It sounds as if they’ll remain silent partners next month, and for the foreseeable future. Calvin Johnson will enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton on Aug. 8, but the greatest receiver in Detroit Lions history will do so with a painfully familiar catch.
Much like Hall of Famer Barry Sanders did when he was inducted back in 2004, Johnson may thank just about everyone but the franchise to which he remains estranged.
Five years after his retirement and still bitter about a petty contractual grievance, among other things — the Lions asked Johnson to repay a prorated portion of his signing bonus in 2016 — the first-ballot Hall of Famer isn’t spending much time thinking about his former team.
“It only matters really, I guess, when you talk about it lining up with the Hall of Fame, just because you’re talking football,” Johnson said Friday, when I asked him whether he and the Lions were any closer to a formal reconciliation. “Or when I have just somebody on the street just wanting to talk about it. But for me, I’m five years out now. I’m not wasting any time waiting on them.”
Nor does it appear he’ll waste much time talking about the Lions in his speech in a couple weeks, despite recent comments from both Johnson and Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp, who officially assumed the top leadership role from her mother, Martha Firestone Ford, last year, that suggested an icy relationship was beginning to thaw.
With a jam-packed Hall of Fame weekend scheduled — the seven-member 2021 class will be joined by last year’s 20-member centennial group that had its ceremony postponed by the pandemic — inductees have been asked to limit their speeches to 8 minutes. Johnson, one of three first-ballot honorees this year with Peyton Manning and Charles Woodson, says his currently runs about nine minutes as he rehearses it, “so I’m gonna have to cut some stuff out.” The Lions already may be on the cutting floor, however.
“Man, I want to answer this question so bad, but I’m like, ‘Should I answer it?’” Johnson said with a laugh Friday. “I’m definitely gonna bring up all the people I’m thankful for. There’s so many people and moments during my career that had an impact … But for the Lions, hey, like I said, ‘I ain’t got nothing to say.’”
As for what he’ll say if he sees Lions’ representatives in Canton next month, specifically team president Rod Wood, who was relatively new in that role when he made the request for repayment — a request the team had every right to make, legally, even if it felt wrong — Johnson shrugged.
“I’m sure I’m gonna run into them, but you know me, I keep it short,” said Johnson, only the seventh first-ballot receiver to enter the Hall despite the fact he played for only two winning teams in his nine-year NFL career. “I keep it moving. Go about my business. I’ll put it like this: I’m not gonna be able to see my family a whole lot during this whole weekend, so I’m gonna be looking forward to seeing them whenever I get a chance to. If I pass Rod Wood, I’m keeping moving.”
Everybody probably should at this point, I suppose, though Hamp has insisted the Lions still want to find a way to bring Megatron — a fan favorite and electrifying talent whose NFL career mirrored Sanders’ in so many ways — back into the fold.
“I hope we can repair things with Calvin Johnson,” Hamp said earlier this winter. “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.”
But that he hasn’t yet — “It’s kind of been standstill there,” Johnson said Friday — is another example of the Lions’ history of failure, no matter which side of the ledger you want to place the blame for this mess.
When Sanders entered the Hall in 2004, he thanked the fans in Detroit, and the city itself. He gushed about some of his former teammates — Kevin Glover, Lomas Brown, Jerry Ball — and praised his old coach, Wayne Fontes. But he didn’t mention the Lions, or the Ford Family, whom he’d left in the lurch with his retirement on the eve of training camp back in 1999.
Sanders also had been forced to give back two-thirds of his $11 million signing bonus — he’d signed a six-year, $36-million deal in July 1997 — after an arbitrator ruled in the Lions’ favor following the running back’s retirement.
It took more than a decade, but the Lions finally found a way to bring Sanders back in a formal role — as a paid “brand ambassador” who makes official appearances for the team at various events and games.
With Johnson, though, the wait continues. And as the Hall beckons once again for one of Detroit’s football icons, we’ll all be reminded of what the Lions are missing.