Houston Texans receiver is a major league giver

He’s a big jolly man with a bright red suit and a sleigh full of loot.

Santa Claus, you might be surprised to learn, lives in Houston.

In spending more than $16,000 for 12 disadvantaged children in his adopted hometown, Andre Johnson, the Houston Texans’ outstanding receiver, discovered that it’s as good to give as it is to receive.

"I don’t feel like Santa Claus, but I get a joy out of seeing those kids happy," Johnson said in a telephone interview. "You really see how much it means to them afterward.

"They come up and give you hugs, and a lot of them just can’t believe that they get a chance to go into the store and get what they want. A lot of those kids have been through so much that that day is probably a day they will never, ever forget."

Johnson is the best receiver you’ve never heard from.

He doesn’t have a touchdown dance or a radio show. He didn’t complain about coach Gary Kubiak or quarterback Matt Schaub after catching only two passes for 19 yards in Sunday’s 27-16 loss to the Oakland Raiders.

He isn’t a self-promoter.

Yet, Johnson leads the NFL with 1,427 receiving yards and is second in receptions with 105.

"And still to be absolutely without trouble," Texans owner Bob McNair said. "He’s just the model player. Everything you look at with him, it’s hard to find any area where you’d say, 'Gee, I’d like for him to do better in this area.’ He’s terrific."

It was almost two years ago, after Johnson signed an eight-year, $60 million extension, that he became Houston’s Santa Claus.

Stephanie Belton, a community development consultant, and Johnson’s uncle, Andre Melton, came up with A.J.’s Shopping Spree.

They joined forces with Child Protective Services, charging case workers with finding 12 of the "neediest of needy" children out of more than 11,000 in the CPS system in the Houston area.

The children, ages 8-16, were given 80 seconds — Johnson’s jersey number — to load a basket at a Toys "R" Us. With "game plans" in hand, the kids left with RipStik, drum sets, keyboards, bicycles, Ipods and Barbies as well as an electronic game system and a game of their choice, which they picked out beforehand.

"A lot of these children have never even been asked, 'What do you want for Christmas,’ let alone get anything they want," said Estella Olguin, a spokeswoman for CPS in Houston. "... They were 12 very lucky children, and I think they know how fortunate they are."

After the shopping spree, the kids were asked seven questions about Johnson: Where did he play college football? What is his hometown? Three made it to the final question: Why does Johnson wear No. 80?

Trey Washington, 11, raised his hand. He had seen a YouTube video of Jerry Rice, whose last NFL season was 2004, and noticed Rice wore No. 80.

Washington guessed Rice was the reason Johnson picked No. 80.

Washington was right, allowing him to load another $1,500 worth of toys for himself and his two younger sisters. Washington, a running back on his sixth-grade football team in Deer Park, called it his "best day ever."

"We’re now the biggest Andre Johnson fans you’d ever meet," said Tressia Finch, Washington’s grandmother. "He’s definitely my grandson’s Santa Claus this year. He is our Santa Claus, too, because my grandson also got gifts for his sisters."

Last week, Johnson was on his way to the Houston Galleria to do his personal Christmas shopping. Asked if he would spend more on his family — his mom, his brother, his girlfriend, his godson and his grandmother — than on the 12 kids he hadn’t met until last week, Johnson laughed.

"I seriously doubt it," he said.

Johnson put $12,000 on his credit card last Christmas, the first year of A.J.’s Shopping Spree. The bill was $4,000 more this year. It was the Christmas that Johnson never had as a kid.

"You never got everything you wanted," said Johnson, whose favorite gift as a kid was a Dan Marino replica uniform. "You had to get what your mom could afford. Some things you wanted, you never, ever got. But you couldn’t say Christmas was bad, because you did get something for Christmas.

"It just depended if family members had the money to get you what you wanted, or if they didn’t."

In Houston, Santa Claus wears cleats with his suit of red.