Johnson's retirement would be ‘bad for the league’
San Francisco — Most people who have crossed paths with Calvin Johnson during his NFL career have a story about him being a remarkable talent while remaining unassuming.
Former kicker Jay Feely sat next to Johnson at the NCAA men’s basketball championship game in 2013. At first, Feely didn’t recognize Johnson, but based on their conversation, said the Lions receiver is “one of the nicest men you’ll ever meet.”
“That’s how I’ll remember him the most, this guy who dominates on the field, but is just so gracious and kind off the field,” Feely said Monday at a Super Bowl media event featuring CBS broadcasters.
ESPN reported last weekend Johnson told his family, Lions coach Jim Caldwell and a couple teammates this season would be his final one after nine years.
Since the news broke, former players have expressed a variety of feelings about the possibility Johnson has played his last game.
“It’s got to be in your heart to play, but it’s a sad thing knowing that this could be the last of Calvin Johnson,” former quarterback Boomer Esiason said.
Lions fans have experienced the pain of losing their star player — Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders retired in 1999 after 10 stellar seasons.
“I wish he would still play, just like when Barry Sanders retired,” Esiason said. “It’s bad for the league because they’re great players, they’re great people.”
Johnson had 88 catches for 1,214 yards and nine touchdowns this year, but in recent seasons, his body has taken a beating and has missed significant time with ankle, knee and finger injuries.
Phil Simms, the former Giants quarterback, and Bart Scott, the former Jets and Ravens linebacker, said Johnson’s size — 6-foot-5 and 237 pounds — could make it harder for him to absorb all the hits a receiver takes in a season.
“I’m not shocked about Calvin Johnson (possibly) retiring,” Simms said. “He’s a big man, and people have got to look at it. He stays in great shape, but when you’re that big, to do all that running and everything he does in football, that’s tough.”
Scott grew up in Detroit, graduating from Southeastern High, and is still a Lions fan. He knows how difficult it must be to have played as long as Johnson has without winning a playoff game.
“When you talk about losing for nine straight years, people don’t understand,” Scott said. “When you lose a game, it’s like dying — a little piece of you dies. Looking at the forecast for the Lions, they’re not going to the Super Bowl next year or the year after. And it’s like, ‘Well, what am I risking all this for.’
“I guarantee you if he was on a team and they were right on the cusp, they had a great year and they were going back in and he thought the organization was going the right way, he would fight through it. But what am I risking? What am I risking it for? He’s not risking it for money; he has enough money. He’s not risking it for Pro Bowls or All-Pros; he has that.”
Johnson is due a $16 million base salary in 2016, and the Lions haven’t approached his agent about restructuring the deal.
Simms said it might be a long time before the NFL sees another receiver with Johnson’s size. Tony Gonzalez, the future Hall of Fame tight end, said he believed Johnson was a tight end the first time he saw him.
“I’m privileged to be able to see a guy like that,” said Gonzalez, who played 17 seasons. “If he wants to retire, and he can’t do it physically and mentally anymore, I have no problem saying go ahead and retire.”
Simms, however, said it’ll be tough for Johnson to adjust to life without football.
“If his mind can accept it, I’m happy for him,” Simms said. “I’m telling you, I don’t care who you are and how you go out, there’s a big withdrawal when you leave football. Because that feeling you get on Sundays, it will not be matched, and that’s what drags careers on.”