With five Pro Bowls before his 30th birthday, Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin “Megatron” Johnson Jr. has made a heckuva name for himself. But you probably don’t know that his mother is quite a superstar in her own right.

As a professional educator, Dr. Arica Johnson has garnered national recognition for designing unique school programs and helping students, teachers and fellow educators reach their full potential. Dr. Johnson, who encouraged Calvin and his siblings to read before they even entered kindergarten, is a big believer in education. She incorporates that core belief into her leadership of the Calvin Johnson Jr. Foundation Inc. (CJJFI), which offers financial assistance and mentorship through its annual leadership conference, scholarships, football camps, and pen pal program, among other offerings.

On the cusp of Father’s Day, with role models and mentors very much on our minds, we spoke with this vivacious woman, who courageously survived a bout with pancreatic cancer last year, about the importance of education and having a fatherly presence in our lives.

“A fatherly image doesn’t always mean that the child’s father is present in the home. It can mean anyone who has the child’s best interest in mind and attempts to support the success of that child — just a positive, caring, just and loving relationship.”

Education is a key theme in your life. Tell us about its importance in life and for a career.

Education is the key. When I was a child, not just my parents, but also my relatives, teachers and mentors taught me the value of a quality education. They did it through “modeling” the way and sharing education values. If you get an education, there are career opportunities, you become more intellectual, you can interact more socially throughout your life. You’re more involved in relevant, realistic, rigorous learning opportunities that stimulate you to go to higher heights and provide the confidence you need [to succeed]. You gain knowledge and skills—and social and economic stability comes along with that.

How early should this understanding be instilled in children?

It has to start early because if they’re not staying focused in school, they’re not going to have the educational success they need. We taught our kids how to read at age 3 and 4, so they were reading when they went to kindergarten. You need to set in stone that when you go to school, this is how you act as a student. Come home with your books, we can talk about what you learned and I can help you and provide you with tools.

How have you transferred your faith in education to your work for Calvin’s Foundation?

It’s been a community effort. My husband and I, relatives and educators that came along my children’s path taught them about the importance of education. The transfer to Calvin’s Foundation was automatic, since the core Foundation efforts pretty much revolve around fostering social, economic, physical, intellectual and generational change.

Explain more about this theme of generational change?

Once I teach my children, they’re going to teach their children, and that becomes an inter-generational change. It’s not something that’s happening on the surface, it goes way down into them, receiving and believing in these values, and then transferring them to their own children. In both Atlanta and Detroit, the Calvin Johnson Jr. Foundation is dedicated to the education, training, and social development of at-risk youth — to assist youth with realizing their college and career dreams — and [then] hoping that sparks an interest in them to go back and do the same for their children.

In what situations have you mentored children?
I worked with an inner-city community where we had a lot of youth that needed extra help — that includes you observing what’s needed to try and make a difference. So I started a program called “minds on discipline” that involved having someone to step in and help them understand some of their self-defeating habits. Additionally, with our Foundation, we have a mentorship and pen pal program. It focuses on both our scholars and also the at-risk youth we touch in our programs.

Tell us more about your athlete scholars.
Calvin gives six scholarships annually to student-athletes who are graduating with partial scholarships only. Those athletes become part of our scholarship group. This year every scholar, 20 in all, is being flown to our upcoming Leadership Conference in Atlanta, where our mentorship program takes place. We work with them on setting smart goals and they share what they want to succeed in academically, spiritually, emotionally, career-wise. We send them a survey beforehand, asking them what they’d like to learn more about. We design everything based on their needs, so during the conference, we’ll have a networking session where they’re already aligned to mentors, who ask them questions, giving them helpful information that they need to achieve their goals. Afterwards, our “pen pal” program kicks in with them e-mailing and texting back and forth with their assigned mentors about further questions.

How else do you provide mentorship to young people?
Every year at our football camps, we have up 60 to 70 youth participating, and they’re also mentored there. We have Calvin’s own mentor and chaplain at Georgia Tech, Derrick Moore [former Lions RB who lockered next to Barry Sanders]. He comes to camp every year and mentors these young athletes. He rotates through smaller groups at different stations, and he talks about why it’s important to do the right thing in life. He engages them in any surrounding issues facing these young athletes that they want to talk about. They’re mentored right on the spot, so hopefully they’re leaving the camp with a fresh renewal of thinking and acting.

How crucial is it to provide mentorship to kids who either have lost their fathers, or who have no father in their lives?
It’s ultra important to have a fatherly presence in a young person’s life. A fatherly presence brings about a positive relationship, it brings about nurturing, and key elements like protection, humility, confidence, security and a sense of self-worth for that individual. A fatherly image doesn’t always mean that the child’s father is present in the home, obviously not all are for any number of reasons. It can mean anyone who has the child’s best interest in mind, and believes in doing what’s right for that youth, and attempts to support the success of that child — just a positive, caring, just and loving relationship.

You have three days of special Foundation events June 25th to 27th in Atlanta including a Bowl-a-thon, a free football camp, your annual Leadership Conference, and your Scholarship Athlete Extravaganza. Tell us about the “Going Purple” theme.
We’re “going purple” this year because last year I had a bout with pancreatic cancer. I ended up having surgery and fortunately there were no traces of cancer afterwards, and I didn’t have to have chemo. Because of that blessing, we at the Foundation wanted to have a focus and intertwine it with everything else we do, to go purple this year in support of pancreatic cancer.

Last but not least, what are you doing for Fathers Day?
All of us get together and go out to eat and celebrate, it’s a tradition where all the kids come together, like on Mothers Day, and we have a good family time. We’re a very family oriented group of people.