Dave Birkett | Detroit Free Press
It was shortly after 8 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 22, when Calvin Johnson saw the silhouette of a hulking figure outside his Birmingham home.
Johnson had just finished a call with business associates and was on a semi-regular FaceTime with family members when there was a knock at his front door.
Johnson’s wife, Brittney, asked Calvin to answer the door; she was expecting her friend, Mel, she said. But when the former Detroit Lions wide receiver looked outside, he could tell this was no Mel.
“I see this big figure through the glass and I’m like, ‘That’s not your friend,'” Johnson said Sunday. “So me, I’m just like, ‘OK, do I need to get my shotgun or what’s going on?’ Cause I see a bunch of people outside my door. And she’s like, ‘Just go answer the dang door.’ And I’m like, ‘All right, all right, all right.’ I go answer the door, I peak around and it took about 2 seconds for it to sink in. And my hair just raised up.”
Pro Football Hall of Fame president David Baker surprised Johnson that night with news he was one of eight members of this year’s enshrinement class.
Johnson had been elected to Canton three days earlier, during a nine-hour Zoom meeting of the Hall’s 48 selectors, and Baker was in the midst of a cross-country “door knock” tour to let the eight members of this year’s class know they got in.
Typically, Hall-of-Fame voting takes place the day before the Super Bowl, in a hotel conference room in the host city of the game.
All 15 modern-era finalists wait in nearby hotel rooms for either a call from Baker to let them know they were not elected, or a knock on their door with the good news they got in.
COVID-19 protocols made that impossible this year, so Baker and his colleagues came up with creative ways to let the enshrinees know in person.
With the help of Johnson’s wife, who was in on the news, and former Detroit Lions public relations maven Bill Keenist, Baker gave Johnson the surprise of his life.
Keenist and Brittney Johnson coordinated a time the family would be home that Friday evening, as Baker flew in from Denver, where he had just let Peyton Manning know he was a member of the 2021 class.
Keenist, trying to be discreet, spent about 45 minutes parked a block away from Johnson’s home, awaiting Baker’s arrival and texting Brittney updates on the traveling party’s whereabouts.
Baker and his film crew — the Hall of Fame’s “Knock on the Door” show, with footage of Baker revealing the news to all eight members of this year’s class, airs 8 p.m. Thursday on NFL Network — parked down the street from Keenist, and together the group crept through Johnson’s neighborhood.
When Johnson answered the door, in basketball shorts, a T-shirt and his bare feet, Baker greeted him with, “David Baker from the Hall of Fame … am I disturbing you?” as Johnson welled up with joy and his family watched on FaceTime.
“I made him come outside cause according to NFL protocols, we can’t go inside,” Baker said. “But we got a jacket with him pretty quick. But it was wonderful. What I love about this … again, what we want all the fans to see is their heart. It is all about their journey. And we’re going to keep their legacy alive forever in Canton, Ohio, but at that moment, is about all the people that helped them get there, all the adversity that they overcame.”
Keenist said the moment “was indescribably emotional and memorable … one of the best things I’ve ever been involved with.”
“Once he realized, the smile on his face was priceless and it was, like I keep saying, magical,” Keenist said. “But it was. It was magical. And it was Calvin, just all the humility he’s always shown and the grace and the style. It was all him.”
Johnson, the best receiver in Lions receiver, kept the news mostly secret for 15 days, until Saturday’s announcement.
He said he told a few of his former offensive lineman, “We did it,” early Saturday, and Baker said Johnson shed more tears when the class was announced later that day at the NFL Honors show.
“We all put in on this and we’re all here together,” Johnson said of his former teammates. “And those guys really appreciated that.”
Johnson said he is leaning toward having his old team chaplain at Georgia Tech, Derrick Moore, present him at the enshrinement ceremony Aug. 8.
His feud with the Lions over the money he repaid the team when he retired could be resolved by then, and the weekend will have a distinct Lions flavor. Former Lions defensive lineman Alex Karras, who was elected as part of last year’s centennial class, will be enshrined Aug. 7 as part of a super-sized Hall-of-Fame weekend.
When Baker left Birmingham that Friday night, he said Johnson, just the seventh receiver elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, asked if he was headed back to Canton.
Baker said he had to go knock on some more doors, to which Johnson responded, “Oh, you’re going to go collect some more tears.”
“To be a member of this excellent fraternity, to be a member of the guys that I grew up watching, to be alongside of the guys that I emulated my game after, to say, ‘Hey, I did this because of you. I saw you do this.’ To be able to meet those guys and have conversations with those guys, to learn more about what the game was like when they played, I had the fortune of … having great conversations with the Hall-of-Famer Charlie Sanders, so I can only imagine with all the guys in the room, all the great stories that are there to be told,” Johnson said. “So just to be amongst such a great group of guys and the excellence and to be the best of the game, truly an honor. I’m still beside myself.”