One reunion is official now. The other’s still on hold.
But there’s no sense staying mad forever. And if Barry Sanders’ return to the Lions’ den shows anything, it’s that time — and money — really can help heal most wounds.
So while Calvin Johnson’s relationship with the Lions may be strained at the moment — understandably so — the differences aren’t irreconcilable.
Rod Wood, the Lions’ team president, said as much this week, both in confirming Sanders’ long-sought return to the fold and in publicly coaxing Johnson to rejoin his former team — even symbolically — whenever he’s ready.
That’s smart business from an organization that often hasn’t shown a knack for it. It’s also the right thing to do for Sanders, apparently, now that his kids are grown and his hairline has receded along with some of the hard feelings that accompanied his abrupt retirement from the NFL back in 1999.
Some fans might still feel jilted by the memory of that time, as Sanders was criticized for quitting on his teammates and vilified in some corners for perceived selfishness. But after two more decades of mostly ineptitude from this franchise, not to mention everything we know about the perils of playing this game for too long, there can’t be many that don’t understand why Sanders left — only a year removed from one of the greatest rushing seasons in NFL history — or whether he was right.
Together they belong
It made no sense for either side to remain estranged, frankly. Sanders is a huge part of the Lions’ history, and like it or not, the Lions are the entirety of his Hall of Fame professional career. So this arrangement to bring Barry back as a “brand ambassador” makes sense, both sides embracing the past as a way to move beyond it.
And ultimately, that’s what needs to happen with Johnson, the franchise’s most recent generational star and a remarkable career mirrored that of Sanders in so many ways, including the awkward ending.
Johnson’s annoyance with that last chapter, including the Lions haggling over the repayment of his prorated signing bonus — he eventually agreed to return more than $1 million of it, according to reports — may linger for a while.
But even with the Georgia native relocating to Atlanta, he’ll still maintain a presence in the Detroit area. So there’ll be reasons to stay connected to the only franchise he ever knew, from charity events and youth camps to an induction ceremony in Canton someday.
“Playing in the National Football League for a team, it's like a family, and families sometimes have disagreements," said Jim Caldwell, the last of the three Lions’ head coaches that Johnson played for, and the one he respected most, by far, telling me before his final season in 2015, “if I had him my whole career, man, I’d be playing 20 years like Jerry Rice.”
Instead, though, Megatron didn’t make it a decade, retiring after that 7-9 finish two years ago with little fanfare and no farewell news conference. He spared fans the kind of drama that Sanders had unleashed when he faxed a retirement statement to his hometown paper, the Wichita Eagle, on the eve of training camp in ’99 and then boarded a flight for London to escape the fallout, explaining later, “I was just glad to get out of there.” Johnson also gave the Lions ample warning, allowing them to move on, unencumbered financially, while he did the same.
Voice of discontent
But in the months since, after news of the contract settlement emerged, Johnson, the Lions' all-time leading receiver, has given voice to some of the frustration he largely hid during his career.
“If I was to keep playing, I would have to play in Detroit,” he said during a promotional appearance in Italy earlier this month, “and that just wasn’t for me anymore.”
Again, most Lions fans don’t want to hear that. But the truth hurts, sometimes, and even Sanders probably would admit Johnson put up with far more nonsense than he did during his career.
Sanders was tired of the losing, sure. Yet the bigger frustration probably was a front office that, at times, seemed more concerned with pinching pennies — he watched Pro Bowlers Kevin Glover and Lomas Brown leave, and even had a few contract holdouts himself — than pursuing a championship.
Still, he never endured an 0-16 season, or Matt Millen’s eight-year run as president, or perhaps even the degree of injuries Johnson dealt with while enjoying just two winning seasons in nine years as a pro.
Then again, he also never made the kind of money Johnson did. Sanders’ career earnings were barely half of what Johnson made on his rookie contract in the NFL.
Regardless, they both found themselves at the same place when their playing days were done. And while it took Sanders some time to come back around — he’s been a more frequent presence around the franchise the last several years — there’s still a desire for Johnson to do the same.
“We had a very nice, cordial exchange,” Wood said Wednesday, explaining his recent contacts with Johnson. “I’m hoping he comes. I’m not going to say any more beyond that. But I do have confidence it’ll work out ultimately.”
It should. It needs to, from the team's perspective. And here’s one idea to help make it happen: Maybe Lions should have their new brand ambassador pick up the phone and give Calvin Johnson a call. I’m sure they could find something to talk about.