Johnson’s NFL credentials as a Detroit Lion speak for themselves. On top of the all-pro and Pro Bowl invitations, Johnson was named to the NFL’s all-decade team for the 2010′s. In 2012, he broke Jerry Rice’s 20-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, 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.”
Johnson, who came to Tech from Sandy Creek High, achieved his greatness with virtually unparalleled athletic ability and 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.”
Johnson, in his first year eligible for induction since retiring in March 2016, was named one of 15 modern-era player finalists Jan. 5. The selection committee, which met two weeks ago to select the class, can vote in as many as five. Two others also in their first year on the ballot, quarterback Peyton Manning and cornerback Charles Woodson, are seen as shoo-ins.
One potential factor against Johnson’s candidacy could be a reluctance to induct three first-year eligible players when so many deserving candidates have been waiting, such as offensive tackle Tony Boselli (fifth time as a finalist) and defensive lineman and Georgia great Richard Seymour (third time). Also, Johnson’s career was nine seasons, much shorter than most inductees at his position. (Johnson retired at the age of 30, citing the game’s wear and tear on his body. In retirement, he has devoted his time to his family, his foundation and business ventures.)
But, Johnson’s case is obviously strong. And if he is inducted this year, he’ll join an even more select group. Only six wide receivers have been voted in in their first year on the ballot – Lance Alworth, Raymond Berry, Paul Warfield, Steve Largent, Jerry Rice and Randy Moss.
Johnson can join Tech’s two other inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Joe Guyon and Billy Shaw. Guyon, who played for Tech 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 1958-60, played nine seasons for the Buffalo Bills at guard. He was named All-AFL five times, was a member of the all-time All-AFL team and was the first inductee who played his entire career in that league.
At least one more finalist has a connection to Tech. Clay Matthews Jr., who led the NFL in tackles three times and whose 278 games are the most ever by a linebacker, is the son of Clay Matthews Sr., who played at Tech from 1947-49.
In 2018, when Johnson was being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, Moore, who in the NFL between 1993 and 1995, put Johnson among the five greatest players he had played with or against or seen in person. The other four were Barry Sanders, Reggie White, Brett Favre and Rice – all voted in in their first year eligible.
“You don’t make it to Canton if you’re not one of the greatest to ever do it, and he was truly that,” Moore said.
Speaking Friday, Moore took the time to share a favorite memory of Johnson, something that had nothing to do with football. In the summer of 2004, Moore organized a get together at his home and invited returning Tech players. Having heard so much about Johnson as a highly touted recruit, Moore invited him, as well.
Unexpectedly, Johnson arrived early to Moore’s home and offered to help, setting up chairs and tables. When the party ended, Johnson stayed after to help Moore clean up. It was 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.”
2018: Upon his Hall of Fame induction, telling Calvin Johnson stories