Calvin Johnson has kept his distance from the Detroit Lions since his abrupt retirement after the 2015 season, which is a less-than-ideal situation for a sad-sack franchise that has had so few recent megastars apart from Barry Sanders. And with Johnson’s first crack at the Pro Football Hall of Fame coming up in 2021, the Lions would like to patch things up with the player formerly known as Megatron.
“That’s on the agenda this year, reaching out to him,” team president Rod Wood said last month. “We have Barry [Sanders] coming in this week for a couple events and I want to kind of try and find a way to do something similar to what we’ve been doing with Barry if Calvin would be interested. So that’s on my agenda to get to him and talk about it.”
Sanders, if you recall, had a similarly frosty relationship with the Lions after his own hasty retirement in 1998. The two sides finally patched things up in 2017, when Sanders joined the team as a brand ambassador.
The sticking point for Johnson, as it was for Sanders, is the fact that the Lions made him repay a sizable portion of the $16 million signing bonus he received as part of a 2012 contract extension upon his retirement. According to Carlos Monarrez of the Detroit Free Press, it was more than $1 million, and Johnson would like to see the Lions give him some of that money back before he thinks about extending his own olive branch.
“They already know what they got to do,” Johnson told Dave Birkett of the Free Press on Saturday. “The only way they’re going to get me back is they put that money back in my pocket. Nah, you don’t do that. I don’t care what they say. They can put it back, then they can have me back. That’s the bottom line.”
When Sanders retired, the Lions demanded that he pay back $5.5 million of the $11 million bonus he received after signing a new contract in 1997 (NFL teams are allowed to do that under the league’s collective bargaining agreement, though they sometimes waive that right as a goodwill gesture). Sanders initially refused, so the Lions sued him and an arbitrator sided with the team in 2000.
But Sanders is back with the team and, with the NFL’s 100-year anniversary this season, will probably be celebrated on the field at some point with other Lions greats. Whether Johnson joins him — perhaps to get his No. 81 number retired — remains to be seen.
“It’s a very high priority” to reestablish a relationship, Wood said. “I hope and I would expect that within a couple years he’ll be considered for the Hall of Fame and I really want to have a relationship at that point that is productive for both sides and we can be there celebrating with him and we can find ways to have him here and celebrate as well.”
Said Sanders: “I think we’ll always see him as a Lion, so the sooner they can mend it the better. I think most of his fans have great memories of him and, yeah, we just see him as one of us so hopefully, yeah, they can mend things.”
In nine seasons with Detroit, Johnson set franchise records for receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns but played in only two playoff games, both losses in the wild-card round.