Q: Do you have a goal to be the best receiver ever?
A: Yeah. No doubt.
That was the question I put to Calvin Johnson three years and seven weeks ago. Now here he is, 30 years old and coming off an 88-catch, 1,214-yard season and ... strongly considering retirement.
It's shocking, unless you know Calvin Johnson. Then it's not even a bit surprising. Men play pro football for many reasons: to build a better life for their family, to become famous, to win a ring, to make history, to buy a Bentley to drive when their Lamborghini is in the shop. Some are adrenaline junkies, others are addicted to winning, and many are drawn to the sport's sanctioned violence.
February 8, 2016
Johnson played football because he was really good at it. At 6'5" and 237 pounds, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds. Nobody could cover him. He wanted to be the best receiver ever, but not because of the adulation it would bring and not to prove a point. He just knew that he could.
After a productive rookie season—756 yards in 2007 for the mediocre Lions—Johnson realized he was coasting. This was not how he was raised. Johnson's father, Calvin Sr., was a freight-train conductor for Norfolk Southern Railway. Calvin Sr. kept working for years after his son became a multimillionaire, and it wasn't to get in some freight-conductor Hall of Fame.
Calvin Johnson Sr. believed in an honest day's work, and his son put in a whole bunch of them. He mastered his routes, refined his skills and made some of the most difficult catches in history.
Calvin Jr. never cared about the global-icon bit—he is a reluctant interviewee, recoils at self-promotion, and though he did some commercials, his heart was never in the endorsement game. (He says he donated his endorsement income to his foundation for at-risk youth.) When he was younger, he would look at LeBron James and think, I'm like him. "People on TV were watching LeBron, like, 'Does he know if he drives to the hole every time, he is going to get fouled or he is going to make the bucket?'" Johnson says. "It was kind of like that with me."
Johnson decided he should have at least 100 receiving yards in every game because "it's easy for me to do that. That's the minimum." He was not bragging. He would chastise himself when he fell short. His former teammate and fellow wideout Roy Williams dubbed him Megatron, but Johnson never fell for the myth that football made him some kind of superhero. This was his job.
Before the 2012 season Johnson told SI that a 2,000-yard receiving season was "definitely possible." Jerry Rice set the NFL record of 1,848 in 1995. Johnson finished the '12 season with 1,964, the equivalent of Babe Ruth's called shot. He was proud but not impressed. He thought he could have had more.
That record-breaking performance was the peak of Megatron. He played through an injured foot, an injured ankle and an injured knee that season, and on the day he acknowledged that he hoped to be the best ever, he looked at his fingers and surveyed the damage: "This one won't straighten out ... this one hurts to catch ... this one's messed up. This one's coming back—this one was real swollen, this is getting better, though.... "
Johnson is tough, but he is also smart, and he knew the game that made him rich was exacting a price. He could keep going. He could try to set more records and win a Super Bowl and ensure his place in the Hall of Fame, but those are just things we tell him he should want.
He has been Megatron for a while now, but he has been Calvin Johnson Jr. for his whole life. He did Calvin Johnson Sr. proud. That's probably enough for him, no matter what we think.
Retiring at age 30 after yet another productive season? It's shocking, unless you know Calvin Johnson. Then it's not even a bit surprising.
Where does Johnson rank among the all-time greats?
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