My Road to Detroit
My wife and I were at Dick’s Sporting Goods shopping around when I looked up at one of the television monitors and saw a red Breaking News box.
THIS JUST IN
Lions WR Calvin Johnson
retires after 9 seasons
Jazmyn looked back at me, eyebrows raised. We both knew what that meant.
It was right in that two-day window where teams could start negotiating with free agents — one day before free agency officially began and players could sign. Things were about to start happening.
The first thing I thought about when I saw the news flash on the screen was the big yellow legal pad sitting on my desk at home. It’s easy to simplify free-agency decisions as being solely about money, or about winning or playing time. And don’t get me wrong, those are all important factors. But there’s so much more to it — I understood that going into the process. So when free agency started getting closer and talks about re-upping with the Bengals hit a standstill, I had to explore my options. I had to do my homework.
That’s where my yellow pad comes in.
I knew I liked the Lions. When free agency began I took out my yellow pad and ranked every team that showed an interest in signing me. The Lions were one of 11 teams. I scribbled notes for teach team because I had to keep track of so many factors, including cap space, coaches, personnel and off-the-field stuff — too many to even list.
I had also signed up for NFL Game Pass on NFL.com so that I could watch the coaches film — the All-22 film that shows every player on the field. It has every play from every game, and I looked up the film from each team on my yellow pad — teams that I was interested in and that were interested in me — and watched all their games from 2015. I broke everything down (offensive balance, play-calling tendencies, quarterback play) and I mentally put myself on the field as if I was part of each team’s offense to see how I’d fit.
Things moved so quickly at times that I couldn’t even understand my own handwriting. I had things circled, other things crossed out, notes tacked on to notes, and arrows pointing all over the place. I kept flipping the pages over the top of the pad and starting over.
A few pages in, I had gotten the list down to five teams. The Lions were still on the list. I had one note written next to their name about what could move them to the number one spot.
IF CALVIN RETIRES: YES
I had just written that down the day before Jazmyn and I went shopping at Dick’s.
Within two hours of Calvin’s retirement, I got a call from the Lions.
The next day, we agreed to a deal.
When you’re a free agent, you basically get to pick where you play, to an extent. Some guys have more options than others, of course. I was fortunate — actually flattered — that I had so many teams making a push to bring me in.
When you get drafted, though, you don’t have a choice.
But when I came into the league in 2012, even if I’d had a choice, I couldn’t have chosen a better franchise than the Bengals.
To explain why, I need to take you back to college. Back to good ol’ Cal. Back to my first day of camp as a freshman in 2008.
I’m 18 years old, asleep on the floor of my dorm room — there’s three players to a room and only two beds, and the freshman always gets the floor. It’s early in the morning, practice starts in two hours, and I get a phone call. It’s Jazmyn. Something’s weird, I can tell. She called me, but she’s not saying anything. Finally, she breaks the silence.
“I don’t want you to be mad.…”
“What is it?”
“Just … don’t be mad at me, Marvin.”
“Jazmyn … what?”
My heart sank into my stomach. Not because I was going to be a father — my dad was Superman to me. I had always wanted to be a dad one day.
But not now. Not today. Not on my first day of camp, when I’m trying to earn a starting spot as a true freshman. Not when I’m up here at Cal and Jazmyn is six hours away back home in Los Angeles. How was all this gonna work?
One of the things I was most afraid of was telling my dad. Like I said, he was Superman to me. He was my hero. I thought he was going to be disappointed in me.
Not long after the call from Jazmyn, I get a call from my wide receivers coach, Kevin Daft. He wants to check in and see if I’m ready for camp. So he calls me up, all excited. I mean, the guy is hyped.
And I’m just … not.
I’m thinking about this baby, about how my dad’s going to react. Not about football.
So he asks me what’s wrong, and I tell him. And when he hangs up, he calls my head coach, Jeff Tedford. Next thing I know, I’m in Coach Tedford’s office, bawling. I don’t know what hit me. I tell him everything I was thinking — all my confusion, all my fears. Maybe it was just saying it all out loud that made it all feel more real, but I just broke down.
“Listen, Marvin,” he says. “There are things other freshmen are gonna do that you won’t be able to do. Not a lot of guys on this team have kids, so you’re gonna have to be the most responsible person on this team.”
That was probably one of the things that scared me the most — the responsibility, being forced to grow up. I didn’t know if I was ready for that. But Coach Tedford was there to help me understand what I needed to do, and what the first step had to be.
“You need to call your dad.”
I called him right there from Coach Tedford’s office, terrified of what he would say, of what he would think. But just like any Superdad would, he saved the day with what he said to me.
“I’ll never be disappointed in you, son. I just want you to take responsibility as a man. I’m here with you every step of the way. I back you 100%.”
If you had been sitting in that room with me, I bet you would have seen the expression on my face change when he said those words. The tone in my voice lightened. I sat up taller. My fear turned into excitement. My dad was Superman. He could do anything. And if he had my back, then I was pretty sure I could do anything, too.
