Calvin Johnson’s feud with Detroit Lions ending soon? Relationship seems to be on the mend

Detroit Free Press

The cold war isn’t over quite yet, but the ice is starting to thaw in the frosty relationship between Calvin Johnson and the Detroit Lions.

A new sign of détente between the two parties is the football camp the Hall of Fame receiver will host in tandem with the Lions on June 11 at the team’s training facility in Allen Park.

It marks just the second time Johnson will be at the facility since he retired after the 2015 season. The first was during last month’s NFL draft, when he got a tour from chief operating officer Mike Disner before they drove to the airport and joined Barry Sanders to greet first-round picks Jahmyr Gibbs and Jack Campbell.

I called Johnson on Wednesday to discuss the camp and his inaugural charity golf tournament June 12 at Wabeek Country Club in Bloomfield Township, both of which will benefit his foundation.

But I also wanted to figure out how much closer the two sides are at mending a relationship that was needlessly fractured when the team asked him to repay $1.6 million, a prorated portion of his signing bonus, after he retired early.

“Haven’t been in contact with the Lions since the Hall of Fame (ceremonies in 2021),” Johnson told me, “then Mike Disner, I guess he came up to (my) team and reached out and really just an effort to try to mend the two sides and just bring them back together.

“And I was a little bit unsure at first because I’d heard the story before from over there. But Mike has come in and really made an effort to try to bring the two sides together.”

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Disner has been at the forefront of the Lions’ outreach efforts with Johnson. He has invited Johnson to some outings and Johnson says he likes him, adding “he’s the only one who’s really made the effort to do anything.”

Because team president Rod Wood asked Johnson to repay his bonus, he remains persona non grata. That’s why it makes sense Disner, the next-highest-ranking executive, would function as the team’s emissary.

“And so I can do nothing but respect that,” Johnson said of Disner’s efforts, “and our path is slowly but surely moving forward.”

As for Johnson’s relationship with owner Sheila Hamp, it sounds like a work in progress.

“I mean, I’ve talked to her,” he said. “I haven’t talked to her since the Hall of Fame. As far as relationship, I wouldn’t say there’s a relationship there. We’re cordial, put it like that.”

If nothing else, Hamp deserves a purple heart for absorbing scathing boos from fans when the team presented Johnson his Hall of Fame ring at Ford Field in September 2021. That was the first official connection the two sides had before Johnson met with the draft picks, which Johnson did more through a request from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Johnson’s ugly breakup with the team always seemed like such a regrettable fissure that didn’t need to happen because most NFL teams don’t pursue signing bonus prorations when players of Johnson’s magnitude retire.

Some fans still criticize Johnson for holding a grudge over money he didn’t technically earn. Johnson said those criticisms don’t bother him.

“Yeah, I’m not really worried about the fans,” he said. “If they followed my career, they wouldn’t be saying that. So they never really followed my career, those that are saying things like that.”

If you think Johnson didn’t earn every penny of his contract, just look as his hands. His fingers are mangled from years of physical abuse and look like broken tree branches. Toward the end, it was hard to watch him walk slowly from the therapy room to his locker. He had to be talked into playing his final season, and still caught 88 passes for 1,214 yards and nine touchdowns. He gave as much of his body as anyone has given to the game — and yet the Lions still wanted more.

But this finally seems like a shift in the relationship, partly because of Disner, but also because Johnson, 37, has kids who are 9, 4 and 2 and it’s time for them to know dad was once Megatron.

“So at the end of the day, if we can just figure out a way to move forward,” he said. “At the same time — you know, shoot, there’s more than money to this. It’s a lot of different things at stake. I’ve got my kids. I want them to be able to see and understand what I did.”

And it’s more than just Johnson’s kids. It’s also the “kids” who are wearing the Honolulu Blue and Silver these days.

“There’s kids that are coming through this facility on a daily basis that are Detroit Lions,” he said, “I have a lot of tools I feel like I can share with them, whether it’s on the personal level, off the field or on the field.

“So I know things are getting missed a little bit. It would help all three: myself, my family and the Lions.”

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It’s also not as easy as the Lions just cutting a $1.6 million check. The NFL approves how much teams can pay their retired players, otherwise teams could circumvent the salary cap. For now, there’s no official partnership between Johnson and the Lions, but he’s open to discussions.

“I don’t know what a partnership would look like with them,” he said. “But that would be great. If there’s something to talk about there, 100% I’m all ears.

“Right now at this point, yeah, I want to fix the issue that they made. But at the same time, they’ve made it clear that they’re not going to pay the $1.6 million out.”

The money matters to Johnson, but it matters because of what the money really signifies: respect for his work and sacrifice. He also knows what money signifies when it comes to his foundation and the thousands of kids he has helped with scholarships that total into the six figures.

He holds an annual receivers camp for high school players in Atlanta and regularly hosts all-position camps in the Detroit area, like the one he’ll hold for 125 players next month, where he will not only provide football coaching but also life lessons with a chaplain in attendance.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “that’s really my goal, to give them tools of the trade on the field but also to give them some real-life situational-type awareness when it comes to things that we face, adversity that we face in everyday life and how to deal with those type issues.”

The day after his camp, Johnson will host his inaugural celebrity golf tournament, with big names expected like Darius Slay, Dominic Raiola, Rob Sims, Darren McCarty and some other Red Wings and Pistons players.

Johnson got serious about golf three years ago and has become an avid player with a 13 handicap. His lowest score: 81, of course. Too bad he couldn’t wear No. 59 when he played.

But his real desire to host a golf tournament stemmed from how much money he could raise for his foundation and families in need by helping them with education costs.

“There’s a lot of people struggling, living paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “So if we’re able to put some money in those families’ pockets to help those kids that are deserving get through school, help ease the burden on the family, man, let’s do that.”

It’s impossible to hear of Johnson’s desire to help struggling families and believe he’s some kind of selfish superstar with an inflated ego. He deserves better. He deserves more understanding and he deserves what the Lions owe him. It’s well past time.

Contact Carlos Monarrez: Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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