From snowy run to meeting opportunity with action:
How the Stevie Johnson children’s book series was borne
It was a snowy evening in early January 2022. After putting my then-4-year-old daughter to bed, I layered up and set out for an end-of-the-day run through my North Buffalo neighborhood – a (mostly) daily activity that either cleanses my mind or spikes the creative juices with a dose of endorphin kick.
As fate would have it, it was the latter that evening.
With no headphones in my ears, I did my best to tune out the sound of the winter wind and feeling of dense snow pelting me in the face. I thought for a moment about an innocent Twitter exchange I had the previous day with former Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson. And then a smile came across my face as I thought about the work Johnson – a resident of San Diego – continues to do with children throughout Western New York.
This guy is a children’s book.
Seventh-round draft choices aren’t supposed to be impact players. And they most certainly aren’t supposed to use basketball moves on the football field.
But Johnson did things his way, and it’s undoubtedly why fans rallied behind him when the going got tough. From the worst moment of his athletic career – dropping a would-be game-winning touchdown in 2010 – came a fan movement unlike anything in professional sports: Bills Mafia.
Here he is, all these years later, teaching football and life skills to the next generation.
With a basic outline and handful of words on paper moments after wrapping up my run that evening, I reached back out to Johnson to say I had an idea for a children’s book about his journey. He responded almost instantly, and when we later talked on the phone, he said: “Dude, it’s like the universe has spoken. I’m working with an illustrator from Buffalo on a coloring book.”
The illustrator, Zack McCabe, is an incredibly talented artist who had met Johnson some time ago at a golf tournament. The three of us quickly formed a strong connection and merged our ideas – with Johnson lending his voice to my initial manuscript and providing creative direction as McCabe brilliantly brought the words to life, resulting in “There’s Always a Way with Stevie J!” and its companion coloring book, “VISIONS.” These two pieces were released together in July 2022 and can now be found on ImagineWePublishers.com, along with in stores such as Alice Ever After Books, Wegmans, and soon in Barnes & Noble.
We all quickly agreed: There were more stories to tell. When Johnson played in Buffalo, there were many fan-favorites on the team – including the undrafted Fred Jackson and fellow seventh-rounder Ryan Fitzpatrick.
We got to work on Jackson’s story almost immediately after our first book was published, and we just barely met the most important deadline we’ll ever face: The birth of McCabe’s daughter. Sweet little Sophia McCabe was born just days after our final edits were submitted – or about three weeks before the May 21 official launch of “Freddy J Makes His Play.” This one’s for you, kiddo.
Here we are. Two launches in less than a year. One more project on the immediate horizon. And about a dozen ideas to flesh out beyond this initial series.
The support has been incredible, so a big thank-you to everyone who has encouraged us to keep pushing. We’re inspired by the smiling faces and kind words, and we promise to keep Handling Biz, Having Fun – and creating stories.
Written by Charles Roberts III (co-author of the HBHF series of children's books)
Charles, who goes by Charlie, is a former sportswriter who now works in public relations by day and writes books after the sun sets. He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism at Buffalo State College and spends his free time running, creating content, and enjoying every moment of raising his daughter, Zoey. Charlie and his wife, April, have Zoey and a rambunctious dog named Layla.