At this point, there are no real secrets about the dangers of football. There have been enough studies done and careers shortened to prove that the game’s physical nature leaves a lingering, painful toll on those who play it.
And yet, it still can be rather shocking to hear about those aftereffects.
In March, former Lions receiver Calvin Johnson became the latest player to hang up his cleats with what seems years left to give in his career. Johnson played through enough injuries in recent seasons that he was not often performing as “Megatron,” but his decision to call it quits still came after he posted his sixth consecutive 1,000-yard year—a mark spread over 88 receptions and highlighted by a brilliant Thanksgiving Day performance.
There was speculation when Johnson announced his retirement that he did so, in part, because of the Lions’ continued struggles. He confirmed those suspicions, to some extent, in a recent E:60 interview: “If we would’ve been a contender, it would have been harder to let go.”
It is his other set of comments, though, that current NFL players may take more notice of.
“When you wake up in the morning, you can’t walk,” Johnson told ESPN of his life now, some six-plus months removed from his final game. “You know, you’re shufflin’ across the floor. … I gotta go through, like, a little routine when I wake up in the morning to get everything functioning and ready to go. But, the only thing is everything just goes back to gridlock so fast once I sit down, ’cause you know you go to work again.”
Johnson will turn 31 in September. He was a 6’ 5” freak of nature, even within a league populated by remarkable athletes. Much of his success came because he was bigger, stronger and more athletic than the players covering him. Just ask his ex-QB, Matthew Stafford, who made a living throwing passes to Johnson amid double and even triple coverage.
If even he can be undone by the rigors of the game …
His story now is nothing new, unfortunately. The list of players calling it quits ”early” has grown of late, with recent additions like Patrick Willis, one of the greatest linebackers of the past decade, and his promising former teammate, Chris Borland, who walked away after just one season. Borland said his retirement was due to concerns over head trauma and its effect on his long-term health. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) has been linked, in one way or another, to the deaths of Junior Seau, Ken Stabler, Dave Duerson, Tyler Sash and others.
“It’s clear to see when you get a concussion,” Johnson said as part of his E:60 interview. “In football, it’s—concussions happen, if not on every play, then they happen like every other, every third play, you know. With all the helmet contact, guys hittin’ the ground, heads hittin’ ground. It’s simply when your brain touches your skull from the movement or the inertia, man. It’s simple to get a concussion, you know. … I don’t know how many I’ve had over my career, you know, but I’ve definitely had my fair share.”
Johnson required multiple surgeries following the 2013 season to repair injuries to his finger and knee. An ankle issue then bothered him throughout 2014, and he went under the knife again recently to try again to straighten his mangled finger.
All of it added up to force Johnson into retirement.
“Medications I took for pain while I was playin’ were simply just to cease the pain … and so you could do your job more effectively,” he said. “And, whether it be Toradol, Tylenol, T3s —you know, gettin’ cortisol shots, things like that. You know, those are the main things that I did, or that I took.”
Johnson made upwards of $110 million during his career, even after leaving $50 million or so on the table by retiring with three years left on the contract extension he signed in 2012. Add in his endorsement deals and the potential future Hall of Famer has made quite a living for himself.
So this is the nature of the beast, right? Football players know the risks (at least most of them) associated with their chosen profession, and they are paid in kind for their commitment.
There is truth in that. But the reality of what happens to a lot of these athletes during and especially after their careers is tough to swallow nonetheless.