It’s one thing to become a National Football League superstar, but when one is also given a nickname, it’s a sign that he’s truly someone special.
Calvin Johnson was one of pro football’s best wide receivers, not only in recent memory but of all time. He was known to millions as “Megatron,” and once his career ended, he expanded his name recognition to a whole new audience outside of sports.
His career ended prematurely, but it lasted long enough to tattoo his name in the NFL’s record books.
On The Rise In Georgia
Calvin Johnson Jr. was born on Sept. 29, 1985 in Newnan, Ga., a small town in Metro Atlanta about 40 miles southwest of the city. He was born to Arica Johnson, a public school administrator, and Calvin Johnson Sr., a freight conductor for Norfolk Southern Railway.
Johnson Jr. was uniquely blessed with many physical gifts. He was already 6-feet tall while in middle school, and a growth spurt took him to 6-foot-4 by his sophomore year at Sandy Creek High School in Tyrone, Ga.
At Sandy Creek, he lettered in both baseball and football, but football proved to be his calling. With 34 catches for 646 yards and 10 touchdowns as a sophomore, he started to prove that he was someone special.
In his junior season, he had 736 yards and eight touchdowns on 40 catches, and college football programs started to take notice of this one-of-a-kind physical specimen. After putting up 960 yards and 11 touchdowns in his last year at Sandy Creek, college scouts across the land were drooling every time they saw Johnson in person or watched video of him.
He was considered one of the 10 best wide receiver prospects and one of the top 100 overall high school football players in the nation.
A Yellow Jacket To Be Reckoned With
Johnson moved on to the Georgie Institute of Technology and played under head coach Chan Gailey, who had previously served in multiple capacities as a coach in the NFL.
He could’ve chosen the University of Georgia, one of the most famed football schools in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), but he opted for Georgia Tech because it is also a renowned academic institution.
Johnson’s family is big on academics and intellectualism. He has a brother and sister who have gone to medical school; the latter has a Ph.D. in biomedical science and has written for medical journals.
Johnson wanted to be more than an athlete, and so did his parents. In fact, Georgia Tech wanted him to play both football and baseball, but his mother told him to only play one sport to make sure he had enough time and energy to do well academically.
Of course, he chose football, and he was an instant success.
In his first game as a freshman for the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, Johnson had 45 yards on two receptions in a win over Stamford. His second game came against Clemson University, a noted football school, and he shined bright with 127 yards and three touchdowns to lead Georgia Tech to a narrow win.
On the season, he registered 837 yards and seven receiving touchdowns, and he was not only named Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Rookie of the Year, but he also earned first-team All-ACC honors.
— Pick Six Previews (@PickSixPreviews) April 17, 2020
As a sophomore, Johnson had 888 yards and six touchdowns on 54 receptions, was again named to the All-ACC first team and copped first-team All-American honors. In a contest against North Carolina State that season, he had an amazing 10 receptions.
Johnson’s junior season helped catapult him into the stratosphere. He put up 1,202 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns on 76 catches, and he had another 10-reception game, this time against Maryland.
The season ended with Johnson going off for 186 yards and two touchdowns in the Toyota Gator Bowl versus West Virginia University.
Again he was a first-team All-ACC and All-American selection, and he also won the ACC Player of the Year award, as well as the Biletnikoff Award as the best wideout in college football. That year, he set school records for most single-season touchdowns, most single-season receiving yards, most receiving yards in a bowl game and most career receiving yards and touchdowns.
In fact, Gailey, who had coached Hall of Famer Michael Irvin while with the Dallas Cowboys, said that Johnson was the best player he ever had.
But he wasn’t a monolith. He majored in management and had an eye on building construction. In fact, while at Georgia Tech, he participated in a project that looked to build solar latrines to handle waste disposal in Bolivia, and the structures the project built were able to convert waste into fertilizer.
Although Johnson had a strong desire to finish his education and earn his degree, he chose to skip his senior season and declare for the 2007 NFL Draft.
Dominance In Detroit
Johnson was considered not just the best physical specimen in that year’s draft, but also the best player in that draft crop.
