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'Truly an honor': Lions great Calvin Johnson relishes Pro Football Hall of Fame nod

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Calvin Johnson is a Hall of Famer.

The former Detroit Lions star becomes just the seventh wide receiver to be enshrined his first year on the ballot, joining Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Steve Largent, Paul Warfield, Lance Alworth and Raymond Berry. 

Calvin Johnson

Johnson, fighting back tears, was informed of his selection by David Baker, the president and CEO of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

"The culmination of all the work, all the grind, all the ups and downs that you’ve been through, just to be able to excel at that level and be able to have the opportunity to be amongst such greats, honestly, I’m sleeping with a smile tonight," Johnson said. 

A personal visit from Baker has become a recent Hall tradition, but unlike past years, where the 6-foot-9, nearly 400-pounder could bounce around to a few hotel rooms in the Super Bowl host city, he had to make personal visits to each of the players' homes weeks before the official announcement. 

"Oh man, they got me good, my wife, she got me good," Johnson said. "I was on a business call meeting, she called me up and was like, 'Hey, we've got our family Zoom call.' We get on a Zoom like once a week or so with our family, so it was nothing out of the ordinary. But when I came inside, someone knocked on the door and she was like, 'Oh, it's just my friend Mel.' I see this big figure through the glass and I'm like, 'That's not your friend.'

"Me, I'm just like, OK, do I need to get my shotgun or what's going on, because I see a bunch of people outside my door. She's like, 'Just go answer the dang door.' ...I go answer the door and peek around and it took about two seconds for it to sink in and my hairs just raised up." 

Johnson is part of a class that includes Peyton Manning, former star quarterback for the Colts and Broncos; defensive back Charles Woodson, the former Michigan star who starred with the Raiders and Packers; receiver Drew Pearson, offensive lineman Alan Faneca, who played primarily with the Steelers; former Steelers scout Bill Nunn, former Buccaneers safety John Lynch and former Raiders head coach Tom Flores. 

Before Johnson even suited up in the NFL, the two-time All-American already was turning heads. At the scouting combine in 2007, the Georgia Tech standout measured in at 6-foot-5 and 239 pounds, then proceeded to run the 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds. That's a blazing time at any size, let alone a receiver with Johnson's supersized height-weight combination.

He didn't participate in any of the other drills at the event. He didn't have to. It was clear he was going to be special. 

Like most prospects at the combine, Johnson was asked if he could compare his game to another NFL player. His answer was a mix of Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, with Marvin Harrison's workmanlike attitude. 

All three of those receivers have since been elected to the Hall of Fame. And, in hindsight, the lofty self-analysis turned out to be spot on. Johnson was a nearly unstoppable mismatch like Moss who possessed Owens' versatility and Harrison's quiet humility. 

"To be a member of this excellent fraternity," Johnson said, "to be a member of the guys I grew up watching, to be alongside the guys I emulated my game after, to say, 'Hey, I did this because of you, I saw you do this,' to be able to meet those guys and have conversations with those guys to learn more about what the game was like when they played. ...So just to be amongst such a great group of guys, and the excellence, and to be the best in the game, truly an honor. I'm still beside myself."

The Lions drafted Johnson with the No. 2 pick in the 2007 draft. The move undoubtedly drew some eye rolls from the fan base, not because he wasn't the best player available at the spot, but because general manager Matt Millen had comically spent top-10 picks on wide receivers three consecutive years, from 2003-05, with subpar results. 

But Johnson was too talented to let the trend continue, even if it wasn't enough to save Millen, who was fired in the middle of the receiver's second season. 

It was that year Johnson established himself as one of the game's best receivers. After a decent rookie season, when he earned the nickname "Megatron" from teammate Roy Williams, Johnson caught 78 balls for 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2008. 

The Lions went winless that year, playing five quarterbacks in the process, but Johnson's star power was solidified. The team would draft quarterback Matthew Stafford the following year and that tandem would go on to shatter dozens of franchise records over the next seven seasons. 

Even though Johnson played just nine seasons, and approximately 60 fewer games than the average Hall of Fame receiver, his name is plastered all over the team's record book. He holds the single-game record for receptions (14) and receiving yards (329), the single-season mark for receiving yards (1,964), and tops the career charts for receptions (731), receiving yards (11,619) and receiving touchdowns (83). 

Johnson's 1,964 yards in 2012 remain an NFL record, and among receivers with 200 or more career receptions, his 86.1 yards per game are second only to Julio Jones. 

For his efforts, Johnson racked up the accolades. He was selected to six consecutive Pro Bowls (2010-15), earned first-team All-Pro honors three times (2011-13) and was named to the league's all-decade team for the 2010s. 

In what is likely a preview of his induction speech, Johnson thanked several people who helped him reach such great heights, from high school coach Rodney Walker to his first position coach in Detroit, Shawn Jefferson. 

"He kinda pushed you to places where you never thought you could go, pulling things out of you that you never thought they could get out of you," Johnson said.

Of course, team success eluded Johnson. In his nine seasons, he only tasted the postseason twice, with both appearances ending with a quick exit in the wild-card round. 

In his playoff debut, Johnson dominated, catching 12 balls for 211 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-28 loss to the New Orleans Saints. Three years later, Johnson had 85 yards and no scores in the Lions' 24-20 loss to Dallas. 

But through those disappointing lows, Johnson was grateful for the unconditional love and support of Lions fans. 

"I mean, my second year there, we were 0-16, but you guys still believed," he said. "You still believed in the city, y'all believed we were going to have a Super Bowl winner there at some point. I hope for you guys it happens, sooner than later. I've lived my whole adult life in Michigan, I'm still there, I love you guys, I appreciate you guys for all the love and support y'all have shown me from then until now. Like I said, y'all, Detroit City is No. 1 in my heart for sure."

Toward the end of his career, injuries weighed heavily on Johnson. He underwent surgeries to address knee, ankle and finger issues and considered retirement a year before he actually hung up the cleats. 

During his final season, in 2015, Johnson put up 1,214 yards and nine touchdowns on 88 catches. And even though he clearly remained a problem for opposing defenses, Johnson's heart was no longer into playing football. 

He officially retired on March 8, 2016. He exited through the side door without holding a final press conference, true to his long-standing preference to avoid the spotlight beyond what his play naturally commanded. 

Following his retirement, the Lions sought to reclaim a portion of Johnson's signing bonus, ultimately recouping approximately $1 million and causing a rift between the player and franchise that still exists today. 

Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp and team president Rod Wood have expressed hope in rebuilding that relationship, and according to Johnson, he's had recent conversations with Ford Hamp with positive progress is being made on that front. 

Johnson becomes the 22nd Lions player to be selected to the Hall of Fame, joining a prestigious group that includes Barry Sanders, Lem Barney, Doak Walker, Bobby Layne and Joe Schmidt.

"On behalf of the entire Detroit Lions organization, I’d like to congratulate Calvin Johnson on being named a first-ballot inductee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame," Ford Hamp said. "Calvin is one of the best to ever wear a Lions uniform. ...This is the highest individual honor in football, and it brings me great joy to know that Calvin Johnson’s legacy will forever be enshrined in Canton."

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers