Niyo: Injuries, losing spur Calvin to walk away

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Calvin Johnson was the “anti-diva,” as his former teammate and close friend Nate Burleson once explained.

He retired with a statement, not a press conference, which made sense. So did the fact he started that farewell — and ended it — with an apology.

Because throughout his remarkable NFL career, Calvin Johnson never made it about himself, even when it seemed he was the only thing the Lions — and their fans — had to brag about. He never really pointed fingers, either, even when there was plenty of blame to go around.

And for a player who helped redefine his position — a receiver who “pretty much transcended the game,” according to Jerry Rice, the Hall of Famer whose records he chased in the prime of his career — he was unique in another way, refusing to take credit for any of that.

He was the “anti-diva,” as his former teammate and close friend Nate Burleson once explained, trying to make sense of an immense talent that never quite fit the mold, befuddling his own teammates the same way he did opponents — the same way Barry Sanders once did — with his rare physical traits and uncommon humility.

Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford, who’d been expecting this news for weeks, if not months, thanked the franchise’s all-time leading receiver “for being not only a great player for the Lions, but for also being the absolute best representative our team, franchise and community could ever ask for. He was the epitome of dignity, class, humility and excellence.”

Similar accolades came flooding in Tuesday as the news broke — again — two months after Johnson had acknowledged he was seriously considering retirement following the Lions’ season finale in Chicago.

Sanders, the Lions’ career rushing leader, called him an “amazing and rare talent both on and off the field,” adding, “I feel lucky to have been able to see him play.”

Others were thanking their lucky stars he’d decided to call it quits. Asked about that possibility at last month’s NFL scouting combine, Packers general manager Ted Thompson joked, “There’s a part of me that would like to make sure he gets the note that I think he should retire.”

Tough and brave

And so he has, after nine seasons and six Pro Bowl honors, owning franchise records for catches (731), receiving yards (11,619) and receiving touchdowns (83), not to mention a highlight reel that’s matched only by Sanders in Lions history.

“The guy’s like a video game,” veteran cornerback Charles Tillman, a longtime division rival with the Bears, told the NFL Network on Tuesday. “He was tall, he was big, he was fast, he was strong, he had great hand-eye coordination, he could catch any pass — any ball — thrown his way.”

Wojo: Retirement not bad outcome for Calvin, Lions

Regardless of what defenses threw at him, as Johnson single-handedly beat double- and triple-coverage for most of his career. That’s a credit both to his physical skills — at 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, he ran a 4.35-second 40-yard dash prior to the ’07 draft — and his mental toughness, something he worked tirelessly at under the tutelage of Shawn Jefferson, his first position coach in the NFL.

It was Jefferson who pushed him to another level, challenging him daily on the practice field and in film sessions. He’d show him some of the ridiculous stunts defensive coordinators would pull — like the Saints’ bracketing him at the line of scrimmage at midfield — and yell, “Do you understand what these people are doing to you?!?! … The opponent is saying, ‘We cannot let him beat us.’ ” Then Jefferson would tell him to go beat the coverage, anyway. And he would, consequences be damned.

“There’s a difference between being brave and being tough,” Jefferson once told me about Johnson, who shattered Rice’s record in 2012 despite playing with three broken fingers. “A tough guy may not do it. Brave guy, he’ll say, ‘I know I’m gonna get the (expletive) knocked out of me, but I gotta catch this ball for my team, because they’re depending on me. And that’s exactly what he does. He puts himself in harm’s way.”

Playing for the Lions, that was unavoidable. And so was this: Some of Johnson’s best moments came in the worst of times for his team, from that 1,300-yard, 12-touchdown breakout in the winless 2008 season to the record-smashing 1,964 total in 2012 as the Lions followed up a playoff trip with a dismal 4-12 finish. On the night Johnson broke Rice’s NFL single-season mark, in a nationally-televised loss to Atlanta, ESPN analyst and former coach Jon Gruden openly wondered about all the “meaningless yards” Johnson was piling up in the fourth quarter.

Physical toll

But all the losing certainly meant something to the player who was dubbed “Megatron” as a rookie by his first NFL running mate, Roy Williams, a player who, in a roundabout way, helped set the awkward stage for Johnson’s career. Johnson was the superstar who fell into the Lions’ lap, as Oakland went with a future bust (JaMarcus Russell) with the first overall pick in the 2007 draft. That left then-president Matt Millen with an easy choice at No. 2, and Johnson an impossible chore before long, as the most visible star on a rudderless ship.

“Calvin was there from the very beginning,” said Burleson, who didn’t arrive as veteran mentor until a few years later via free agency. “They didn’t have much luck with receivers, especially No. 1 draft picks. You look at a guy like Charles Rogers and Roy Williams — talented individuals, but for what people wanted out of those guys, they didn’t get that franchise receiver. So Calvin not only had the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he had the responsibility of leading the way, without being told to, without realistically having someone to teach him how to do that.”

NFL players recall top moments from Calvin Johnson

And though a legit arm finally joined him in 2009, top pick Matthew Stafford struggled to stay on the field his first two injury-plagued seasons. Not until 2011 did they start lighting up the league, and living up to all that promise, with Stafford throwing for 5,000 yards as the Lions finally made the playoffs, and then Johnson breaking Rice’s record the following season and “all of the big plays he made, thinking, ‘Did he really just come down with that one?’ ” Stafford recalled Tuesday.

Still, the individual accomplishments left everyone wanting, and no one more so than Johnson. He watched coaches and players come and go and admits to wondering along with the fans, at times, “Like, ‘Man, what are we doing? Are we not trying to win?’ ”

Consider that six of Johnson’s nine highest single-game yardage totals came in losing efforts for the Lions. And of the 17 games in which he scored multiple touchdowns, his team’s record was merely 10-7. In all, he finished his 135-game career with just 49 victories. And no matter what others said, “On the inside, it’s still losing,” he told me last fall.

Couple that with the physical punishment he absorbed — the knee and ankle injuries in recent years were far worse than he ever let on (“Over time, it takes its toll,” he said) — and it’s easy to understand how it came to this, with Johnson retiring at age 30, leaving tens of millions still on the table and fuel in the tank. In what proved to be the final game of his career, a 24-20 win at Chicago, Johnson still looked like the best player on the field.

“As a fan, I’d say, ‘Hey, Calvin, give me five more years,’ ” Burleson said. “But as a teammate and a friend I know what he played through. I’ve seen it. …

“So understanding what he gave to the game, and what the game gave back to him, it’s not a shock that (after) nine years he decides to walk away from the game. And I want to emphasize the words, ‘walk away.’ He’s able to spend the rest of his years relatively healthy.”

And for that, there’s no apology necessary.