Megatron's Goodbye: Understanding Johnson's quiet retirement
Calvin Johnson Jr. retired from the NFL in the most Calvin Johnson way possible: by saying nothing for so long that people seemed to forget about him, and then by saying very little. For two months after he first acknowledged that he might retire, the receiver stayed quiet. There were no leaks, no anonymous sources, no teammates trying to keep the story going. His retirement went from unthinkable to inevitable, and when it finally happened, there was no press conference and no real explanation—just a statement that he didn’t tweet or post to Instagram or Facebook.
Think about that. Think of all your friends who can’t finish a bottle of ketchup without alerting the world on social media. Calvin Johnson just ended a potential Hall of Fame career and said nothing about it.
Well, there was that statement, posted on DetroitLions.com:
Let me begin by apologizing for making this announcement via a statement and not in person. While I truly respect the significance of this, those who know me best will understand and not be surprised that I choose not to have a press conference for this announcement ...
He said it was “not an easy or hasty decision,” but didn’t give any reason for why he made it. He thanked his teammates, said “it would be hard to name them all,” then named none of them.
He was polite. Respectful. And that’s about it.
By saying so little about retiring, Johnson told us so much about why he's doing it.
He did not play football for the money, for the fame, or for history. He did not even play to win or because the game was in his blood. He played for the reason a lot of people do their jobs: He found something he enjoyed that he did exceptionally well, and he applied the work ethic his parents had instilled in him. But with every season, his body broke down a little more—not as much as some NFL players, but too much for his own liking.
Maybe this is the easiest way to explain why he is retiring at the age of 30: Players tend to play football until it isn’t worth it to them to play anymore. Johnson just drew the line in a different place than most great players do. At Peyton Manning's retirement press conference on Monday, the quarterback fought back tears and spoke reverentially of the game, and you wonder if he will ever adapt to life after football. But I doubt Johnson will struggle to get football out of his system, because I don’t think football was ever really in his system, at least not in the same way it was for Manning or Jerry Rice, who lived and breathed it.
Johnson was just a normal guy with abnormal skills, and that confused people. At his best, he was one of the greatest ever. If I asked you to pick one receiver, at his peak, for one game, I think you would have to put him in the top five. But if you ranked him 17th, I suspect he would just shrug. One of his more appealing qualities, once you came to understand it, was that he was not trying to prove the world wrong. He just tried to honor his talent.
We are so accustomed to an agenda or an angle in this league. Johnson had none. He was just working. Yes, Johnson was reticent with the media. But he is not Marshawn Lynch, yin-yanging reporters for his own amusement. When Lynch retired, he tweeted a picture of cleats hanging up...but he did it during the Super Bowl. Lynch is a media manipulator in a recluse’s clothing.
Johnson is different. He would talk sometimes, and when he did, one-on-one conversations with him were enjoyable and fruitful. He's just private.
It would be easy to blame the Lions for his early retirement. When I was a columnist at the Detroit Free Press for seven years, I learned to blame the Lions for everything. It’s easy, it’s fun, and it works in a surprising variety of social settings. But in this case, it really doesn’t make sense.
If Johnson wanted to play football for somebody else, he could have asked for a trade. He could have offered to take a pay cut somewhere else. Heck, he might have gotten his wish simply by doing nothing: he had a 2016 cap hit of $24 million, so the Lions might have cut him if he wouldn’t renegotiate. I tried to imagine Johnson playing the “I deserve a chance to contend” card, and I got nowhere. That just isn’t him, in any way.
He specifically wrote in his statement that “I loved playing for Coach (Jim) Caldwell” and that's not just empty praise: He really did love playing for Caldwell, as most players do, and Caldwell's continued presence would have been a reason for Johnson to return, not retire. Johnson is also extremely fond of quarterback Matthew Stafford—that would have been another to return. There is simply no indication that playing for the Lions made Calvin Johnson so miserable that he had to retire.
When a player says so little, we tend to fill in the blanks in creative ways. But the correct answer is often the simplest one, especially with Johnson.
I think he liked football. I think he knows how good he was at it, and he is proud of it. I think he appreciates his fans but doesn’t need them to fawn over him.
I think he decided he will enjoy life more if he stops playing now. And I don’t think he cares whether we understand it or not, but I think I do understand. And I’m happy for him.