He says he changed his story about at least one head injury after being pressured by the team. He says he had his choice of drugs to deal with the pain of professional football, telling SI that all manner of narcotics were available in the training room. He chose to smoke marijuana after games.
In his retirement, Johnson is another former NFL player to relay his misgivings about the league and the game that made him famous but left him facing an uncertain future.
Johnson told the magazine he retired early, at the same age as Hall of Fame running back and former Lion Barry Sanders, saying there is a “very strong possibility” he would have kept playing longer if the Lions had been more successful. Detroit asked him to hand back an estimated $1.6 million, a prorated portion of his signing bonus, something the team was fully entitled to do, but Johnson found the request petty. You don’t ask one of your franchise’s legendary players to give back what amounts to a rounding error where NFL salaries are concerned, he reasoned.
Now Johnson said he has no plans to set foot in the Lions’ facility or at a team event. He told Detroit Coach Matt Patricia he would help train the team’s receivers but somewhere off-site.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say I cheer for the Lions,” Johnson told SI. “I cheer for the players.”
He thought about leaving football a year earlier because of the constant pain he endured but didn’t feel certain about the decision, so he came back to play one more year.
In 2012, three years before he retired, he said he suffered a concussion against the Vikings, then reentered and finished the game. The Lions continue to insist Johnson passed the league’s concussion protocol that day. Johnson, in the week after the game, apologized and said he used terms “concussion” and “nerve damage” incorrectly. Now he’s saying something else.
“I knew I was concussed because I blacked out. I wasn’t seeing straight,” he said. “And they wanted me to change my story.”
That was part of the dysfunction, he told SI, that contributed to his departure from football. Now, though, Johnson is in control. He runs Locker Room Consulting, a firm that helps athletes prepare for life after sports, and Primitive, a cannabis dispensary.
Johnson recalled Lions quarterback Jon Kitna walking out of a meeting with a premonition in 2008.
“He left the meeting room one day, and he told the coaches and the whole team that we’re not going to win a game if we go into the season with [this] system,” Johnson said. “Somebody should have listened. Because we were 0-16 after that.”