Even raise a child while playing Division I football and going to school full time.
My freshman year was tough. Jazmyn was down in L.A. and I was in Berkeley, so there was the distance factor. And then in the fourth week of the season, I tore my knee up in practice and missed the next eight games.
That’s when I started getting homesick.
I had a lot of downtime to think about Jazmyn being pregnant back home and me not being with her. After games on Saturdays, I’d toss my backpack and some clothes into the back of my ’95 Honda Prelude and make the six-hour drive home down I-5. Then I’d skip all my Monday classes to stay home an extra day, because that was our off day.
There were times when I just didn’t want to be at Cal anymore, honestly. Not because I didn’t love it there, but because I was homesick. I wanted to be with Jazmyn.
But even on the worst days, quitting never crossed my mind. I made it back on the field for the last game of the regular season and played in a bowl game.
Two weeks after the bowl game, on January 12, 2009, Marvin Jones III was born.
In a lot of ways, my sophomore year was more difficult than my freshman year, mostly because I was away from my new son. I had a solid year on the field, but off the field, I was struggling. My grades were slipping because my primary focuses were family and football. Things got so bad at one point that I was in danger of becoming academically ineligible.
On top of that, even with the frequent drives home to L.A., I was still missing the best moments of being a dad. You know, the “firsts.”
Marvin’s first word was “dada,” and I wasn’t there to hear it. When he took his first steps, I wasn’t there to see them.
Thank God for the iPhone, because Jazmyn was able to send me a video of my son walking for the first time.
But it wasn’t the same.
Things didn’t really turn around until my junior year, when Jazmyn and Marvin moved up to Cal to live with me. I had another great season on the field, and I used the hours that I had previously spent driving to and from L.A. for studying, so my grades went up.
Everything just felt … good. Stable. Like I was finally at home in Berkeley.
My senior year, Jazmyn got pregnant again. And if there’s one example that shows just how different my whole mindset was — how much I had grown since I found out Marvin was on the way — it’s the first thing I did when I found out she was pregnant again.
I called my dad.
This time, I wasn’t scared. I was excited.
“Daddy! We’re having another baby!”
My second son, Mareon, was born on Halloween my senior year at Cal.
Just a few months later, almost four years after I called my dad bawling from Coach Tedford’s office, I found myself entering the 2012 NFL Draft with 156 career receptions, 2,270 yards, 13 touchdowns, a 3.0-plus GPA, two beautiful baby boys …
And one happy family.
My dad had told me, “I just want you to take responsibility as a man.”
With a ton of help, I feel like I did that.
Northern California, where I went to college, is different than Southern California, where I grew up. The weather, the people, the vibe — everything’s different. That’s not a bad thing … I loved it at Cal. But I remember when I first got there, people would ask me where I’m from, and I’d say, “I’m from Cali.”
They’d be like, “We’re in Cali.…”
Northern California is that different. It felt like a whole other state.
But you know what’s even more different?
When the Bengals drafted me in the fifth round in 2012, I wasn’t really a typical 22-year-old rookie. I had basically already been living like a middle-aged man — like an “adult” — for two years. I didn’t go out and party like most guys at Cal — especially in the months after Mareon was born. I would wake up every morning and have breakfast with my family, then head off to work and come home at the end of the day to a home-cooked meal before putting my kids to bed. Very suburban.
The only difference was that “work” was football and a full slate of classes.
And I had to work Saturdays.
So I didn’t think the off-the-field transition to the NFL was going to be all that difficult. The trick was finding the right community around Cincinnati, a city I knew nothing about.
After talking to some guys on the team and doing some research, we settled on a town in Kentucky just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.
Good ol’ Florence, Ky.
Now before I tell you about Florence, let me tell you what my dad was like when I was a kid. He was like a big kid himself. He still is. He was always outside playing with my two sisters and me and all our friends. He’s also an avid cartoon watcher. He was always watching Tom & Jerry and Looney Tunes with us growing up.
I’m the same way.
I’m a big kid.
In Florence, there were a ton of kids in our community, and they were always outside playing. So all day long, we’d have kids knocking on our door asking if little Marvin or Mareon could come out and play. Sometimes, they’d ask for my boys to come out, but they’d be taking a nap or something. So the kids would say, “Can you come out and play?”
I almost always said yes.
A lot of times we’d go out in my backyard and play touch football. Sometimes there would be as many as 20 kids from ages three to 17 out there. I would be all-time QB. We had a blast.
But the best was when we played Capture the Flag.
If you didn’t play Capture the Flag as a kid, well … you missed out. It’s the best game. Ever. And it’s pretty simple: The field is split into two halves and each team has one flag, which they hide somewhere on their side of the field. The first team to venture into enemy territory, capture the other team’s flag and bring it back safely to their side wins.
It’s basically a giant game of tag.
If you get tagged, you go to “jail,” which in our case was either the street corner in front of the house or my mailbox.
