This story appears in the Sept. 23, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Of course Calvin Johnson didn’t need the money. He made so much that he doesn’t even know the exact amount the Lions made him repay when he retired in March 2016. “One point six [million] or something like that,” he guesses of the returned, prorated portion of his signing bonus. But the Lions didn’t need it either. And that is his point. You may see a squabble between a millionaire employee and a billion-dollar business. Johnson sees confirmation that he played for a backward organization, in a league that demands more heart than it shows.
Detroit’s asking for the money back “wasn’t no killer,” the four-time All-Pro receiver says, “but at the end of the day, you don’t do that to your best players.”
Johnson, 33, serves this dish without any salt. He does not sound angry. His ego has not been pricked. He is not out for revenge. He isn’t even trying to get the money back. “I don’t care. I really don’t,” he says. “If they do [pay back the bonus], great, I put some more money in my pocket. But either way, I’m not trippin’.”
Johnson has been described as humble, but he says he was the best receiver in the league. He has been called publicity-shy, but he has appeared on Dancing With the Stars. He is actually something so rare that we don’t even recognize it: a superstar without pretense.
He sees clearly and speaks plainly. He “won’t step foot in anything Lions-related” unless he gets his money back, but he isn’t bitter. He is sure he suffered at least nine concussions in the NFL, one for every season—a “super conservative” estimate, he says—but that’s not why he retired in his prime, at 30. If the team had been better he probably would have kept playing, but he is glad he left. He smoked pot after every game, to heal, but that’s not why he’s getting into the cannabis business. The 6'5", 237-pound receiver they called Megatron does not need a megaphone. Only a man who doesn’t need the NFL can tell you what it’s really like.
Johnson wades through the memorabilia room in his Birmingham, Mich., house. He doesn’t know what’s in it. He and his wife, Brittney, use it mostly for storage; it’s filled with cardboard boxes and a car seat for their one-year-old, C.J., and the football cards Calvin collected as a kid. His mom put a bunch of stuff on some shelves. He can’t explain the meaning of certain photos. He knows his Biletnikoff Trophy, which he won at Georgia Tech as college football’s top receiver in 2006, is down in Atlanta, where the oldest of his two kids, Caleb, lives and where Calvin owns a home. This stuff is just here, remnants of his first job.
He excelled at that job, but his employer kept failing. The Lions did not win a playoff game in his nine years. Their ineptitude was comical, unless you cared. One coach hired his son-in-law to be defensive coordinator. A general manager decided on draft night to use a first-round pick on a player he didn’t even want. Veterans would join Detroit and tell Johnson about everything the team did wrong. Eventually he started to notice himself. The front office and coaching staff were rarely aligned. The massage therapist who was there on Fridays and Mondays would be gone the next year. Stuff like that.
Here is a story. In Johnson’s second year, quarterback Jon Kitna said—well, take it away, Calvin: “He left the meeting room one day, and he told the coaches and the whole team that we’re not gonna win a game if we go into the season with [this] system. Somebody should have listened. Because we were 0–16 after that.”
That year, Johnson says, “plenty of guys on the team [said], ‘I don’t know if I want to play football anymore.’ ”
Ah, but Johnson was young. He believed. His next position coach, Shawn Jefferson, asked if he wanted to be truly great, and Johnson said yes, and so Jefferson coached the hell out of him. Johnson calls Jefferson the best receivers coach “I’ve seen in the league.” In 2012, Jefferson helped Johnson break Jerry Rice’s single-season receiving yards record, with 1,964.
That offseason coach Jim Schwartz decided not to renew Jefferson’s contract. “Maybe there’s egos that play [into it],” Johnson says. “I think that was part of it.”
Did he question the organization’s commitment to winning? “Of course. I can say that. And I say it more confidently after I left and saw the way other teams operate.”
Johnson was a highly paid member of a clown show, and he is nobody’s clown. He became the ideal NFL player in the least ideal NFL environment. But he paid for it. The year he broke Rice’s record, he injured a foot, an ankle and both knees. One finger was bent at a 90-degree angle. He says the training staff told him to get it fixed after he retired.
“It’s not about the welfare of the players,” says Johnson, who in his career missed just nine games. It’s “just about having that product.”
He does not think the Lions were different from many teams in that regard. He learned to deal, with the pot on Sunday nights and the work ethic his parents instilled.
“When I got to the league, [there] was opioid abuse,” Johnson says. “You really could go in the training room and get what you wanted. I can get Vicodin, I can get Oxy[contin]. It was too available. I used Percocet and stuff like that. And I did not like the way that made me feel. I had my preferred choice of medicine. Cannabis.”
