The last time I talked with Calvin Johnson, he was at a Detroit recreation center with Matthew Stafford and they were teasing with some young kids.
“Man,” one of the kids said, looking up at Johnson’s 6-foot-5 frame, “why didn’t you catch that pass the last game?”
Johnson burst out laughing.
“I can’t catch all of them,” he said.
And you can’t play forever. Johnson looked at peace that day, near the end of what we now know was his last season as a pro football player, and watching him joke about a rare failure, I was reminded this was a unique personality inside an extraordinarily talented body. Nobody knows if it was the personality or the body that made him say good-bye.
And both will be missed.
“I have played my last game of football,” Johnson said Tuesday, in a released statement that thanked teammates, fans, ownership and coaches. “… I have the utmost respect and admiration for the game. …
“My biggest regret is that I wasn’t able to help give our fans a championship.”
And that, of course, is fans’ biggest regret as well. I know what many of you are thinking. Twice? This happened twice? First Barry Sanders, arguably the best running back of his generation, walks away from the Lions at 31? And now Johnson, considered by many to be the league’s best receiver over the last half dozen seasons, walks away at 30?
Twice? Really? Twice?
But not for the same reasons.
A humble farewell
Barry Sanders, to my observation, was never totally into the game. He just happened to be fantastic at it. He made it through an NFL decade, didn’t suffer a major injury, saw the team wasn’t going to win any time soon and walked off.
Johnson, I believe, was more passionate about football. But like Sanders, he was also smart. He got nicked a lot more than Barry, hurt his knee and ankle, missed some games and parts of others, and, given his position and long, lanky body, was likely to get injured again. He also earned more than three times as much money (more than $100 million) as Sanders in even less time — so finances were not an issue.
But I don’t think it was the losing that drove Johnson off. He plays in a different NFL than Sanders, where teams can catapult quickly. Two seasons ago, the Lions were 11-5. With a new GM, they might easily put together a playoff team this year. Johnson could see that.
Besides, if he only wanted to win, he could have engineered a release or a trade to another team. His cap hit made him almost as desirable to move as to keep.
Instead, typical of his top-drawer career, he filed his retirement papers with the NFL and went out with a humble, grateful statement and a collection of equally grateful farewells from his organization.
“As great as a player as Calvin is, he is a better person,” said Rod Wood, the Lions’ president.
“He also set a standard of professionalism that everyone in the NFL respected and greatly appreciated,” added general manager Bob Quinn.
“I am convinced that God has not put a finer person on this Earth,” said coach Jim Caldwell, “than Calvin Johnson.”
And those aren’t even his teammates!
One of the great ones
He leaves the game the most decorated receiver in Lions history, with all the major franchise records and a satchel full of NFL marks as well, including most yards ever by a receiver in a single season, 1,964 yards in 2012 — a season in which the Lions won only four games. When you think about how little time an offense gets when the team is 4-12, that’s an astonishing number.
So is 329, the number of yards he had in a single game against Dallas in 2013.
So is seven 1,000-yard seasons, or six Pro Bowls in nine years.
But when you put all those numbers on one side of the scale, they are balanced by the respect and admiration that Johnson commanded in the NFL. “Megatron” wasn’t just a nickname the Lions used, it was one other players said in awe, shaking their heads. And in a league where jealousy and sniping are more the norm, how many players can you name who never made an enemy, never drew nasty comments, never made a headline that he was ashamed of and never gave management even a split second of worry?
He will be remembered mostly for long stretching catches, for strides that seemed to gallop up 10 yards at a time, for the ability to find a ball between two or three defenders, and for occasionally changing the rules of football thanks to some gravity defying catches. Some will also tinge their memories with frustration — frustration that he was not always able to affect a game, not always thrown to enough, not always able to outrun pursuers, not always able to stay healthy, particularly on landings.
But you never took your eye off of him. Not if you were a fan — and especially not if you were a defender. In all the ways the Lions will miss him, the double coverage he regularly drew may be the most apparent. You want to know the immediate effect of Calvin Johnson’s retirement? Every other receiver on the Lions just saw the job get a lot tougher.
So did Matthew Stafford.
“I am confident that our fans will soon be rewarded with the championship you deserve,” Johnson said.
Not as soon as it might have come with him. And that’s what hurts.
It is what it is. As Johnson himself said that day with those kids, you can’t catch them all. And you can’t play forever. This is a day of appreciation and frustration, of reverence and annoyance, of slapping a back and banging your head — at least if you’re a Lions fan.
“I loved playing in Detroit and will forever be a Lion …” Johnson said, in closing his statement. “From the bottom of my heart, I thank you all for everything.”
What else is there to say — once you get done kicking the wall — but right back at you, Calvin.