They started with basics — the stance, the starts, the footwork and his breaks — not because Calvin Johnson was a novice. No, it was because he had everything else: The size, the speed, the otherworldly athleticism and an uncommon work ethic.
Johnson had a notion of what was possible back then. But Shawn Jefferson, his new position coach, had no doubts about the talent he was working with once Johnson had arrived in Detroit in 2007.
“Before you know it, they’ll be saying you’re the best receiver in the league,” he told the Lions’ rookie wide receiver. “Trust me on that.”
Jefferson, who played 13 NFL seasons as a receiver himself, was right, of course. And the trust that developed between coach and player helped produce a remarkable career that culminated Sunday night in Canton, Ohio, where Johnson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
At 35, Johnson is the third-youngest Hall of Fame inductee — behind only Jim Brown and Gale Sayers — and only the seventh receiver to be enshrined as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
And as expected, the man who retired in 2016 as the Lions’ all-time leader retired in receptions (731), receiving yards (11,619) and touchdown catches (83), got caught up in this crowning moment Sunday night. His speech was choked with emotion as he talked about faith and family and football, but also pointed in explaining his new passion as founder of a cannabis business, preaching the virtues of plant-based medicine in “improving quality of life for athletes and others.”
“I’ve spent time thinking about my legacy and what I’ll leave behind,” Johnson told a crowd that included more than a dozen former teammates and coaches. “My legacy in sports has been solidified with no greater honor than standing before you today with these gentlemen. But my life’s legacy is still being written.”
Johnson thanked a large contingent of former teammates and coaches, including quarterback Matthew Stafford, who flew in from Los Angeles to attend Sunday’s ceremony. And while he didn’t specifically thank the Lions organization — owner Sheila Ford Hamp also was on hand in Canton — he did get emotional in thanking the fans.
“When we were 0-16, you never stopped showing up,” he said. “You were disappointed, but you never stopped showing up. Every week, you showed up. And this motivated me to do the same thing for you. You loved me unconditionally over these 15 years. I want you to know: Michigan is our home, Detroit is our city, and Lions fans, our pride.”
It was that sort of humility that fans in Detroit grew to love, even as they marveled at his football ability.
At 6-foot-5 and 239 pounds, the Georgia Tech star ran a 4.35-second 40-yard dash and wowed scouts with a 42½-inch vertical jump at the NFL scouting combine in 2007. And as then-Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden put it at the time, “If he doesn’t make it, there’s going to be a lot of guys that are going to be wrong.”
Luckily for the Lions, there was only one, though, as Al Davis, the Oakland Raiders’ owner, overruled his scouts and insisted on taking LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell with the No. 1 overall pick. That left the Lions and Matt Millen to grab the consensus best player in the draft at No. 2, a franchise-changing talent so unique that teammate Roy Williams quickly gave him a nickname as a rookie: Megatron, after the indomitable villain from the Transformers movie that came out earlier that summer.
It was, as Johnson admitted years later, “perfect timing” for him to wear that moniker and fill that role in the Motor City. But even so, it took several years for the Lions to transform themselves into something resembling a winning football team.
Why not be the greatest?
After an injury-hampered rookie campaign — Johnson suffered a scary back injury that he initially feared might end his career — he was snubbed for the Pro Bowl in his second NFL season, despite leading the league with 12 touchdowns and finishing fifth in receiving yards. Those stats were even more impressive considering he played on a winless team that used five different quarterbacks in 2008 and had an offensive coordinator who actually fell asleep in the coaches’ booth during a game.
Still, for Johnson, that season was only the beginning of a frustrating NFL career, one that was full of highlights — and even a few playoff appearances — but largely unfulfilled from a team standpoint. In Johnson’s nine NFL seasons, the Lions lost 90 football games. He was a six-time Pro Bowler but never won a playoff game.
As he told me during his final training camp in 2015, foreshadowing his own surprising retirement six months later, “There were those times when it’s just, like, ‘Man, what are we doing? Are we not trying to win?’ You try not to let your mind creep into thinking, ‘Are they trying to win here? What are they doing upstairs? Are we really trying to bring in the best players? Or is everybody just satisfied being in the NFL?’”
Johnson certainly wasn’t satisfied. And if his competitive streak didn’t show up in headlines during his playing career it surely did on the field, as he routinely beat double teams and bracket coverage and even, at the height of his career, a ridiculous “vise” look at the line scrimmage as opposing defenses treated him like a gunner on punt coverage.
Much like Barry Sanders, the Hall of Fame running back who toiled a generation before him in Detroit, Johnson was no diva, however. In fact, it was his laid-back demeanor that Jefferson viewed as his only real weakness, which is why he — and Millen — challenged the star receiver to play with more of a fighter’s mentality. At the start of every offseason, Jefferson would ask his receiving corps if they wanted “to be great.” But with Johnson, he went a step further: Why not be the greatest?
“He was always a freakish athlete,” Jefferson said. “But what happened was, the mental aspect caught up with the physical aspect of his game. And when they hit each other, it was just this big explosion. It’s like the perfect storm has happened inside him.”
Once Stafford showed up in 2009 with his howitzer of a right arm, the forecast changed, too. And in 2011, that tandem carried the Lions back to the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade. Johnson led the league with 1,681 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns, eight of them in the team’s 4-0 start as the Lions suddenly became a team worth watching.
In 2012, Megatron proved even more unstoppable, even as the Lions backslid to a 4-12 record. Johnson broke Jerry Rice’s single-season record for most receiving yards that year, posting a new mark (1,946) that still stands today.
There were scores more jaw-dropping performances along the way. A 211-yard outing in his playoff debut against New Orleans in 2011. A 329-yard day against Dallas in 2013. The 214-yard game that silenced the notorious fans in the Raiders’ “Black Hole” and the Thanksgiving Day win against the Bears where Johnson became the fastest in history to reach 10,000 career receiving yards.
Through it all there was also the punishment he took as the Lions’ No. 1 target, and a towering one at that. Opponents targeted his knees while Stafford’s fastballs mangled his fingers. There were multiple concussions and surgeries. And by the end of the 2014 season, after the Lions’ controversial playoff loss to the Cowboys — the “robbery in Dallas” is how Johnson remembers it now — Megatron was out of juice.
His father, Calvin Johnson Sr., helped convince him to give it one more shot. But he told some of his teammates in 2015 that would be it. And when he embraced Stafford and jogged to the tunnel after the season finale at Chicago’s Soldier Field — having saved the football from his 83rd and final touchdown catch — there was no looking back.
“The pain began to take a toll on my body and my quality of life,” Johnson told the crowd Sunday. “It wasn’t getting any better and there came a moment when I knew my time this league, those days were numbered. But I was OK with this because I left it all on the field and enjoyed every moment.”
Johnson, who celebrated his fifth wedding anniversary earlier this summer, was joined by his children and his wife, Brittney, as well as the rest of Johnson’s extended family, in Canton this weekend. And it sounds as if his oldest son, 7-year-old Caleb, is starting to figure out what all the fuss was about with his dad and his NFL career.
“A little while ago, he was like, ‘Daddy, I didn’t know you were so cool at football,’” said Johnson, grinning at the compliment. “So I guess when they get a little bit older, they’ll understand a little bit more. I’ve got a couple games I’m gonna make ‘em watch.”
And now, too, a weekend he’ll never forget, in a place where he’ll always be remembered.