In Retirement


Istill get it all the time, but mostly when I go to the airport. Not so much in Detroit, but in cities like Atlanta or Miami — any city with an NFL team. I’ll be walking through the concourse, minding my business, and people will say, “What’s up, Megatron! You making a comeback?”

People see me in their airport and automatically assume I’m in town to meet with their team — to come out of retirement.

But I’m not.

I’m just … there — on a layover, taking a vacation with my wife, or en route to explore a new hobby. I’ve picked up a few over the last couple of years — you know, things I either wasn’t allowed to do while I was playing or just didn’t have time for. I’ve spent the last two years really getting to know myself and learning how I want to enjoy my free time.

I’ve been doing some fishing, playing a little golf — and surprisingly to most people, skiing. For some reason, I always wanted to try skiing. Growing up in Georgia, cold-weather activities were a novel concept to me. So last winter, some of the fellas and I took a weekend trip to Breckenridge, Colorado, to run the slopes. We had a blast. It was … well, it wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t hard, either. I got the hang of it pretty quick, and now I’m hooked.

Now, surfing?

That’s an entirely different story.

I had been stand-up paddleboarding before, so while on the beach in Mexico last year, I figured I’d pick up a surfboard and give that a try. But first, I had to get over my fear of sharks. Shark Week was always on during training camp, and it was all I watched. So let’s just say I wasn’t really feeling being too deep in their territory.

But I sucked it up and hopped on a board. It was a lot harder than the paddleboarding I’d done on Lake Lanier in Georgia. I actually think my surfboard may have been too short — for real. Not to make excuses, but I’m 6’ 5’’, and the board I rented was damn near my height, and it was the longest they had. I was pretty sure the surfboard was supposed to be taller than the person riding it, so my initial thought was, This can’t be right. Not gonna work.

But I tried anyway.

So, imagine me — 6’ 5”, 230 pounds — lying face down on a tiny surfboard, taking up the whole damn thing, then trying to stand up and catch a wave.

I say trying because I was hardly able to stand up on the board — and definitely not able to stay up. I came close a couple of times, but every time I got my feet set and tried to push myself up, I went down, man.

One of these days — maybe when I get the right board — I’ll perfect it.

Calvin Johnson

Of all the things I’ve done since I retired, the best was getting married.

To tell you the truth, I really didn’t want to be married while I was playing. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with being married while working. It’s just that the game takes so much of you. It requires so much time and attention. And physically, it takes so much of your body. So when you’re playing the game as a professional and wanting to reach the highest level of achievement, you have to be selfish. When you’re not working on your game or getting treatments on your body, you gotta spend as much time as you can hitting the recovery button or laying around and staying off your feet.

The way I worked out and trained and prepared — I didn’t think I could have achieved my best athletically and been the best husband at the same time. Don’t get me wrong, it can be done. I know plenty of guys who have done it, and still do. I admire them, and I honestly don’t know how they do it, managing the demands of the game and staying on top of everything at home.

I mean, if my wife, Brittney, would have come along earlier, I would have probably just sucked it up and gotten married. I wouldn’t have passed on her for anything, you know? I would have made it work.

But thankfully, the timing worked out perfectly for us. I’m happy it happened the way it did, with us getting married right after I retired. It was the perfect transition for us to begin our life together. I was truly able to put my wife and my son, Caleb, first and not have to worry about being in pain from an injury or needing to balance my time with them vs. my job.

Calvin Johnson

Aside from having more time to play with Caleb and taking trips with Brittney, the one thing pretty much everybody knows I did after retiring was Dancing With the Stars, and it was actually Brittney who kind of talked me into doing it.

After we got married, the main thing on my mind was going back to school. So when Dancing With the Stars called, I declined. I had never done ballroom dancing before. I mean, I may have done the hustle or something at a party, but outside of that, dancing wasn’t really my thing.

So a few weeks passed, and DWTS called a second time. I told Brittney they had called again, and she said,”Just do it. Why not? You only live once.”

