Rhonda kept their son out of trouble by keeping him in games. When asked how he avoided the pitfalls of his neighborhood, Johnson said: "I stayed active in sports. My father made sure I stayed out of trouble in Hunters Point. He kept me around the older guys -- my coaches -- who kept on top of us and made sure we stayed right, made sure we were doing our schoolwork."
Bayview-Hunters Point, especially in the 1990s, was a dangerous landscape of gangs, drugs and a sky-high homicide rate.
Herm Lewis' success in the music industry allowed him to move Stevie to Fairfield, where the kid enrolled in fledgling Rodriguez High.
Johnson's biggest obstacle there was making the varsity football team. Because there wasn't one.
Leading a program
Rodriguez High, born in 2001, didn't field a varsity football team until two years later, when Johnson was a junior. When it did, the Mustangs were the high school equivalent of an expansion team, and Johnson carried the load. He played quarterback on offense and on defense jumped around from linebacker to safety and defensive end.
"They didn't have that many athletes there. That's why he ended up playing all of the positions -- he was by far one of the best athletes in the school during that time," recalled LeVon Haynes, who coached at nearby Vanden High. "As a QB, he was decent. He just didn't have much of a supporting cast. He wound up being kind of a running back."
One position Johnson didn't play is the one that got him to the NFL. He made that conversion later, and only on a whim. While attending a Nike Football Camp at Stanford, coaches assigned him to run drills with the defensive backs.
Johnson took one look at what was going on and swallowed hard.
"I get up there seeing all these wide receivers running really fast and I thought, 'Oh, I know I can't guard them,' " Johnson recalled.
"I know I can catch the ball, so I just jumped over into the receiver line and was catching passes. That's how I started becoming a receiver. ... It completely changed my life."
Haynes coached Johnson at receiver in an East-West All-Star Game and saw "the way he attacks the football. The way he goes up and gets it. ... He's just got that tenacity that says I'm going to catch balls no matter where they're thrown."
Chabot College coach Danny Calcagno saw it, too. Johnson went on to become a key part of the Gladiators offense in 2004-05. Then, as now, the 6-foot-2, 207-pound receiver lacked breakaway speed. But he made up for it with his knack for beating defenders at the line of scrimmage.
"The two things I remember most about Stevie: No one could jam him. One team put two guys on him and still could not press him,' " Calcagno said. "Secondly, he was never in the trainers' room. No taping. No icing. Played every snap in practice and games."
Still, not many Division I colleges saw Johnson's skills. One of the few who did was Ron Caragher, the current San Jose State coach who was then an assistant coach at Kentucky in charge of scouting Northern California junior colleges.
Johnson had only a handful of catches as a junior, but Caragher, at Calcagno's urging, watched a few game tapes anyway. "Even on those few catches you could still see all the characteristics of a good receiver," said Caragher. "Separation from man-to-man coverage. Good route running where he would really stick his foot in the ground and create an attractive window for quarterbacks. And the biggest thing was that he always caught the ball at the highest point."
Kentucky rolled the dice. And handed him jersey No. 13.
In 2007, his second season with the Wildcats, Johnson caught 61 passes for 1,052 yards and 13 touchdowns.
'Styles' gets spotlight
A seventh-round draft pick by Buffalo, Johnson went on to record at least 75 catches and 1,000 yards each season from 2010-12. He also let Stevie Styles loose on more than one occasion. He once drew a $10,000 fine for imitating a minuteman firing a rifle and falling to the ground after a fourth-quarter touchdown against the New England Patriots.
He once took to Twitter to question God after dropping a crucial pass against the Pittsburgh Steelers. "I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND IS THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX THO ..."
Now that he's home, back to where his journey began, Johnson seems at peace. His mother, Rhonda, would have loved his new gig. The lifelong 49ers fan died in her sleep at age 48 last December.
"I know she's smiling and looking down on us as a team and as a unit," Johnson said. "With her, it was Niners over everything. Even when I was with Buffalo, she was always going for the 49ers but cheering for me."
Johnson, meanwhile, can't wait to throw on his familiar uniform when the 49ers meet for offseason workouts next Tuesday. He's really done a number with it.
"I started calling it the 'Unlucky 13' because don't need luck when you're working hard," Johnson said. "That's what I did to get to this point. And I don't want to stop. I want to keep going."
Follow Daniel Brown on Twitter at twitter.com/mercbrownie.
Stevie Johnson had three 1,000-yard receiving seasons and 28 touchdowns over six seasons with the Buffalo Bills.