Allen Park — The Detroit Lions are an official sponsor for Calvin Johnson’s inaugural charity golf outing next month, which will be held a day after the Hall of Fame receiver’s annual youth football camp.
This year, that youth camp is being held at the Lions’ practice facility in Allen Park. And last month, Johnson, along with legendary running back Barry Sanders, traveled with team officials to meet first-round draft picks Jahmyr Gibbs and Jack Campbell at the airport the day after the rookies were drafted by the franchise.
While it’s not accurate to say the broken relationship has been fully healed, after seven long years, it’s clear the fences between Johnson and the only team he knew as a professional are well on their way to being mended.
The first hints of meaningful progress came in February, via an interview with Jim Rome. In that conversation, Johnson credited Lions chief operating officer Mike Disner for reopening dialogue between the sides and getting things moving.
The thoroughly documented strain began after Johnson’s retirement in 2016, when the team went after and reclaimed $1.6 million of the signing bonus attached to the contract he signed four years earlier.
After Disner reached out this offseason, the two sides met for brunch and quickly connected on a personal level. And in the conversation, Johnson reiterated his long-held issue on what it would take to repair the relationship.
“Really at the end of the day, I told him, ‘Just find a way to rectify the situation. I’m not saying you have to put that money back in my pocket right now, but I would love to find a solution,'” Johnson said in an interview with The Detroit News this week. “I’m not going to say he’s going out of his way, but he’s working to find a solution.”
Further details on that solution weren’t provided, but the progress is good news for all parties. The franchise, as it’s turning the corner into national relevancy and a playoff contender, no longer has to cope with the lingering cloud of a negative relationship with one of the team’s all-time greats, and it will allow fans increased opportunities to see Johnson at team functions.
In fact, there’s a good chance we’ll see Johnson at training camp this year to work with some of the Lions’ young receivers.
“As long as things are trending in the right direction, I want to be out there,” Johnson said. “I know I have tools, I know I have stuff I can give that can help better their games, and I want to give it. I want to be able to give it to them because it doesn’t do me any good holding that inside.
“I look forward to those days,” Johnson said. “I look forward to getting out there this year, actually, and helping this team in any form or fashion I can.”
Johnson popped in for a visit at the team’s OTA practice on Wednesday. The team posted a video of Johnson embracing coach Dan Campbell on social media.
Part of what drove Johnson to an early retirement was the lack of team success in Detroit. Despite some good seasons, most notably in 2011 and 2014, the Lions were never able to sustain momentum during his nine-year career. Under Campbell, who played with Johnson in Detroit early in his career, there appears to be a stronger foundation to achieve the long-term success Johnson coveted.
“It’s a lot of good energy when you look at what’s going on around this team,” Johnson said. “I’m truly excited about what Dan has in front of him. None of us know what’s down the road, but he has a great opportunity with the team that he has and the team behind the scenes with (general manager) Brad (Holmes) and those guys, with what they’re continuing to build like they did out there in L.A., man. It shouldn’t be before long that we’re talking about a winner.”
Johnson still calls Michigan home, where he’s established a post-career cannabis business, Primitiv, with former teammate Rob Sims. The group recently looped in another former teammate, Gosder Cherilus, expanding into the Boston market, where Cherilus grew up and played collegiately.
And Johnson has continued to be heavily involved in the community through his Calvin Johnson Jr. Foundation, which he established in 2008, his second season with the Lions.
Through his foundation, Johnson has worked with various non-profits in Metro Detroit, including those addressing homelessness and domestic abuse. He’s also continued to provide scholarships annually to Detroit- and Atlanta-area high school students.
The golf outing is the newest event on his foundation’s calendar. The soldout event will be held on June 12 at Wabeek Country Club in Bloomfield Township, Mich. Several of Johnson’s former teammates will participate, including Jason Hanson, Dominic Raiola and Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Darius Slay.
“I look forward to kicking it with them in a couple of weeks,” Johnson said. “Some of those guys I haven’t seen in a while, but we’ve kept in contact.”
Johnson has become an avid golfer in retirement. He’s trimmed his handicap below 15 and is eyeing single digits. As for the charity golf outing, he’s wanted to get it off the ground the past few years, and after seeing how much he’s been able to raise for the inaugural edition, he regrets not doing it sooner.
“It’s very exciting to be this far (with the foundation), but I’m kind of disappointed because I see the fruit that’s come from this golf outing,” Johnson said. “I’m like, wow, if I would have been doing this from the beginning, who knows where we would be with this thing now.”