NFL players recall top moments from Calvin Johnson

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Calvin Johnson and Ike Taylor

Whether they played with him or against him, several players admired Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson during his nine-year career.

Here are some vignettes from Johnson’s peers discussing the possibility of his retirement, most of which came from interviews at the Super Bowl last month:

Don’t wake Sasquatch

Former Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor remembered the game vividly.

In November 2013, Calvin Johnson torched Taylor and the Pittsburgh defense in the first half with six catches for 179 yards and two touchdowns.

“Man, he killed me in the first half,” Taylor said. “But Calvin had no catches in the second half. Welcome to the life of a cornerback.”

The Lions scored 27 points in the second quarter of that game, but lost 37-27 as they were shut out in the second half.

Still, from that matchup and others, Taylor remembers Johnson being an unorthodox player because he played big. Sure, Johnson is 6-foot-5, but Taylor said most big receivers don’t play big, comparing Johnson to a powerful center in basketball.

“He’s one of those few, man,” Taylor said. “Between him and Cam Newton, man, you can’t go looking for one and you can’t compare. Because those guys are pretty much unorthodox kind of guys. When you have one, you’ve got to appreciate what you have. And Calvin was that guy for Detroit.”

Taylor, who played 12 seasons, said Steve Smith was the most difficult receiver he ever had to cover. But while Smith was an elite trash-talker, Johnson was always quiet.

“Calvin will never talk trash,” Taylor said. “Really, you don’t want to wake the monster up anyway. He’s already a monster. You don’t really want to wake Sasquatch up. I’m cool with the monster. Then you wake Sasquatch up, it’s a whole different story.”

Calvin Johnson and Patrick Peterson

‘An honor’ to face Johnson

The Cardinals played the Lions each of the last four years, and Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson was excited each time he saw the Lions on the schedule because of Johnson.

“Every time I saw Lions on the schedule, that’s always the one that I circled because, one, I know I’m going to get at least 20 targets at me, and two, I know I’m going to get his best game,” Peterson said. “To go up against him every single down, me and him, mano a mano, is definitely an honor, a pleasure.”

Johnson has also helped create a couple keepsakes for Peterson. The cornerback still has a ball he intercepted off Matthew Stafford while covering Johnson. And his favorite photograph ever is one where Johnson is reflected in Peterson’s visor. Peterson hoped to have Johnson autograph the photo at some point.

“It’s heartbreaking for me to see that caliber athlete walk away from the game, but it’s a business decision for him moving forward,” Peterson said. “But the game is definitely going to miss him.

“By far Calvin presents more troubles for me than any other receiver because he’s big, he’s fast, he’s physical, he’s going to block. He’s always in the game, play in, play out, so you have to make sure you’re on your Ps and Qs play in and play out.”

Calvin Johnson, right

No shortcuts

Former Lions wide receiver Nate Burleson regularly tells the story of how Johnson asked him to switch positions on a run play so he could block a player hard following what Johnson thought was a cheap shot.

But, on his NFL Network podcast “R&B,” Burleson shared one story about how a group of receivers tried to recover after a summer night of bad food and liquor.

“We all got to the facility early,” Burleson said. “We walked in dragging. Everybody’s moaning and groaning, and the whole group — everybody — walks to the sauna, and Calvin walks the opposite direction.

“He was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to sweat it out my way. You can sweat it out your way.’”

After five minutes in the sauna, Burleson said he went to find Johnson. After looking in the training room and the hot tub, he found Johnson running on a manually-powered treadmill.

“And he’s just getting it,” Burleson said. “Bro, running like 16 miles an hour, and I’m looking at him like, yo, this is crazy. This is why he’s one of the best to ever play the game is because his mindset is, ‘If I’m going to work, I’m going to manually work. There is no shortcuts.’”

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‘Nothing but losing’

Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall isn’t shocked Johnson is retiring because he’s always known the Lions wide receiver to be thoughtful. However, Marshall was still upset about the possibility.

“It sucks because I know he has so much more left in the tank, and I would love to see this guy continue to just crush all the records, but he decided that it’s time,” Marshall said. “It may be more mental than physical, and I can put myself in his shoes where this guy’s been in the league nine years and it’s been nothing but losing.

“That’s tough, and it wears on you. But he’ll go down as one of the greatest receivers ever, and I’m just proud of him.”

Lions' Calvin Johnson makes 'difficult decision' to retire

True professional

Greg Jennings thought the possibility of Johnson retiring was jaw-dropping at first until he thought about it.

“He’s taken a lot of wear and tear,” said Jennings, a wide receiver who spent nine seasons in the NFC North with the Packers and Vikings.

Even though he understands why players like Johnson and former 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis are retiring early, Jennings doesn’t think it will become a trend.

“It’s guys looking in the mirror saying, ‘Look, I’ve made a lot of money. I’ve had success, but I want my life. I want to be able to walk, I want to be able to function,’” Jennings said. “And that’s a guy that’s taken a lot of hits.”

When Jennings’ teams played against the Lions, he said Johnson was always complimentary of him and vice-versa.

“I’ve always been a fan of his just the way he approaches the game,” Jennings said. “He’s not about drama. He’s not that … diva at receiver. He lets his play speak for itself, and he’s done it at a high level and he’s been a true professional.”

Revolutionized the NFL

Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb said he and Johnson never exchanged more than small talk, but Johnson was still a role model for Cobb.

“I think definitely he’s revolutionized the game as far as the receiver position,” he said.

In Cobb’s opinion, the catch radius Johnson displayed was a big factor in teams targeting taller and longer receivers in recent years.

“I thought he still had a few more years in the tank,” Cobb said.

Hall of Fame worthy

Like Johnson, Packers wide receiver James Jones also entered the NFL in 2007, so it was hard for him to see his draft mate leaving the NFL already.

“I was at the combine, I was going through all that stuff with him, man, and it’s too early for him to call it quits,” Jones said. “The man’s still got a lot of football left in him, but everybody knows when it’s the right time for them. He’s one of the best to ever do it, and he’s going to go down in the Hall of Fame.”