Justin Rogers | The Detroit News
In the five years since he’s retired, up until the announcement he’d been selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday evening, former wide receiver Calvin Johnson has had a strained relationship with his former team, the Detroit Lions.
But, for the first time in a while, there are signs that burned bridge could be rebuilt in the near future. Johnson, speaking on a conference call the morning after his Hall selection became public, said he’s recently spoken with Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp and the sides are making progress toward reconciliation.
“I really do hope it does,” Johnson said about the two sides coming back together. “I know that myself and Sheila have had some great conversations recently. It’s been good to get to know her and just really sit down and have those face-to-face conversations. So I think that we’re moving in the right direction, yeah.”
The rift was caused after the Lions reclaimed a portion of Johnson’s signing bonus following his retirement in 2016. Franchises hold that option, and the benefit is the money can be applied to a future salary cap, but the obvious risk is resentment. The Lions had a similar issue with Barry Sanders after he retired in 1999. That played a role in that fractured relationship, which lasted more than a decade.
Other teams, such as the Indianapolis Colts with quarterback Andrew Luck, make no effort to reclaim bonus money.
As recently as last month, there hadn’t been any progress with Johnson’s situation. Both team president Rood Wood and Ford Hamp were asked about it ahead of the receiver’s potential enshrinement.
“Well, I’m not going to go into the money issue, but I hope we can repair things with Calvin Johnson,” Ford Hamp said in January. “He was obviously an amazing player for us. We’re going to continue to reach out to him and hope that we can repair things because I think it’s important that he comes back into the Lions family. We’d love if he could, if he will. We are 100% behind him for his Hall of Fame ballot and hope he gets it this time. He was a great, great player and a terrific person and we’d love to have him back with us and working with us and helping us with everything.”
As for Johnson, he appeared on the NFL Network podcast “Hustle and Flow” last month and shared his continued frustrations with the Lions.
“There hasn’t really been too much communication with Detroit,” Johnson said. “I mean, every time I go on any kind of anything public, I get asked the question. And it’s simple. It’s like, yeah, it’s hard for me to do anything for anyone that takes anything from me, you know? So I feel like after everything I did for the organization, that shouldn’t have even been a thought, honestly. I would have happily been there to fulfill my duty to participate and give back to the receivers or however they want me to help — just the organization as a whole.”
Throughout the rift, Johnson has continued to be publicly supportive of his former teammates. He even joined a Zoom call with Detroit’s receivers last year at the request of former position coach Robert Prince.
But when it’s come to public appearances those have been reserved for other teams. He even worked with the Dolphins and Raiders receivers during those teams’ respective training camps in recent years.
If Ford Hamp and Johnson are able to reach a compromise, it would allow for the retired receiver to start making appearances on behalf of the Lions once again, ahead of his enshrinement this summer.