Monday, September 25, 2023

Detroit Lions Hall of Famers treated like “just a guy”.

September 30, 2021 by  
Filed under News, Opinion, Sports, Weekly Columns

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( One of the best things about sports are the links between the past and the present. A major part of sports are the comparisons between players, teams, and coaches and those comparisons also are regards to the present and the past. 2021 Pro Football of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony was another blend of the past and present terms of those selected. Former Detroit Lions All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson is representative of that as he was inducted for the Hall of Fame at a relatively young age of 35, being old enough to play on the first 0-16 NFL team of the past but being young enough to have many former Lions teammates still currently playing NFL in the present. Like the last Detroit Lion to be selected as a first ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer, running back legend Barry Sanders, Johnson retired from the NFL “early” as he was still playing at a high level. Unfortunately, both Johnson’s and Sanders’s surprising retirements left them being treated like “just a guy” by the Detroit Lions organization.

The sports phrase “just a guy” is a scouting phrase to describe an athlete. In the NFL, the phrase “just a guy” or “J.A.G” means “a contributor to an NFL team. But when measured against draft elites, you have been deemed Just A Guy.” Those are terms that have never been in the descriptions of Calvin Johnson or Barry Sanders since they were top-notch NFL draft picks taken in the top three of their respective NFL Drafts. Both men racked up great performances throughout their careers that were spent with the same franchise that drafted them. Unfortunately, neither Sanders or Johnson had sustained team success despite their individual greatness as Sanders’s Lions teams went 1-5 in the playoffs and Johnson’s Lions teams went 0-2 in the playoffs. The surprise retirement of Barry Sanders back in 1999 was one of the news stories of the year let alone sports stories. Nearly 20 years later, Johnson also surprisingly retired in 2016. The Detroit Lions organization’s handling of the relationships of both Lions legends over the years are reasons to say that they have been treated like “just a guy”.


During their playing careers, both Calvin Johnson and Barry Sanders were great representatives for the Detroit Lions and the city of Detroit. Both men were not flashy in their personalities or brash and outspoken about their incredible football abilities. Both men were among the most entertaining players in the NFL during their playing days but you would never know it by talking to them as they oozed class. They were not like Deion Sanders and his “Prime Time” persona and Calvin Johnson didn’t have the “diva” wide receiver personality of many receivers of the 2000s like Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, and Chad Johnson (also known as Chad Ochocinco). One of the most memorable things about Barry Sanders was how he consistently handed or flipped the football to the referee after scoring a touchdown regardless of how incredible the touchdown run or defenders he made miss during the play.

Despite their great contributions on the field and the way they carried themselves on and off it, the Lions organization had strained relationships with both men after their retirements. Back in 1999, the Lions organization filed a formal grievance to recover a $5.4 million share of the $11 million signing bonus they gave Sanders in 1997 on a new five-year contract. Sanders stayed away from Lions functions for years before he recently returned to work for the team as an ambassador. A similar situation has played out with Calvin Johnson he feels like he is owed $1.6 million of his signing bonus from his contract with the Lions that was disrupted due to Johnson’s abrupt retirement. Obviously, the Lions organization doesn’t want to set a precedent of giving players money in a contract and then those players retire but special circumstances have to be made for special players and Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson are easily top five players in Detroit Lions history.

Their individual successes mean more to a franchise that has never even been to a Super Bowl. Regarding contract disputes with the Lions, Sanders has said, ““In the NFL you realize it’s a business and they have to handle things on their side of it the way that they do.” While looking at how other players are treated after sudden retirements, Johnson noted, “You see (Tony) Romo come out, you see Andrew Luck come out, you see how their owners take care of them. When we were playing with the Lions, you see (ownership) out at practice, but that wasn’t an everyday thing when I was playing … They just see us as, we’re just pawns out there. We’re just numbers. They don’t see the personalities, they don’t see the people.” Despite their Hall of Fame greatness, both Sanders and Johnson learned that they are “just a guy” when their careers end.

Staff Writer; Mark Hines

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