He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds (his high school coach, Chip Walker, claimed that Georgia Tech clocked Johnson at 4.1 seconds) and had a vertical leap of 42.5 inches, and at 6-foot-5, he had a rare package of size, speed and hops that coaches and general managers usually only dream about.
Many felt that he was a once-in-a-generation talent, perhaps even a once-in-a-lifetime player.
The Oakland Raiders had the first pick, and head coach Lane Kiffin badly wanted Johnson, as he said just prior to the draft that the wideout seemed “perfect.” But controversial owner Al Davis overruled him and instead decided to select JaMarcus Russell, the LSU quarterback, because of a strong performance he had in the Sugar Bowl.
Kiffin knew Davis had made a big mistake, and indeed, Russell played three non-descript seasons before his career ended.
The Detroit Lions then took Johnson at No. 2. That summer, just before the start of the preseason, he signed a six-year contract with them that would be worth up to $64 million, making him the highest-paid wideout in the NFL right away.
The Lions, at the time, were a bad franchise. They had won four championships in the league’s ancient days, prior to its merger with the AFL, but in the modern era the Lions had made the playoffs about as often as the temperature hits 100 degrees in Michigan.
Even when Barry Sanders, arguably the greatest running back ever, played in Detroit in the 1990s, the franchise had made it past the opening round of the playoffs only once.
Needless to say, the city heaped all of its hopes on Johnson.
His pro career started out strong, as he had 70 yards and a touchdown in Week 1 of the 2007 season against the Raiders. He started 10 of the 15 games he appeared in and finished the year with 756 yards and four touchdowns (he also added one rushing touchdown) and a spot on the NFL All-Rookie Team.
Perhaps his numbers were a bit lower than they should’ve been, as he suffered a bone bruise in his lower back in Week 3 and missed the Lions’ next contest. He later admitted that the ailment was a problem for him throughout the rest of the campaign and that he needed medication to manage it.
“I was on meds the rest of the season,” Johnson said. “I was taking Vicodin twice a game just to get through the game. I stayed hurt the whole season, probably because I was trying to come back too soon. But I’m not going to be the kind of guy who’s going to say, ‘I can’t do this or this because I’m hurt.’ “
Some were so disappointed in Johnson’s rookie output that they suggested the Lions had erred in drafting him and should’ve drafted Adrian Peterson, who went on to become a dominant running back, instead. Peterson was taken seventh overall by the Minnesota Vikings and had a very strong rookie year.
If Johnson didn’t measure up the way many wanted him to, it didn’t prevent his colleagues from being impressed by him.
Teammate Roy Williams, a fellow wideout, was amazed at Johnson’s huge hands, and nicknamed him “Megatron,” after the leader of the Decepticons, the team of enemy robots in the universe of Transformers, the cartoon franchise.
Most players never stand out enough to ever get nicknamed, and it is even more exceptional for one to earn a nickname as a rookie.
Johnson vowed to get over the 1,000-yard mark, and he did just that in 2008. Moving into the starting lineup for good, he had 107 yards in Week 1 against the Atlanta Falcons, then followed it up with 129 yards and two touchdowns versus the Green Bay Packers the following week.
In all, Megatron had 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns in ’08, leading the league in touchdown receptions. He was starting to garner recognition as one of the game’s best wideouts.
However, it was a disgusting season for the Lions, as they became the first NFL team to go 0-16. They ranked dead-last in yards and points allowed, and the QB position was a disaster, as three different signal-callers (Jon Kitna, Dan Orlovsky and Daunte Culpepper) would start for the team that season, making Johnson’s production all the more impressive.
However, help was on the way for the star-crossed franchise.
With the first pick in the 2009 draft, it took QB Matthew Stafford, who, like Johnson, would quickly become a franchise cornerstone and one of the better players at his position.
Success is hard to come by in Detroit, a city that always gets hit harder than most by economic recessions and whose sports teams are highly drought-prone, but the Lions would start to emerge from their malaise, albeit slowly.
Despite missing two games, Johnson had a solid 2009 season with 984 yards and five touchdowns. But it was in the 2010 season that Detroit fans felt there was a real thaw, as Johnson recorded 1,120 yards and 12 touchdowns on 77 catches, helping the team finish 6-10, which earned him his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
One of Johnson’s best qualities is his humility. Pro football players are often maligned for what observers interpret as arrogance and self-indulgence, and whenever an NFL player gets into legal trouble off the field, it’s framed as an indictment of all players and the culture of the league as a whole.