And let me tell you something: It was sometimes more of a workout playing with those kids than it was training for football. We went hard out there.
I remember in 2014 when I was coming back from an ankle injury. I had just been cleared to start working out, and sure enough, the kids came to my door asking, “Can you come out and play?” And I strapped on my ankle braces, laced up my cleats and got to schooling some kids in the backyard.
That was my rehab.
When little Marvin and Mareon played, sometimes they were on my team. But sometimes they played against me.
When they played against me, they never tagged Daddy.
None of the kids ever tagged Daddy.
We didn’t even have actual flags. We used some old T-shirts as flags. And after every game, the winning team would take the T-shirt and hang it up on the jungle gym in my backyard, like raising a championship banner in a stadium.
My side of the jungle gym had a lot of banners.
One night, before free agency this past offseason, after spending a night at my desk rewriting my rankings and scratching on my yellow pad, I asked little Marvin, who’s seven, and Mareon, who’s four, what they thought. You know, just for fun.
“Where do you guys think Daddy should play next year?”
I was blown away because their responses actually … made sense.
Little Marvin: “New York! You could team up with Odell.…”
I had thought about that.
Mareon: “What about Atlanta?”
He had overheard me talking about getting a house near A.J. Green in Atlanta before, and he likes their team colors.
Marvin: “Why don’t you play with Tom Brady?”
He plays Madden NFL Mobile, and Tom Brady is his quarterback. So he was like, I play with Tom Brady. Why don’t you?
Mareon: “What if you played with Calvin Johnson?”
That one was funny because we had some neighbors in Florence who were from Michigan, and when our youngest son, Murrell, was born last year, they got him a little Calvin Johnson jersey. It was funny because they were like, “Don’t be offended.…” The jersey was stuffed in the bottom of a closet somewhere, but Mareon remembered it.
But c’mon: Giants, Patriots, Falcons and Lions? I couldn’t believe how spot-on these kids were. I mean, these were all things I had thought about. Things I had written down on my yellow pad.
Those teams were on my list.
It’s crazy how kids think. They just speak such truth because they don’t overanalyze things. I guess you’d call it “kid’s intuition.”
They were so spot-on that at one point, I had to cut them off.
“O.K., you guys gotta stop. You’re messin’ with my head.…”
Maybe I shouldn’t have asked.
THIS JUST IN
We both knew what that meant.
I thought about that yellow legal pad.
IF CALVIN RETIRES: YES
I’ll be honest: Money was a factor. You have such a short amount of time to play this game, and you have to take what you can get when you can get it.
Winning was a factor. I genuinely feel like this Lions team can win.
Playing time was a factor. And when Calvin retired, that opened things up and the Lions became the front-runner, and eventually, the team.
But when I was deciding, I thought about more than money, winning and playing time.
I thought about my four years in Cincinnati. How the Bengals community felt a lot like the community in Florence that my family and I lived in — family-oriented. I thought about the Bengals’ Christmas parties, where everybody showed up with their families, even the owner, Mike Brown. How the Brown family wanted to get to know you as a person off the field and get to know your family, too. How coach Marvin Lewis was a players’ coach who went out of his way to have team events where everybody in the locker room had to interact with each other — so we always felt like family.
I thought about the other guys’ kids who’d come out to practice and hang out with my kids. About Domata Peko and how our kids always had sleepovers together.
I thought about how much my kids loved it in Florence.
I thought about those games of Capture the Flag.
Leaving Cincinnati for Detroit was one of the most difficult decisions of my life. I have the yellow pad to prove it. And maybe one day, I’ll share that with you guys. I’ll be old and retired, and I’ll clean out my office one afternoon and stumble upon that yellow pad, all scribbled on and buried in some drawer, and I’ll remember this process. I’ll relive all those incredible memories from Cincinnati, and hopefully by then, all the great memories I will have made in Detroit, too.
Cincinnati will always be the team that took a chance on me. I’ll be forever grateful for the opportunity that the Bengals gave me to grow as a football player and as a man, and for the relationships I built there. No matter what happens in my professional career, it will always have started in Cincinnati.
Ever since I first stepped on a football field, I’ve wanted to win a Super Bowl. And I haven’t done that yet, so I’m not satisfied. I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished anything in this league yet. There’s so much more I want to — and can — do. The possibility of being a key ingredient in helping build a championship team in Detroit is pretty exciting.
I’ve even found a great community in Detroit where kids already come to the door and ask if Marvin — big Marvin — can come out and play. That’s something that’s really important for me — to have my kids grow up in that kind of community. For them to remember Daddy not only as the guy who played for the Bengals and the Lions, but also as the daddy who played touch football and Capture the Flag with them — who was just a regular dad. I believe we’ve found another community in which we can do that.
I’ll always remember those old T-shirts hanging on the jungle gym in my backyard in Florence, Ky. I’ll always have those championship banners.
Now, I hope to help hang a different kind of championship banner in Detroit.