- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 8, 2016

DETROIT — Calvin Johnson, one the most spectacular wide receivers in NFL history, retired from the Detroit Lions on Tuesday and rekindled memories of the way superstar running back Barry Sanders quietly stepped away from football.

Johnson, 30, called it a career after nine seasons filled with highlight-reel catches, dozens of touchdowns and nearly 12,000 receiving yards. The 6-foot-5 receiver was known as “Megatron,” a sign of respect for his imposing skills and unusual mixture of speed, power and gracefulness.

“Let me assure you that this was not an easy or hasty decision,” Johnson said. “I, along with those closest to me, have put a lot of time, deliberation and prayer into this decision and I truly am at peace with it.”

Shortly after Detroit finished last season with a 7-9 record — its seventh losing season in nine years — Johnson announced he was evaluating his future. He had reportedly told some teammates entering last season that it would be his last and told coach Jim Caldwell afterward that he was retiring.

Johnson piled up 731 career receptions for 11,619 yards, a league-record 86.1 receiving yards per game, and 83 touchdowns against defenses often geared to stop him. He reached 10,000 yards in 115 games and 11,000 yards in 127 games — quicker than anyone in NFL history. Including the postseason, he has another league mark with six games with more than 200 receiving yards.

Johnson broke one of Hall of Famer Jerry Rice’s records with 1,964 receiving yards in 2012. He ranked among league leaders last season with 88 receptions for 1,214 yards and nine touchdowns, playing through lingering injuries as he often did.

“Not only is he as good as any player I’ve ever seen, but I am convinced that God has not put a finer person on this earth than Calvin Johnson,” Caldwell said.

The six-time Pro Bowl receiver leaves Detroit much as Sanders did. Sanders slipped away from the Lions shortly before the 1999 season, after he had 1,491 rushing yards as a 30-year-old running back, and faxed a retirement announcement to a friend at his hometown newspaper.

Like Sanders, the quiet and humble Johnson avoided the spotlight and released a statement of his own.

“While I truly respect the significance of this, those who know me best will understand and not be surprised that I choose not to have a press conference,” Johnson said. “After much prayer, thought and discussion with loved ones, I have made the difficult decision to retire from the Lions and pro football. I have played my last game of football.”

Detroit drafted Johnson out of Georgia Tech with the No. 2 pick in 2007 and gave him a six-year deal worth up to $64 million. Former teammate Roy Williams gave him his nickname, and Johnson gave fans a reason to watch their scuffling team. Like Sanders, his jaw-dropping plays made the Lions bearable.

“He was an amazing and rare talent both on and off the field, and I feel lucky to have been able to see him play,” Sanders wrote on his website.

Unlike Sanders, Johnson had to endure the NFL’s first 0-16 season in 2008 and he never won a playoff game.

The Lions have now had one of the best running backs and wide receivers in league history and only one playoff victory to show for it. Sanders helped Detroit beat the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs on Jan. 5, 1992 — the franchise’s only successful day in the postseason since winning the title in 1957.

Johnson, though, refused to ever rant about how the team failed to surround him with enough good players and coaches to win when it mattered most.

He declined last season to say if he would restructure his contract, which called for him to count $24 million against the salary cap in 2016. In 2012, he signed an eight-year contract through 2019 that could’ve potentially paid him $132 million. The Lions said Tuesday only that “matters were settled to the satisfaction of the parties” one day before free agency opened across the league.

“He was the epitome of dignity, class, humility and excellence,” Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford said.

Johnson faced constant double teams, sometimes drawing two defensive backs pressing him close to the line as if he was lined up wide for a punt team. There were times, though, Johnson couldn’t be stopped. He was fast enough to zip past defensive backs, running a 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, and was athletic enough to rise over them with his 45-inch vertical leap.

“We haven’t seen a wide receiver with Calvin’s measurables,” Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter once said. “The only thing that will stop him from being one of the all-time greats is not staying healthy.”

In the end, health concerns seem to be what shortened his career.

The Lions let him miss some practices in recent years, hoping to cut down on wear and tear, knowing no one worked harder.

Dominic Raiola and Rob Sims, two former Lions offensive linemen, will never forget watching Johnson lift and flip tractor tires with ease as if they were small enough to fit on a bicycle.

“We were like, ‘Man, look at that,’” Sims recalled, several months after seeing the spectacle. “That’ll be a story I’ll tell my grandkids about when they ask me about Calvin Johnson.”

When Johnson was asked to react to what his teammates said about him back then, the soft-spoken native of Tyrone, Georgia, simply shrugged his shoulders and offered one of his many aw-shucks responses.

“I don’t impress myself,” he said.


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