He seemed like the polar opposite of the stereotype of the modern pro athlete. He didn’t pound his chest in a cathartic way and call attention to himself as much as some other players, and he didn’t promote himself as God’s gift to athletics, as some accuse other superstar players of doing.
In fact, at the conclusion of the 2010 season, Johnson won the Lions/Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association/Pro Football Writers Association (Detroit Chapter) Media-Friendly Good Guy Award.
In pro sports, there are stars, players who consistently produce and help their teams win or at least compete.
Then there are superstars, who can singlehandedly elevate a team beyond the mere sum of its parts and give it a puncher’s chance to win against more talented squads.
The latter described Johnson starting in 2011.
The Lions were still very much a work-in-progress, but he would help shorten their learning and growth curve that year.
They faced the Minnesota Vikings in Week 3, and after falling behind 20-0, Johnson scored two touchdowns to help them rally to a 26-23 win.
The next week against the Dallas Cowboys, Detroit trailed 30-17 at the start of the fourth quarter and looked dead in the water. But then Megatron happened again.
He would score two touchdowns in the final frame, and one of them came despite him being triple-teamed, as he out-jumped his opponents to make the catch.
When cowboys triple covered Calvin Johnson 😂😂😂🔥🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/pIrzCpWWlW
— Shannon Sharpe Burner Account (@shannonsharpeee) August 8, 2021
It gave Johnson two touchdowns in each of the first four games in the season, tying Hall of Famer Cris Carter for the most consecutive games with multiple touchdowns.
Detroit started 5-0 on Johnson’s broad shoulders, and it looked like it had a great chance of making the playoffs for the first time since Bill Clinton was president.
With the Lions needing to finish the schedule strong to clinch a playoff spot, Megatron went into mega attack mode. He posted 214 yards on just nine catches and scored two touchdowns, the latter of which came with 39 seconds left in the fourth quarter to give Detroit a 28-27 win over the Raiders after it had trailed 27-14 with just 7:47 left.
The following week, the Lions demolished the San Diego Chargers to claim a wild card playoff spot. Johnson completed the year with a league-leading 1,681 yards, to go along with 16 touchdowns, which took him to the Pro Bowl and got him onto the All-Pro First-Team.
In the wild card round, Detroit faced the 13-3 New Orleans Saints, a team that was led by quarterback Drew Brees. Johnson was still hot, as he caught a pass from Stafford for a touchdown that put the Lions up 14-7 in the second quarter.
The Saints went on to wipe out Detroit, 45-28, but Johnson did his job with 211 yards and two touchdowns.
As great as 2011 was, the best was still yet to come for Johnson.
He earned a $132 million, eight-year extension in March 2012, and he beat out Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers’ mercurial star QB, to win the coveted spot on the cover of the 2013 edition of Madden, the hit NFL video game franchise.
He then proceeded to obliterate NFL secondaries throughout the upcoming season.
Johnson started his year-long assault with 111 yards on six catches in an opening week win over the St. Louis Rams. In Week 3, he tallied 164 yards against the Tennessee Titans.
Starting in Week 9, Megatron acted as if he was looking to defeat the Autobots all by himself. He had 129 yards versus the Jacksonville Jaguars, and 207 yards plus a touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings the next week.
In each of the subsequent three games, Johnson had at least 140 yards, giving him five consecutive contests with at least 125 receiving yards, which tied an NFL record.
In the penultimate game of the season, he attained a remarkable feat. By collecting 225 yards against the Atlanta Falcons, Johnson shattered the single-season record for most receiving yards, which had been held by Jerry Rice for more than two decades.
He finished the campaign with 1,964 yards in the air, a total truly befitting of his nickname. There were times when it seemed like he was more robot than human.
The Lions finished just 4-12, but none of their issues was his fault. For the second straight season, he earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro First-Team honors while getting serious consideration as the Offensive Player of the Year.
Johnson started the season slow in Week 1, but he picked things up pretty fast. He had 116 yards and two touchdowns against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2, and 115 yards and a touchdown in his next game versus the Washington Redskins.