Actually, that’s not what she said….

She said, “YOLO.”

I thought that was funny. Like, who actually says YOLO, right?

My wife, that’s who.

She told me, as she has many times before, “More times than not, it’s the things we don’t do in life that we regret most.”

She had a point. So what if I was uncertain about my dancing skills? So what if I wasn’t one for being on television (oddly enough)? I had nothing to lose.

So I called Dancing With the Stars back and told them, “Hey, I don’t dance, but I’m gonna give it a try.”

And let me tell you: It was way different than I anticipated.

I remember my first dance practice. My dance partner, Lindsay, started teaching me some steps, and I felt like I was catching on pretty quick. I was like, Man, I can do all these steps. I think I’m gonna be O.K.

But I didn’t realize that she was teaching me the most basic steps possible. There were going to be tosses, spins, lifts and solo routines. Those moves were intimidating. I was used to performing on a certain level and didn’t want to make a fool of myself because, like I said … I don’t dance.

So I tapped into my football mentality. I put everything I had into my preparation. I practiced. I watched film. I went all in. And I needed to, because we were on a deadline to learn our routines, and it was all so different than anything I had ever done.

(She) said, ‘Look, you gotta grab my butt, because if you don’t do it now, then you’re not gonna do it when we’re on stage.’

I was completely out of my element.

Dancing is very physical — and not in the way that football is physical. Dancing is like … uncomfortably physical. Especially if you’re not familiar with the culture, like I wasn’t.

While dancing with Lindsay, there was a time she wanted to incorporate a lift into our performance. This lift basically required me to grab her butt and toss her into the air. I was raised in a southern family. My parents taught me to be respectful, and putting my hands on a woman in that manner was just foreign to me. Finally, Lindsay stopped me mid-lift and said, “Look, you gotta grab my butt, because if you don’t do it now, then you’re not gonna do it when we’re on stage and this lift won’t be right.”

You play how you practice, right?

Then, on top of the cultural differences and adjusting to the physicality of dance (I lost at least 12 pounds over the course of the DWTS season), the thought of being on stage during a live TV broadcast was kind of terrifying.

I have to tell you, it wasn’t like stepping on a football field and playing. I never questioned my ability on the football field, and I had played in front of people my whole life. So aside from my first NFL game, I was never really nervous on the football field, no matter how big the game was. It was the same 100 yards on game day as it was in practice, you know?

But when you’re dancing, game day is a lot different. You go from practicing in the privacy of a dance studio with a one-cameraman audience to being on stage in front of a row of judges and close to 500 people in the crowd. And they’re not pushed back in the stands like at a football game. They’re crammed into a studio, right up to the edge of the stage — pretty much right on top of you. I imagine it’s how NBA players feel when they’re running up and down the court and Jay-Z and Beyonce or whoever is in the audience is right there. When I first walked onto the stage, it was hard not to worry about tripping and falling. Not only would I make a fool of myself, I might end up on someone’s lap.

Throw in the millions of people watching at home and it’s pretty intimidating.

But dancing on stage turned out to be a lot like football in the respect that once you get out there, the lights come on, and … showtime.

You gotta do your thing.

It was a really interesting experience. Because of that show, I did things I never thought I would, and I met people I never thought I’d meet. I have so much respect for the dance community. Lindsay, my partner, was a fantastic coach and friend. I had a ton of fun.

DWTS also provided a good transition for me. I had pretty much just retired, and the show allowed me to still have something I could practice and work towards — competition that I had to physically and emotionally prepare for in a way that was similar to what I did playing football.

In a way, it gave me confidence when facing the uncertainty of retirement. Being able to compete on that stage and actually perform well enough to finish in third place really reinforced my core belief that if you put your mind and heart into something and work at it, then you can do it.

So contrary to what some people might think, I never planned to do Dancing With the Stars. The opportunity just popped up, and I’m glad it did. I’ve always said that you never know what kind of opportunities are going to present themselves, or when. You just have to be ready to take advantage. Life doesn’t care about your plans, you know?

