Calvin Johnson heads into the sunset like other great players who toiled for the Detroit Lions.
On the morning of his induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he still hasn’t committed to even mentioning the team he played for his entire career. The money he had to pay back upon his unexpected retirement remains a splinter in his eye, and he refuses to forgive and he refuses to forget.
So instead of an unbridled celebration of a Lion being recognized as one of the greatest to ever play the game — and that does not happen often — we get a guy who gave his all to this franchise, but in the end, didn’t want to anymore.
If this seems a familiar career summation, it’s because the greatest trio of skill players the Lions ever had have now all followed that same pattern.
Barry Sanders was the best running back in Detroit history, but he walked away rather than continue in a Lions uniform. Matthew Stafford was the best quarterback to ever pull on a Detroit jersey, but he finally said, “no mas” and asked to be traded.
Johnson, the best receiver the Lions ever employed — it’s not even close — originally claimed to be leaving because his body couldn’t take it anymore. But since then, he has told people he felt stuck in Detroit, saw no chance of winning a championship, and now wants nothing to do with them in a silly spat over a $1.6 million payback they legally — if not so intelligently — demanded.
Let’s face it. The Lions are bad at a lot of things. But they’re really bad at breakups.
The toll of a great talent
But OK. On a Hall of Fame morning, you usually talk about one thing: how the player played. In Johnson’s case, it must be two things. How he played. And how he left.
On the former: I believe I saw every game Johnson participated in during his nine seasons from 2007 to 2015, many of them in person. I can attest that he was a physical phenomenon, taller than almost anyone at his job, with a sprinter’s form and a combatant’s determination.
He was fast. He was precise. He could come down with any ball over any defender, or two defenders. But he often landed awkwardly, given his size, and those landings probably did the most damage to his body.
Only four seasons in his career did Johnson start every game, including, surprisingly, the final one. By that point, he was skipping certain practices during the week, saving what he had for game time. He was often in pain and frequently hobbled; everything from his ankles to his fingers to his shoulders had been bruised, strained, torn or extended. The tackles, the contact and the double teams had worn him to a frazzle.
“I was gonna retire after my eighth season,” Johnson told the media in a conference call a few weeks ago. “I didn’t want to be out there. That last season … I’d be out there before games like, “Dude, I do not want to play today. I don’t feel it.’
“There was one game in my last season where we went down to play the Rams. … I had one catch that game. But it’s a direct reflection of my attitude going into that game … I did not want to be there.
“That’s not a way you want to be playing in the NFL. That’s how you get hurt even more.”
To hear that, you’d believe what Johnson said the day he announced his retirement five years ago, when he was still just 30 years old: that his body couldn’t take it. That after 135 games, 731 catches, nearly 12,000 yards and 83 touchdowns, the Megatron had been unplugged.
But then came a news conference in Italy a year later. He said things like “I was stuck in my contract in Detroit” and “for the work I was putting in, it wasn’t worth my time to keep on beating my head against the wall. … It’s the definition of insanity.”
That made people wonder. Since then, his dispute with the Lions over money has become front burner. For those of you new to this tempest, here it is: Johnson earned around $114 million in his career. Three years before he retired, he signed a new eight-year deal worth $132 million.
He never saw the end of it. He stepped away in 2015. At the time he said, “I loved playing in Detroit and will forever be a Lion.” But once the Lions reportedly asked for some of the signing bonus back — which they are legally entitled to if a player retires — things got frosty fast.
The amount in question is $1.6 million, which won’t change the lives of Johnson or the Lions in the slightest. But it is a wedge that Johnson grips tightly. Even a recent Detroit offer to pay him that money back by hiring him as an ambassador — which would reportedly give him $500,000 a year for 28 hours of work — was rejected by Johnson.
“They’re not serious,” he told the Free Press.
So in addition to holding onto a football, Johnson can really hold a grudge.
Can bygones be bygones?
This is a shame, a gray shadow over what should be direct sunlight on Johnson’s career and memorable performances. There was the stunning 329-yard game against Dallas — the second-highest yardage by a receiver in NFL history — and the come from behind win in Oakland where he caught nine passes for 214 yards, including the winning touchdown in the final minute. There were the 211 yards on 12 catches he racked up in the playoff game against New Orleans — one of only two postseason appearances Johnson made — and the Monday Night Football showcase in 2014 where he raced a 67-yard reception to the end zone and led a rare Detroit romp over the New York Giants before a national TV audience.
Because the Lions won so little, all of Johnson’s highlights were plays, not titles. But man, what plays. On any given snap, Johnson could leap over a defender. Or thread between two of them. Or catch a slant pass in mid-stride and take off, those long legs chewing up the turf. Stafford once said he knew he was “throwing to a future Hall of Famer” early on.
But even early on, Johnson paid a price. He hurt his back making a grab over two defenders in just the third game of his career, and the pain never left all season. As a rookie, he was swallowing Vicodin just to keep playing.
His second year, the Lions went 0-16, which cost him awards recognition. Things improved when Stafford was drafted in 2009, and by 2010, Johnson made his first Pro Bowl. He would make one every year until he retired.
He was always a genial guy, quiet, intelligent, professional. Because he quit when he was 30, he is also one of the youngest players to enter the Hall of Fame. Perhaps that youth is what’s keeping the fence from being mended with the Lions. Perhaps, as he ages, Johnson will realize that a money dispute isn’t worth strained relations with the only team you ever played for. It isn’t worth not coming back to Ford Field, not being a part of future Lions events, not feeling the love from the fans.
“I have nothing but admiration for him,” Lions president Rod Wood recently told the Free Press, and it’s clear Detroit’s ownership would like to work out something to get Johnson back in the fold.
But when Johnson was asked about seeing the Lions brass this weekend at the HOF ceremonies, he said, “I’m sure I’m going to run into them … but you know me, I’m gonna keep it short. I’ll keep moving. Go about my business.”
The business part of this is over, Calvin. Only memories and reputation remain. If you really make a speech without mentioning, crediting or acknowledging the Lions, you’ll affect those memories and reputation forever.
Hopefully, that doesn’t happen. Hopefully, in the rush of the moment, Johnson will change his mind and soften his heart. After losing their best running back, quarterback and wide receiver — all before their playing days needed to end — this franchise could use a stroke of kindness. Even if it means forgetting something annoying and painful.
In that way, Calvin Johnson, Hall of Famer, can be just like the Detroit fans he once thrilled. We have to do that all the time.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.