When he wasn’t reflecting on his career and induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he grinned widely. And when he wasn’t grinning, he was laughing. And when not laughing, as he spoke with media on a videoconference with fellow inductee Alan Faneca, Calvin Johnson was nodding his head in agreement with Faneca, as the Pittsburgh Steelers great took his turns expounding on his induction.
Sunday morning, a half-day after the Georgia Tech great’s induction was announced on Saturday night, Johnson’s gratitude and joy over being named to the hall in his first year eligible needed no words, though he supplied those, also.
“Just to be amongst such a great group of guys — and the excellence — to be the best in the game, truly an honor,” Johnson said. “I’m still beside myself.”
Inducted along with coach Tom Flores, safety John Lynch, quarterback Peyton Manning, scout Bill Nunn, wide receiver Drew Pearson, cornerback/safety Charles Woodson and Faneca, Johnson is now one of only 354 enshrined in the hall and one of only 90 inducted in his first year of eligibility (along with Manning and Woodson). Johnson’s credentials speak for themselves — four times an All-Pro in a nine-year career, the record holder for most receiving yards in a season (1,964, in 2012), retiring with the career record for most receiving yards per game (86.1, since passed by the Falcons’ Julio Jones), a spot on the NFL’s All-2010′s team. But Sunday’s media session was a time for contemplating his career and permanent spot with the game’s greatest. The man known as “Megatron” is, for instance, only the seventh wide receiver to be inducted on the first ballot, joining Raymond Berry, Lance Alworth, Paul Warfield, Steve Largent, Jerry Rice and Randy Moss.
Said Johnson, “Just hearing the magnitude and hearing the numbers of the guys that have made it first ballot, to me, yeah, I played nine years, but I think for you guys that voted, it just says a lot for the way I played the game and I really appreciate you guys taking notice, 100%.”
Johnson looked back on the path of his career, begun at Sandy Creek High with coach Rodney Walker, and then to Tech and coach Chan Gailey before he advanced to the NFL and the Lions. He said that Walker was the first to express his belief that Johnson could succeed in football.
“Obviously, you hear it from your parents all the time, but when you hear those same words from somebody else, it kind of clicks in and you’re just like, OK, and it increases your belief in yourself to push forward,” he said.
Johnson said Walker “threw me in the fire” as a high school sophomore and gave him the opportunity to meet expectations and pressures.
“I guess (the pressures) were big at the time, being in high school,” he said.
At Tech, he said, he benefited from a coaching staff that had coaching experience in the NFL, notably Gailey and wide receivers coach Buddy Geis.
“So to have those guys come in and coach and teach us what they did and, at the same time, throw me in the fire again when I got there,” Johnson said. “I think that just, for me, was the best way for me to learn. It wasn’t always roses from the beginning. It was a learning experience each time. And the same thing happened when I got to the NFL.”
He singled out Shawn Jefferson, who played for the Falcons 2000-02 and tutored Johnson with the Lions 2007-12 as his position coach.
“He’d kind of push you to places where you never thought that you could go, pulling things out of you that you never thought they could get out of you,” Johnson said.
Johnson said that he had not decided on who he will ask to present him for his induction speech, but said he had three in mind and was leaning toward Derrick Moore, who was Georgia Tech’s team chaplain during Johnson’s career and later its character-development coach. Moore has been a close friend and mentor since.
Moore, who recently accepted a similar role at South Carolina, was overwhelmed when informed that Johnson was considering him.
“It makes me feel beyond what I can express, and any attempt to express it would fail miserably,” Moore said.
Asked for his best memories from his career, Johnson recalled the camaraderie shared with his Lions teammates, such as times when fellow wide receiver Nate Burleson invited all the wide receivers to his house.
“And that just built our chemistry so much that we relied and trusted each other so much that it just permeated through the locker room,” he said.
Johnson also spoke about his relationship with the Lions, which has been fractured since his retirement, when the team asked to recoup some of the signing-bonus money it had given him, reportedly about $1.6 million. Johnson said he has spoken multiple times with new team owner Sheila Ford Hamp and that the conversations have gone well.
“So I think that we’re moving in the right direction,” he said.
Johnson shared how he learned of his induction, from Hall of Fame president and CEO David Baker. Normally, finalists are brought to the Super Bowl site, where the voting is done the day before the game, and inductees are informed by Baker knocking on their hotel rooms. Because of COVID-19, the 48-member selection committee met via videoconference on Jan. 19, and Baker traveled across the country to make the traditional knock on the door.
Baker arrived at Johnson’s home in the Detroit area on the evening of Jan. 22, a Friday. To share the moment with family, Baker conspired with Johnson’s wife, Brittney, who arranged a videoconference call with his family under the guise of it being a business meeting. When Baker knocked, Brittney told Calvin to get the door, saying it was one of her friends.
“I see this big figure through the glass, I’m like, That’s not your friend,” Johnson said. “So me, I’m just like, OK, do I need to go 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’m like, All right, all right, all right. I go answer the door, I peek around, it took about two seconds for it to sink in, and my head just raised up.”
In footage aired Saturday night announcing the induction, Johnson opened the door and Baker said, “Calvin — David Baker from the hall of fame,” and Johnson laughed deeply, looking back at Brittney, realizing he’d been had.
“I’m told that bronze (hall of fame) bust will last for 40,000 years, so you’d better make sure it’s got that smile that you’re smiling with right now,” Baker said as Johnson laughed and wiped tears from his eyes, an uncommon show of emotion.
“I’m sleeping with a smile tonight,” he said in an interview with the camera crew after being informed of the honor.
While sworn to secrecy until the inductees were announced Sunday night, Johnson allowed that he bent the rules.
“I wanted to tell my offensive linemen, the guys that I love on my team, that, Hey, we did it,” Johnson said.
Undoubtedly, teammates, coaches and supporters all along the way — from Sandy Creek to Tech through to the Lions — are feeling the same way.