Detroit Lions leaving Calvin Johnson with one final injury that just won’t heal

Detroit Free Press

At this point, I feel like a broken record. But I’m going to say this one more time, I’m going to make this plea one more time, because time is running out.

To Detroit Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp, to the entire Ford family, to team president Rod Wood, to all the beancounters in the organization, I have this message: Pay Calvin Johnson.

Pay him right now.

Pay him the entire $1.6 million you asked him to repay when he retired “early” — even though he gave you an extra year his body no longer had in it.

Pay him in installments. Pay him in Ford Broncos. Pay him in Dogecoin. But just pay the man.

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Because this isn’t about money at all. It’s about respect. And about doing what’s right, before Johnson gets inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in two weeks.

I’m not trying to blame the Lions or make them the bad guys. I’m just talking about making things right between the Lions and Johnson. Frankly, it’s ridiculous for an organization that hasn’t had much to celebrate for more than the past 60 years to miss out on celebrating one of its finest players.

Barry Sanders recently told me he expected a large contingent from the Lions to attend the enshrinement celebration and ceremonies. So I asked Johnson on Friday if anticipated any awkwardness if he runs into the Ford family or Wood.

“I’m sure I’m going to run into them,” he said. “But you know me, I keep it short, I’m going to keep it moving, go about my business.

“I’ll put it like this. I’m not going to be able to see my family a whole lot during this whole weekend, so I’m going to be looking forward to seeing them whenever I get a chance to. So if I pass Rod Wood, I’m going to keep moving.”

Ouch.

But kudos to Johnson for keeping it real. When Johnson told the Lions he was retiring after his ninth season, in 2015, it was Wood who asked Johnson if he had earned his full bonus. It’s understandable that Johnson most directly associates Wood with the lack of organizational respect he feels. To her credit, Hamp recently has made overtures to win back Johnson.

But she and the Lions are almost out of time because there’s a chance — probably a good one — that Johnson won’t mention the Lions organization when he gives his 8-minute enshrinement speech Aug. 8 in Canton, Ohio. The same situation played out 17 years earlier in Canton with Sanders; he didn’t mention the Lions during his enshrinement speech on Aug. 8, 2004, because he was at odds with the Lions over paying back bonus money.

I asked Johnson if he planned to thank the Lions’ organization in his speech.

“Man, I want to add this question so bad,” Johnson said, “but I’m like, ‘should I answer it?’ ”

 “Yes,” I interrupted, “please.”

“I’m definitely going to bring up all the people that I’m thankful for,” he said. “There’s so many people and moments during my career that had an impact and those specific people I’m going to try to get them, at least I’ll have them on the ticker but I’m not going to be able to mention everybody. You know, John (Niyo) and Carlos, you guys had a part in that, too. Y’all kept me on my toes asking me all these dang questions every week.”

(See that, Lions fans? I made Megatron great! And if you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn for sale.)

Then Johnson hemmed and a hawed a bit before he said: “For the Lions, hey. Like I say, I ain’t got nothing to say.”

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Funny, because it sure sounded like he spoke volumes.

I didn’t ask Johnson these questions to start any drama or make the Lions look bad. You want to know what I wish his answer had been? I wish he had said he and the Lions were on the path to resolving their issues. That he’s looking forward to seeing Hamp and Wood and everyone else from the team in Canton. That he’s scheduling a meet-and-greet with fans at Ford Field after his enshrinement.

But no.

I don’t understand why this is so hard for the Lions to figure out. It’s a shame because, other than this issue with the Lions, Johnson seems eager to take part in all the enshrinement activities. When he was playing, I spoke with him several times about his potential candidacy, and he never worried about it or tried to lobby for himself. If it happened, great. If not, it was out of his hands.

But now, as he closes in on the biggest honor of his professional life, Johnson seems genuinely excited to rub golden-jacketed elbows with the greats.

“I think the part I’m looking forward to the most is just being able to be in a room with all the gold jackets,” he said. “That’s going to be legendary for me. A lot of people I’ve grown up watching, I have even yet to meet. So I’m just going to be like a little kid in a candy store just going like this (shaking my head) all around.”

If you still don’t understand why a millionaire athlete such as Johnson is upset with a billion-dollar franchise such as the Lions over money that doesn’t amount to much for either side, I’ll leave you with one more thing Johnson said Friday.

He told the story of one of his worst games in his final season, a 21-14 loss in St. Louis. It was already a season his father had had to talk him into playing. He didn’t paint himself as the hero or try to make himself look good. He owned his actions and his poor attitude and admitted he didn’t want to play in that game, during a season he didn’t want to play.

“I had like one catch that game,” he said. “But it was a direct reflection of my attitude going into that game, I feel like. Yeah, everything wasn’t perfect. … There was the interception and stuff like that.

“But at the same time, I did not want to be there. And that’s not a way that you want to be playing in the NFL. That’s how you get hurt even more.”

Johnson gave Lions fans nine seasons, even when his body only had eight in it. He stayed in the game longer than he should have. He put his body on the field, even if his heart wasn’t in it, knowing he was risking further injury. But as Johnson found out from the way he was treated after he retired, sometimes you still get hurt when you aren’t playing.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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