He got used to concussions. “Bam, hit the ground real hard. I’m seeing stars; I can’t see straight,” he says. “But I know in a couple minutes I’m gonna be fine. Because I’ve done that plenty of times before.” In 2012 he told reporters he suffered one against the Vikings. The Lions said (and maintain) that he passed their concussion protocol, and Johnson later apologized: “I misused the terms nerve damage and concussion.” But he says now, “I knew I was concussed because I blacked out. I wasn’t seeing straight. And they wanted me to change my story.” Mostly, he says, he played through concussions because in his NFL that’s how you earn Employee of the Month.
Now ask yourself: When he retired—after just nine seasons, just 30 years old—did he leave too early? Or too late?
In 2012, Johnson signed a $132 million extension ($60 million guaranteed), promising his services through the 2019 season for substantial compensation. There is no disputing that Detroit had a right to ask for a portion of his signing bonus back. And Johnson paid it. But NFL contracts are not like normal employment contracts. Players get traded, shipped across the country. They get released. If the Lions had dealt Johnson, they would have had to eat the signing bonus. If he had said he was retiring for medical reasons, there’s a good chance he would have been paid.
Johnson took note when the Colts told quarterback Andrew Luck, upon his retirement last month, to keep the rest of his $32 million signing bonus. Indianapolis may have done that partly in the hope that Luck returns someday. But that team’s ownership also seems to understand that Luck played as long as he could bring himself to play.
Johnson says he almost retired after his eighth season, but his father told him he sounded unsure, so he kept playing. He knew the next year would be his last, such was his constant pain. He loved his coach, Jim Caldwell, but he’d seen good players leave and seen dysfunction rule.
Would he have played longer if the Lions had won more? “I think there is a very strong possibility.” He retired at 30. Barry Sanders, too, retired from the Lions at 30. Asked if this is a coincidence, Johnson says, “Not really.”
If this is business, Johnson figures, don’t pretend it’s anything else. Lions president Rod Wood has said publicly that reconnecting with Johnson is “a very high priority” and that he was in contact with the former wideout. But Johnson says they talked only once, when Johnson called the team to get some information for his accountant.
Johnson has told current Lions coach Matt Patricia that he will work with Detroit’s receivers—but not at the team’s practice facility. He has friends in the organization. Quarterback Matthew Stafford is his buddy. And yet... “I wouldn’t necessarily say I cheer for the Lions,” Johnson says. “I cheer for the players.”
He understands that by leaving early he abandoned some dreams. A Super Bowl ring. All-time records. Perhaps the Hall of Fame. But awards are compliments, that’s all. If he makes the Hall—if he gets that compliment—“that’d be cool.” If not, that’s fine too. He will not spend five years waiting for somebody to knock on his hotel room door in Canton to compliment him. “I don’t expect to get in on the first ballot,” he says. “But I do expect to get in eventually. I got 11,000 yards—but if that’s not enough, it’s not enough. If I don’t make it, I’m not gonna stop living life.” (Johnson’s 11,619 total yards rank 30th all-time; among retired players, his 86.1 yards per game ranks first.)
If he doesn’t get in, will he wish he played a little longer?
“No, I won’t,” he says. “I won’t think about it at all.”
The only approval Calvin Johnson needs is in the memorabilia room in his head: “I was a beast during that time; I was hands down the best receiver in the game. I’m not gonna argue with you, but I know I was.”
He holds up a pair of blue Nike cleats. He loved those shoes. He wore them for his last game. At halftime he was ordered to change into white ones. The NFL can control what’s on your feet until the moment you walk away.
Now Johnson lives in a beautiful, tastefully appointed nonmansion in suburban Detroit, a short walk from a lake. Twice a month he flies to Atlanta with Brittney and C.J. to spend the weekend with Caleb. He invests in real estate. His foundation awards scholarships to student-athletes in Atlanta and Detroit. He has two primary businesses: Locker Room Consulting, which helps players prepare for life after sports; and Primitive, the cannabis company he cofounded with former teammate Rob Sims.
He loves running his football camp, but he barely pays attention to the NFL. He plays golf. He goes snowboarding—and, yes, heads turn when a 6'5" black guy flies down the slopes of Utah. He doesn’t care, though. Gawk at him, or don’t. Remember how great he was, or don’t. Pay him back, or don’t. It’s all fine. His teams went 54–90 in his career, but Calvin Johnson won.
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