Since Johnson retired in March 2016 at the age of 30 following his ninth season – he cited the game’s wear and tear on his body – enshrinement has been considered a fait accompli, the only question being whether he would be inducted as a first-ballot candidate. Leaving Tech after his junior season and getting selected second overall by the Lions in the 2007 draft, the player who became known as “Megatron” developed into one of the NFL’s more dominant players of his era with his combination of size, strength, speed, hands, body control and an unyielding commitment to being the best.
“My mom always told me, when you’re a kid: ‘You’re a king. It’s only you,’” Johnson said on the Hall of Fame’s podcast in January upon his selection as a finalist. “‘You’ve got to believe it yourself. Nobody else is going to tell you, nobody else is going to believe in you if you don’t. You have to go out and show the world what you can do.’”
Johnson, who electrified Tech fans for three seasons (and Sandy Creek fans before that) before joining the Lions, undoubtedly showed the football world while playing for Detroit.
In nine seasons, he was an All-Pro four times (three times a first-teamer) and earned six Pro Bowl invitations. He was also named to the NFL’s all-decade team for the 2010s. He became particularly known for routinely beating double teams with his speed, leaping ability, reach and willingness to sacrifice his body to make the catch.
“I want to be in your face,” Johnson said of his approach. “I want to give it to you every play until you give up. I’m going to keep putting it to you, whether it’s blocking, whether it’s getting a pass thrown to me.”
Johnson led the league in receiving yardage in 2011 and 2012. The latter season, he broke Jerry Rice’s 17-year-old record for receiving yards in a single season, with 1,964. Even as the league becomes increasingly oriented to the passing game, the record continues to stand. He averaged 86.1 receiving yards per game for his career, an NFL record when he retired and second now only to the Falcons’ Julio Jones.
“In my whole career, I never faced a guy like that, who was that tall and that fast and that gifted, had that kind of leaping ability,” Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes told ESPN in 2014. “I think he is a physical specimen and have nothing to compare him to.”
He is only the seventh wide receiver among the 90 first-ballot inductees, joining Lance Alworth, Raymond Berry, Paul Warfield, Steve Largent, Jerry Rice and Randy Moss.
Johnson achieved his greatness with virtually unparalleled athletic ability and a dedication to match.
“This guy had more talent in half of his body than most of us had in our whole bodies, but would carry himself as if he’s the guy trying to prove himself,” said Moore, who first got to know Johnson at Tech, where he served as a chaplain and later as a character-development coach before recently accepting a similar job at South Carolina. “He was that kind of kid.”
At the time of his retirement, then-Lions coach Jim Caldwell offered Johnson even greater praise:
“I’ve had the good fortune during my career to coach and be around some of the greatest players to ever play this game. And although I’ve only been with Calvin for two years, I can tell you that not only is he as good as any player I’ve ever seen, but I am convinced that God has not put a finer person on this earth than Calvin Johnson.
“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. 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.”
In retirement, Johnson has devoted his time to his family, his foundation and business ventures.
Johnson joins Tech’s two other inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Joe Guyon and Billy Shaw. Guyon, who played for Tech in 1917-18 for John Heisman, played in the NFL’s founding season in 1920 and played eight seasons, leading the New York Giants to the league championship in 1927.
Shaw, a two-way player for Bobby Dodd from 1958-60, played nine seasons for the Buffalo Bills at guard. He was a member of the all-time All-AFL team and was the first inductee who played his entire career in that league.
In the podcast, Johnson gave credit to coaches at Tech (where he was recruited and coached by Chan Gailey) for getting him started on the way to NFL greatness. As a Jacket, he became the team’s first three-time first-team All-ACC selection, the winner of the 2006 Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver and the ACC player of the year. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2018.
“The coaches believed in me from Day 1,” Johnson said. “They threw me into the fire. I think that’s what started it. They threw me into the fire from the first day I got there, and from that point on, there wasn’t any looking back.”
Induction is scheduled for Aug. 8 in Canton, Ohio, part of a larger celebration that also will include the 2020 inductees, whose ceremony was postponed because of COVID-19.
It will be the capstone of a career unlike any other. Many Tech fans got their introduction to Johnson on Sept. 11, 2004, when he elevated to bring down a fade pass from Reggie Ball for an 11-yard touchdown pass to beat Clemson with 11 seconds to play, Johnson’s third touchdown catch of the game. (They may also remember Wes Durham’s famous call: “Touchdown, Calvin Johnson! Son of a gun! He has absolutely lived up to the legendary billing!”)
Moore, Johnson’s friend and mentor, recalled a favorite story Friday, of his own introduction to Johnson.
In the summer of 2004, Moore organized a get-together at his home and invited returning Tech players in his role as team chaplain. Having heard so much about Johnson as a highly touted recruit, Moore invited him, as well.
Johnson surprised Moore by arriving early to Moore’s home and offering to help, setting up chairs and tables. When the party ended, Johnson stayed after to help Moore clean up. It was Johnson’s character that Moore saw over and over as their relationship grew over the years, developed by his parents Calvin Sr. and Arica.
“Calvin’s going to get the call, and he’s going to be announced, and he’s going to do the speech and he’s going to wear the gold jacket,” Moore said. “But the Johnson family are the hall of famers.”