Calvin Johnson is, without question, one of the greatest Lions players of all time. At his peak, the receiver was an unstoppable force in the league, destined not only for Canton, but the highest tops of the record books — spoken about in hushed tones along with Jerry Rice and Randy Moss.
Then, at the age of 29, he was done. Eerily mimicking the early retirement of another Detroit legend, Barry Sanders, Johnson decided to walk away from his NFL career with his body and mind still intact. He’s had an ax to grind with the organization ever since.
Johnson didn’t thank the Lions at his Hall of Fame ceremony, despite Detroit being the only team he ever played for. Most of this stems from a dispute over $1.6M the Lions made Johnson pay back after he retired. Now, that he’s willing to mend fences, but only if Detroit pay him back the money, in exchange for him doing nothing in return. To some it’s a small price to pay to bring an icon back into the fold.
What led to this point? Why is Johnson demanding payment from the team? And will Detroit be willing to give away money for nothing, other than the opportunity to once again embrace a game-changing athlete?
The entire beef is centered on Johnson’s health
From 2008 to 2013 Johnson was an iron man. A seemingly other-worldly receiver who’d only missed three games, despite being the most physical receiver in the NFL. It wasn’t just Johnson’s size or speed that made him a transcendent athlete, but his willingness to do anything asked of him on the field — and this included putting his own body on the line.
For all the credit Matthew Stafford deservedly gets for his time as Detroit’s QB, he was a fairly careless passer. Part of his gun-slinging, big-play nature often meant that receivers were left high and dry, being asked to catch difficult high passes and get obliterated in the process. Part of this is what led to the romanticism of the Stafford/Johnson connection, but behind the scenes it was taking a major toll.
In a 2019 interview with Sports Illustrated, Johnson explained just how damaging the years of catching anything in his zip code became.
He got used to concussions. “Bam, hit the ground real hard. I’m seeing stars; I can’t see straight,” he says. “But I know in a couple minutes I’m gonna be fine. Because I’ve done that plenty of times before.”
By his estimate, Johnson sustained nine concussions over his nine year career in Detroit. The issue wasn’t necessarily the hits, though concerning, it was the lack of care he felt from the Lions. It was a liability for the NFL to have a star player discuss concussions in a public forum, so with public scrutiny in the wake of Junior Seau’s suicide, believed to be connected to CTE, when Johnson told the media that he suffered a concussion that wasn’t cleared, but continued to play, everyone went on high-alert.
“I knew I was concussed because I blacked out. I wasn’t seeing straight. And they wanted me to change my story.” Mostly, he says, he played through concussions because in his NFL that’s how you earn Employee of the Month.
While early in his career, it was here that Johnson began having a mistrust of how his health was being treated by the Lions. Along with the concussions came injuries to his foot, his ankle, both knees — and a mangled finger that jutted out at an angle. Johnson alleges that when he discussed having these issues fixed to the Lions their plan was always the same.
He says the training staff told him to get it fixed after he retired.
“It’s not about the welfare of the players,” says Johnson, who in his career missed just nine games. It’s “just about having that product.”
In order to deal with the pain, and put himself in a place to play each week, Johnson says he smoked cannabis on a weekly basis just to be ready for game day. Finally, before his 10th season in the league he decided it wasn’t worth it anymore. Johnson decided to leave the game of football, and finally give his body a chance to heal.
So where does the $1.6 million come in?
When Johnson retired in March of 2016 the Lions ordered that he repay $1.6 million of the signing bonus on the long-term extension he signed in 2012. Contractually the Lions had the right to pursue getting the money back, but it was an extremely petty move.
Technically Detroit could have pursued a $3.2 million settlement, but acted as if they were being gracious in only demanding that Johnson return half. Keep in mind that this was money that couldn’t be used on any roster moves, or bolster the cap — it was purely designed as a punishment for Johnson decided to walk away from the game.
Sure, Calvin Johnson was wealthy, but the money he earned paled in comparison to then-owner Martha Firestone Ford, worth an estimated $1.45 billion. Just wanting to put the whole chapter behind him, Johnson paid the money, and vowed he would never step foot in the Lions facility again. He felt as if the time, effort and sacrifice he made for year after year of losing teams wasn’t appreciated, his health wasn’t taken seriously, and then when he finally made one move to look after himself above the organization, they went after him financially.
The Lions have tried to make amends … kind of
The important thing to understand here is that Johnson does not need the money. That’s not what this desired payout is about. To him it’s the principle and symbology of making him feel welcome again.
Instead, the Lions made a kind of counter offer, proposing they pay back the $1.6M over three years, asking Johnson to work 28 hours a year of promotional dates. Johnson declined, saying it shows they’re not serious about the offer — while the Lions claim they’re not allowed to make a lump sum payment under league rules, but the details of that claim are iffy at best.
This comes back to one key issue: When a player of Johnson’s impact and importance retires, teams do not demand back their signing bonuses. It simply isn’t done. Johnson felt like he was singled out and punished, and now the proposal to “make amends” is tantamount to trying to make more money off Johnson.
Can this relationship be mended?
Yes, I mean, if Detroit really want to. Johnson has said he’s open to a reunion with the Lions so he can once again be a part of the team, but this nickel-and-dime process the organization is involved in has caused discussions to grind to a halt.
A player of Johnson’s greatness belongs as part of the Lions’ legacy. Fans deserve to appreciate his talents and see him back on Ford Field. The only bigger mistake than the stinginess to take his money in the first place would be to allow this beef to continue — and the ball is in the Lions’ court. Right now they just keep fumbling it.