When the show ended, I went back to my original plan, which was to go back to school and get my degree. But another thing I always wanted to do was coach and mentor young receivers.

I had been putting on receiver camps and working with kids through my foundation — The Calvin Johnson Jr. Foundation — for 10 years. I wanted to expand on that and build a business where I could not only teach the art of catching the football, but also show guys how to be professionals. How to be men. I wanted to be a cross between a trainer, life coach and educator. Someone who could show them the ropes and help them navigate what life could — and probably would — throw at them. It was something I was determined to do. I was just waiting for the right time.

And right after DWTS ended, my phone started ringing.

Like I said: Life doesn’t care about your plans.

I started getting phone calls from coaches and receivers from every level of the sport, asking if I could work with them or their athletes. There were so many people reaching out. There was a demand for my knowledge, which kind of jolted me into action. So I put school on the backburner once again and started serving as a private wide-receiver consultant. Thus far I’ve worked with high school kids trying to earn college scholarships, college guys preparing for the draft — I’ve even been called in to help some of my former colleagues with NFL teams. It’s crazy how quickly it has grown.

Building this business and still working with kids through my foundation has been a tremendous help in my transition into retirement. It’s kept me busy and focused on what I ultimately want to achieve.

It’s part of the reason why, when people ask me if I miss playing, my answer is No.

I love football. But it became difficult to love the game as much when I was in some sort of pain every day.

I’m still around the game so much. It’s still a huge part of my life, even though I’m not playing on Sundays. I miss my teammates, for sure. I miss Coach Caldwell. I miss giving fans something to be excited about. I miss the competition. But I can honestly say that I don’t miss playing.

I love football. But it became difficult to love the game as much when I was in some sort of pain every day. I never talked about it while I was playing because … what good would that do? It wouldn’t make me hurt any less. It would just sound like an excuse. And I hate making excuses. So I continued to play as best I could for as long as I could, which turned out to be nine years.

And don’t let anyone try to tell you that nine years is a “short” football career. With the beating you take on the field, nine years literally feels like forever. They should have a system to measure a football player’s age — like dog years or something — because nine years in the league doesn’t equal nine years in real time. It takes a lot more years out of you.

So I didn’t just wake up one morning and decide, You know what? I’m going to retire today.

I contemplated it for over a year.

There were days when I was elated because I was breaking records and making my family, friends and fans proud. But the more I played … even that pride couldn’t outweigh the pain I felt while shuffling my feet across the floor because I couldn’t bend my ankles. I didn’t want to worry about potentially being in too much pain to play with my son, you know?

And that’s not all. My fingers are all kinds of jacked up. My job was to play receiver. I got paid to catch the ball. But there was a point when every time the ball hit my fingers, they ached.

There were other aches and pains and things I don’t need to go into, but eventually, my body said to me, “I’m done.’

And I listened.

Detroit Lions/AP Images

While I haven’t watched much football since I retired, I’ve kept in touch with my QB, Matthew Stafford. I have a great friendship with him and many of my former teammates. I love to see those guys out there in leadership positions, getting work done. And when they have free time, we connect. So I don’t even have to miss them too much.

I always knew football was a temporary thing — not just for me, but for anyone who plays the game. My body feels better than it has in years, and now I get to dedicate my time to being a family man. I have so much going on in my life to be excited about.

For most of my life, I’ve been identified as a football player. But I am so many other things. And that list has expanded since leaving the game. I’m a husband and a father, a friend, a coach, a mentor and an entrepreneur. I’m a skier. A surfer (kinda). Hell, I was even a dancer there for a minute. And school is still in the forecast, too. So I’ll be a student again soon.

I guess what I’m saying is … if you see me in an airport somewhere near you, let me save you some trouble.

No, I’m not coming back.

I appreciate all the love. I really do.

But football was my passion.

It is not my purpose.