Lions great Calvin Johnson elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame

Detroit News

Justin Rogers
 
| The Detroit News

Calvin Johnson is a Hall of Famer.

The former Detroit Lions star becomes just the seventh wide receiver to be enshrined his first year on the ballot, joining Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Steve Largent, Paul Warfield, Lance Alworth and Raymond Berry. 

Johnson, fighting back tears, was informed of his selection Saturday evening by David Baker, the president and CEO of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“The culmination of all the work, all the grind, all the ups and downs that you’ve been through, just to be able to excel at that level and be able to have the opportunity to be amongst such greats, honestly, I’m sleeping with a smile tonight,” Johnson said. 

Before Johnson even suited up in the NFL, the two-time All-American was already turning heads. At the scouting combine in 2007, the Georgia Tech standout measured in at 6-foot-5 and 239 pounds, then proceeded to run the 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds. That’s a blazing time at any size, let alone a receiver with Johnson’s supersized height-weight combination.

He didn’t participate in any of the other drills at the event. He didn’t have to. It was clear he was going to be special. 

Like most prospects at the combine, Johnson was asked if he could compare his game to another NFL player. His answer was a mix of Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, with Marvin Harrison’s workmanlike attitude. 

All three of those receivers have since been elected to the Hall of Fame. And, in hindsight, the lofty self-analysis turned out to be spot on. Johnson was a nearly unstoppable mismatch like Moss who possessed Owens’ versatility and Harrison’s quiet humility. 

The Lions drafted Johnson with the No. 2 pick in the 2007 draft. The move undoubtedly drew some eye rolls from the fan base, not because he wasn’t the best player available at the spot, but because general manager Matt Millen had comically spent top-10 picks on wide receivers three consecutive years, from 2003-05, with subpar results. 

But Johnson was too talented to let the trend continue, even if it wasn’t enough to save Millen, who was fired in the middle of the receiver’s second season. 

It was that year Johnson established himself as one of the game’s best receivers. After a decent rookie season, when he earned the nickname “Megatron” from teammate Roy Williams, Johnson caught 78 balls for 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2008. 

The Lions went winless that year, playing five quarterbacks in the process, but Johnson’s star power was solidified. The team would draft quarterback Matthew Stafford the following year and that tandem would go on to shatter dozens of franchise records over the next seven seasons. 

Even though Johnson played just nine seasons, and approximately 60 fewer games than the average Hall of Fame receiver, his name is plastered all over the team’s record book. He holds the single-game record for receptions (14) and receiving yards (329), the single-season mark for receiving yards (1,964), and tops the career charts for receptions (731), receiving yards (11,619) and receiving touchdowns (83). 

Johnson’s 1,964 yards in 2012 remain an NFL record, and among receivers with 200 or more career receptions, his 86.1 yards per game are second only to Julio Jones. 

For his efforts, Johnson racked up the accolades. He was selected to six consecutive Pro Bowls (2010-15), earned first-team All-Pro honors three times (2011-13) and was named to the league’s all-decade team for the 2010s. 

Of course, team success eluded Johnson. In his nine seasons, he only tasted the postseason twice, with both appearances ending with a quick exit in the wild-card round. 

In his playoff debut, Johnson dominated, catching 12 balls for 211 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-28 loss to the New Orleans Saints. Three years later, Johnson had 85 yards and no scores in the Lions’ 24-20 loss to Dallas. 

Toward the end of his career, injuries weighed heavily on Johnson. He underwent surgeries to address knee, ankle and finger injuries and considered retirement a year before he actually hung up the cleats. 

In his final season in 2015, Johnson put up 1,214 yards and nine touchdowns on 88 catches. And even though he clearly remained a problem for opposing defenses, Johnson’s heart was no longer into playing football. 

He officially retired on March 8, 2016. He exited through the side door without holding a final press conference, true to his long-standing preference to avoid the spotlight beyond what his play naturally commanded. 

Following his retirement, the Lions sought to reclaim a portion of Johnson’s signing bonus, ultimately recouping approximately $1 million and causing a rift between the player and franchise that still exists today. 

Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp and president Rod Wood have expressed hope in rebuilding that relationship, but as of last month, there had been no progress on that front.

“On behalf of the entire Detroit Lions organization, I’d like to congratulate Calvin Johnson on being named a first-ballot inductee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” Ford Hamp said. “Calvin is one of the best to ever wear a Lions uniform. …This is the highest individual honor in football, and it brings me great joy to know that Calvin Johnson’s legacy will forever be enshrined in Canton.”

Johnson becomes the 22nd Lions player to be selected to the Hall of Fame, joining a prestigious group that includes Barry Sanders, Lem Barney, Doak Walker, Bobby Layne and Joe Schmidt.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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