Calvin Johnson retired from the NFL during the 2016 offseason after playing nine years in the league. The move was considered a surprise at the time as Johnson, then 30, was coming off a season in which he totaled 88 catches, 1,214 yards and nine touchdowns.
But as Johnson explained during his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech Sunday night, he called it quits because of persistent injury woes that dated to his first season as a professional.
“In my first year in the NFL I suffered a serious back injury,” Johnson said. “It was so bad at the moment [that] I couldn’t feel my legs. And I thought my career would be over.”
Johnson obviously was able to keep playing, but the injury took a toll during his rise to superstardom.
“What most don’t know is the road to recovery from that back injury that year, and the physical and mental pain that I played through well into my career,” Johnson said. “But going to that second year, despite dealing with the pain and the back injury, I made up my mind that I was going to be the best, most dominant receiver in the NFL every time I stepped onto the football field.”
Johnson was able to do that. He made six consecutive Pro Bowls from 2010-15 and notched three straight first-team All-Pro nods from 2011-13. He led the NFL in receiving yards twice, including the 2012 season when he set an NFL record with 1,964 receiving yards.
Despite his success, the pain eventually caught up with him.
“But no matter how much I dominated — as the legends here know — the pain never left,” Johnson said. “The pain was so severe that I would take whatever I could just to manage the pain to be able to play. The pain began to take a toll on my body and my quality of life, and it wasn’t getting any better.”
Johnson added: “And there came a moment when I [knew] my time in this league — those days were numbered. But I was OK with this because I left it all on the field and enjoyed every moment.”
So Johnson decided to step away. After retiring, he helped to found a cannabis business, Primitiv, with former teammate Rob Sims. The company is studying the effects of cannabis on chronic pain. Johnson and Sims partnered with Harvard in 2019 on research to study medical marijuana as a possible treatment for CTE.
“Our vision is we’re trying to change the stigma around cannabis,” Sims told ESPN. “We don’t call it bud. We call it medicine.”
Johnson aimed at the stigma as well during his Hall of Fame speech.
“There’s so many people living in our world with pain right now and I want to speak to you for a moment,” he said. “I want you to know that I see you, that you matter, and fight and do your best to make it through and never give in to the pain.”