Calvin Johnson retired today after nine seasons in the NFL. The announcement is bittersweet for me. I still remember the day he was drafted in 2007. I ran to then-GM Matt Millen and asked eagerly, “Are we keeping him?”
Little did I know that Calvin would have a huge impact on me, both personally and professionally. His introverted personality was one that was tough for me — the always-talking extrovert — to crack. I was used to winning people over when I really put my mind to it, but he would prove to be a significant challenge for me.
He wasn’t one to talk to the media — for no reason other than disliking attention — so when I would come calling for the Detroit Lions website, he avoided me like the plague. I remember one interview in particular his rookie year when he answered my questions with his helmet on and one hand on the training room door.
I’m not one to shy away from a challenge, though, and I knew Calvin was a good guy. I finally started to wear him down during the 2009 offseason. The Lions had just hired Jim Schwartz, who opted to retain Shawn Jefferson as the team’s wide receivers coach. I wanted a quote from Calvin on the subject.
One of my co-workers found him in the locker room and told him I was looking for him, which meant Calvin knew he had a limited amount of time to leave the building to avoid running into me. My co-worker told me as much and I rushed downstairs to find him. Imagine my luck — I found him outside the locker room ready to leave the building. When we made eye contact, Calvin immediately looked deflated that he hadn’t managed to get away in time.
I rushed over to him and asked him if he would talk to me for the website.
“How long do you need?” he asked.
“Five minutes,” I replied.
“Well … I can’t,” he said, searching for an excuse. “Gos(der Cherlius) and I are going to eat lunch.”
I looked at my watch.
“You have to rush to get lunch at 10:30 in the morning?”
He was caught. He knew it. He smirked and said, “Okay, fine.”
When the interview was over, I told him with satisfaction we had held it to under three minutes. He smiled and our friendship was forged.
A Record Year
It was truly an honor to experience Calvin’s record-breaking year. I facilitated his blog and enjoyed that he was forced to talk to me every week, a dejected look coming over him upon seeing me approach. He often tried to get out of talking (much like the lunch excuse of 2009), but he always accommodated.
I also enjoyed giving fans a behind-the-scenes look at the team through social media. In 2012, I pioneered taking videos of the team getting on the plane for road trips and on the field postgame. As a result, I was like the Where’s Waldo of Calvin Johnson postgame photos. I may or may not have taken a bit of grief for it.
The 2012 season was unbelievable, though. The team had a down year after making the playoffs in 2011, but Calvin’s quest to break Jerry Rice’s record was incredible. He was at the peak of his career and made acrobatic after acrobatic catch, something wonderful to witness in person.
When he finally broke the record against Atlanta – his hometown team – I remember seeing the smile on his face under his helmet. I was (of course) down on the field at the end of the game and made sure to capture the action with my phone. The photographers may have been a tad annoyed with my amateur self getting in the way, but I didn’t care.
Much to my chagrin, it was my camera phone photo that made SportsCenter that night. During Calvin’s press conference, I was in the wings and snapped a photo of him talking with his proud papa in the background. The photo went viral.
The Final Four
As awesome as that record-breaking year was, my favorite Calvin experience happened away from football. I was in Atlanta with the Michigan men’s basketball team for the Final Four. I was able to meet up with Calvin the day before the first game and he told me that, if Michigan won, he would take me and my husband (the team SID) out to dinner.
Well, we won. It was one of the greatest sports days of my life and, as a result of making the finals, Calvin took my husband and me out to dinner. We had such a great time.
Calvin and his brother also attended the finals vs. Louisville. That day, though, was the most heartbreaking sports day of my life. I felt like Rosie O’Donnell in A League of Their Own saying, “I thought we had it. I really did.” Losing that game stuck with me for awhile, but that Final Four trip gave me so many wonderful memories that will last forever.
I don’t talk to Calvin often, but I talk to him enough. He isn’t a fan of chit chat, but will answer the phone periodically when I call. I have always hoped we would work together after his playing career was over. That remains to be seen, but — at the very least — I know we will always be friends.
I’m glad I can say I know the real Calvin – “C” as his friends and family call him – and the personality behind the visor. Though he has never loved the spotlight, always shying away from the media, he appreciates his fans and the platform he has been given as a professional athlete.
He has an incredible, tight-knit family that raised him right. It’s why he’s always loved football and competing, but values the friendships he made in the game more than anything else. My favorite memories are the years with Shawn Jefferson, Nate Burleson, Reggie Bush, Joique Bell, and all of the awesome characters we had. It was so much fun.
In his statement today, Calvin writes, “While I truly respect the significance of this, those who know me best will understand and not be surprised that I choose not to have a press conference for this announcement.”
It’s the right way for him to go out — quietly and away from the spotlight. But even though he isn’t talking publicly, know that he appreciates his coaches, teammates, opponents, and fans, and will certainly miss the game of football. At the same time, I doubt he really grasps the impact he had on the game. His humility just won’t allow him to see the superstar he really is.