Lions' Calvin Johnson makes 'difficult decision' to retire

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford leave the field after Johnson's final NFL game, a 24-20 win at Chicago on Jan. 3, 2016.

The Lions are losing another generational talent to early retirement.

Calvin Johnson, 30, told the team he plans to retire after nine spectacular seasons with Detroit in the NFL.

Johnson’s fans will remember him for making the incredible look ordinary, whether he was making a catch in triple-coverage or tapping his toes on the sideline to complete an impressive reception.

The Lions announced Johnson’s plans in a news release Tuesday morning, saying he filed his retirement papers with the NFL before the announcement. With regards to his contract, those “matters were settled to the satisfaction of the parties,” according to the team.

Johnson’s nine years were one fewer than Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders played for the Lions before retiring in 1999. Like Sanders, Johnson is making the move quietly, as Johnson said in a statement that he will not hold a news conference.

“After much prayer, thought and discussion with loved ones, I have made the difficult decision to retire from the Lions and pro football. I have played my last game of football,” Johnson said in the statement. “Let me assure you that this was not an easy or hasty decision. As I stated, I, along with those closest to me, have put a lot of time, deliberation and prayer into this decision and I truly am at peace with it.

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“I also want you to know that I have the utmost respect and admiration for the game of football. It has provided so much for me and my family and I will be forever grateful to the game.”

Johnson, who also thanked Lions fans and the Ford family, was one of the best mismatches in the NFL, and even though his career totals won’t measure up to the greatest receivers of all time, he’ll go down as one of the most uniquely talented players at the position.

“On behalf on my entire family I want to thank Calvin 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,” Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford said in a statement. “He was the epitome of dignity, class, humility and excellence. Calvin was exemplary on and off the field and will always be a part of our family and our team.”

At 6-foot-5 and about 235 pounds, Johnson was taller and bigger than just about anyone who tried to cover him. He ran a 4.35-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine in 2007, so he was faster than most opponents, too.

According to Johnson’s peers, many of whom consider themselves fans, he was one of the humblest superstars across any sport. He rarely celebrated his touchdowns besides the occasional spike or goal-post dunk, and despite being the best receiver in the NFL for a portion of his career, his teammates said he competed in practice like he was just trying to make the team.

Because Johnson was so good, the Lions made him the focal point of the offense, but the constant use led to several injuries. Over the past few seasons, Johnson dealt with knee, finger and ankle ailments, and long-term health concerns were a major factor in his decision. 

“He truly is one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met and I have as much respect for him as anyone I know,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “Calvin’s character, integrity, selflessness and humility are unmatched. His exemplary work ethic and approach to the game of football made everyone around him better.”

New Lions general manager Bob Quinn said Lions fans should "appreciate what a remarkable talent we have had the privilege of watching.”

Quinn added: “A harsh reality of our business is that great players like Calvin Johnson do retire and we all understand that no one player could ever replace Calvin.”

Johnson was as respected as a uniquely talented player and competitor throughout the NFL.

“Hey man, I wish him the best,” cornerback Charles Tillman, who used to cover Johnson twice a year with the Bears, said at the Super Bowl. “Some of my greatest games were against him. He’s an awesome guy, and I wish him nothing but the best."

Like many people, Tillman thinks Johnson is a Hall of Famer.

“If I had a vote, I’m giving him a first-ballot vote,” he said.

During his nine years, Johnson eclipsed 1,000 yards seven times. In 2012, he finished with 1,964 yards, setting a new record for receiving yardage in a season. In 2013, he had 329 receiving yards in a game against the Dallas Cowboys, which is the second highest total in league history.

One of the few accomplishments Johnson didn’t complete was winning a playoff game as the Lions advanced to the postseason just twice during his career.

Calvin Johnson

“My biggest regret is that I wasn’t able to help give our fans a championship,” Johnson said in the statement. “But I do believe the future of the Lions is bright and with the leadership from people like Rod Wood and Bob Quinn, who I have gotten to know over the past few months, I am confident that our fans will soon be rewarded with the championship you deserve.”

Despite the lack of team success, Johnson will go down as a once-in-a-lifetime player, and he was someone opponents looked forward to playing.

“The game is going to miss him, man,” Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson said last month. “I know I’m going to miss playing against him, and I wish him the best of luck.”

Peterson made a keepsake of one of the balls he intercepted while covering Johnson. When Peterson saw the Lions on the Cardinals’ schedule, he always got excited.

“Matt Stafford is definitely going to miss him because he could throw the ball blindfolded, and Calvin’s going to pretty much come down with it,” Peterson said.

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