After a report that he nearly joined LeBron James in Cleveland last fall, a source close to Calvin Johnson confirmed Tuesday night that the star receiver has declined multiple overtures from the Detroit Lions to return as an ambassador for the franchise this year and for Sunday’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio.
In fact, Johnson’s relationship with the franchise appears as fractured as it was at any point during his nine years in Detroit, which ended with Johnson retiring abruptly in March at age 30.
“He’s not bitter or angry,” the source said, “but he has seen how things are run and there’s no interest in coming back.”
Johnson did not respond to a voicemail Tuesday night seeking comment, and his agent Josh Kusnick declined comment when reached by phone. Detroit Lions spokesman Bill Keenist also declined comment on Johnson’s relationship with the team.
The Free Press first reported Johnson’s Hall of Fame weekend snub last month, but it appears relations between him and the Lions have deteriorated since then. The Lions even went so far as to reach out to Johnson for an official statement that could have been read at the team’s Hall of Fame induction banquet before they decided to scrap the idea.
Johnson has said he’s happy in his new life and has made no secret of how unhappy he was with the Lions during their 1-7 start last season, when coach Jim Caldwell benched him one week and Johnson aired his grievances publicly. He also skipped Detroit’s annual Thanksgiving Day game — a fan favorite tradition that Johnson started regularly attending as a rookie in 2007 — for the first time since 2010.
And even if Johnson wanted to patch things up with the franchise, it doesn’t appear there’s much interest from ownership on down. The Free Press reported July 8 that team president Rod Wood appeared giddy about playing Johnson’s replacement, Golden Tate, on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” this summer along with running back Ameer Abdullah.
“The one thing I’m very pleased about,” Wood said at the time, “is you can see how we’re creating an environment and culture where people want to be here — and not just for someplace else, but they really want to be here.”
When told last month that Johnson was declining the team’s latest overture to return, Wood shrugged his shoulders.
“Everybody has a right to make their own decisions about how they spend their time,” he said. “I wish Calvin well on his decision-making with what he wants to do in his life.”
Johnson’s refusal to return is another blow for the Lions, who are looking to get back on track after a disastrous 1-7 start last season culminated with Caldwell being fired. New general manager Bob Quinn has been busy reshaping the team for 2016 and beyond by signing Tate in free agency and trading up to draft Southern California wide receiver/returner Marvin Jones in the fifth round of this year’s draft.
And while those moves might make sense from a football standpoint, they don’t create any goodwill with fans or engender goodwill among former players that still feel close ties to their franchise. Brian Williams, who played three years alongside Johnson at Georgia Tech before spending five seasons as his teammate in Detroit, said Tuesday night he was disappointed when he heard Johnson was snubbing the team.
“I thought Calvin and I had a good friendship,” Williams said. “That makes me sad they didn’t reach out to him.”
By declining to attend, Johnson joins another former Lions star in Barry Sanders as being passed over for Hall of Fame induction weekend despite their stellar career accomplishments in Detroit — both were ball carriers who got hurt early in their final seasons with the franchise and never played again.
“But I think it’s different with (Johnson), because he was a receiver,” Williams said. “And you know when guys get older like that, it’s family stuff that comes up. … But I’m not in his head or anything.”