San Francisco — Lions legend Barry Sanders retired after 10 years, and he thinks it would be devastating if Calvin Johnson followed in his footsteps and leaves the NFL after just nine seasons.
Sanders obviously understands what Johnson is going through as he left the NFL while he still had plenty of gas left in the tank, so to speak. Still, the reports that Johnson is considering retirement, a thought that Johnson’s friends have said is due mostly to health concerns, is surprising to Sanders.
“I feel like I’m stunned a little bit like most people,” he said Saturday before the NFL Honors at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. “I feel like around June, we’ll give him until June or so, and then we should start knocking on his door.”
Sanders retired in July 1999 at age 31, and he said he got plenty of knocks on the door and calls when he made the announcement.
“They’re still knocking,” J.B. Bernstein, Sanders’ agent, said jokingly.
Lions president Rod Wood said he’s spoken with Johnson multiple times since the season ended, but the team is giving him time to make a decision on his own. Meanwhile, Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young joked this week that Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford should be staying at Johnson’s house and doing his laundry to convince him to return for his 10th season.
“Some guys are sort of on the fence, and maybe you can talk them out of it and so we’ll see what happens,” Sanders said of Johnson.
The Lions would prefer to hear a decision from Johnson before June. Free agency begins in March 9, and the draft starts on April 28. If Johnson isn’t playing, the Lions would have to use resources to try to replace his ample production and impact on the offense.
Sanders said the Lions should be making plans for the future with or without Johnson until they hear an official decision.
“You can’t replace him,” Sanders said, “but I think you have to believe going into a season that you have a fighting chance.”
When Sanders retired, it was devastating for fans who’d watched him eclipse 1,100 yards in all 10 seasons of his Hall of Fame career. Johnson has seven 1,000-yard seasons in his nine years.
“It would certainly be difficult,” Sanders said. “He’s given a lot to our organization and our team and such a great player and one of those guys you just love having in your organization. Hey, it would be devastating, no question about it.”