In Week 8, Megatron picked the Dallas Cowboys to be the victim of perhaps his greatest game ever. He killed them with 329 yards and a touchdown in a one-point win, setting a new record for the most receiving yards in a non-overtime game.
This still seems impossible.
Calvin Johnson with 329 receiving yards in a GAME.
— NFL on CBS 🏈 (@NFLonCBS) March 8, 2021
Later that year, he scored his 63rd touchdown, moving him past Herman Moore for the most touchdown passes in Lions’ history.
The 2013 season ended with Johnson tallying 1,492 yards and 12 touchdowns, as well as Pro Bowl and All-Pro First-Team honors for the third straight year. It all came despite him being forced to miss two games.
Johnson turned 29 during the 2014 season, and although his production dropped a bit, he was still playing at an elite level. He would get some help from Golden Tate, a Pro Bowl wideout the Lions acquired who would take some pressure off him.
His year started with a bang, as he had 164 yards and two touchdowns in a Week 1 rout of the New York Giants. Unfortunately, an ankle injury caused him to miss three games, but when he returned in Week 10 against the Miami Dolphins, he picked up where he left off with 113 yards and a touchdown.
Johnson’s 1077 yards and eight touchdowns in 13 games earned him yet another trip to the Pro Bowl. With Stafford turning in a Pro Bowl season of his own and a strong defense, the Lions won 11 games, their best record since 1991.
Detroit returned to the playoffs for the first time in three years, and against the Cowboys in the wild card round, it took a 20-7 lead, as Johnson had 85 yards on the day. But Detroit’s defense failed to close strong, and Dallas came back for a 24-20 win.
Despite turning 30 early in the 2015 season, Johnson continued to have his big moments. In Week 5 he notched his 671st reception to get past Herman Moore for the Lions franchise record.
The next week, the Chicago Bears would become Megatron’s newest victims. He had 166 yards, plus a touchdown with 21 seconds left in the fourth quarter to help force overtime, where the Lions would win, 37-34.
His 1,214 yards and nine touchdowns got him his sixth-straight Pro Bowl nod.
An Abrupt End
Even in his early 30s, Johnson was still a force. But in March of 2016, he stunned some around the sports world by announcing his retirement.
He cited his health as a reason for calling it quits. During his last two seasons, he had to stave off consistent pain in his ankle and was often listed on the Lions’ injury report.
In a statement he released to inform the world his career was over, Johnson said he was “at peace” with his decision while admitting that he regretted not being able to give Lions fans a world championship.
His retirement wouldn’t be without controversy though. The Lions made him pay them back a portion of the signing bonus he got when he signed his last contract extension in 2012, which turned out to be over $1 million.
It would put a strain on Johnson’s relationship with the only pro team he ever played for.
In 2021, Johnson was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Detroit Lions legend Calvin Johnson knows how meaningful it is to be in the @ProFootballHOF
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 7, 2021
Although his career was shorter than those of many other legends, he was about as dominant as the rest of them. During the span of his career, no one had more receiving yards, receiving touchdowns or 100-yard games, and from 2011 to 2013 he had more receiving yards than anyone else over any other three-year stretch.
Calvin Johnson turns 36 today:
🏈 6x Pro Bowler
🏈 3x All-Pro
🏈 Hall of Famer
Megatron was a human highlight reel 🎥
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 29, 2021
In retirement, Johnson has settled into raising a family. Months after calling it quits, he got married to his longtime girlfriend Brittney McNorton, and a few years later they had their first child together, to go along with a son he had from a previous relationship.
If non-sports fans didn’t know who Johnson was after his nine years of stardom in the NFL, they would get to know him in the fall of 2016 when he became a contestant on season 23 of the popular reality show “Dancing With The Stars.”
Teaming up with professional dancer Lindsay Arnold, Megatron did solidly, as he finished third in the competition.
Other than his foray into reality TV, Johnson has remained relatively low-key in retirement, which is fitting given his self-effacing personality. Many former athletes struggle with not being the center of attention and having to live off their former fame, accomplishments and press clippings.
Johnson, on the other hand, seems perfectly content passing as an everyman and letting others have their glory.