By: Will Burchfield
In an upcoming E:60 interview with Michael Smith, Calvin Johnson shed light on some of the NFL's darkest secrets.
Johnson, who retired in March at the age of 30, spoke to the rampant use of painkillers, the shocking rate of concussions and the constant disregard for player safety across the league. The full interview will air tonight at 10 p.m. on ESPN.
To be fair, Johnson isn't breaking down walls. Much of what he says – in the teaser video, at least – is simply more evidence of what most football fans already know. In an unfeeling, results-oriented business, players are viewed through the lens of their utility.
Still, his comments are alarming for their casual nature. Johnson paints a picture of a world that operates by its own medical standards. Regarding the distribution of painkillers, specifically, he said the Lions' training staff was "giving them out like candy."
"If you were hurting, you could get 'em. It was nothing. I mean, if you needed Vicodin, call out, 'My ankle hurt, I need it, I need it. I can't play without it,' or something like that. It was simple. That's how easy it was to get 'em. So if you were dependent on 'em, they were readily available."
Part of the reason Johnson retired was to avoid a life of popping pills.
"You can't take Toradol and pain medicine every day. You gotta give that stuff a rest, and that was one thing I wasn't willing to do," he said.
The beating that Johnson took on the field degraded his life off it. Though fans remember Megatron leaping over cornerbacks and galloping past safeties, the Hall-of-Fame receiver had trouble simply getting out of bed in the morning toward the end of his career.
"When you wake up in the morning, you can't walk, you're shuffling across the floor. I gotta go through a little routine when I wake up in the morning just to get everything functioning and ready to go," he said. "But the only thing is, everything just goes back to gridlock so fast once you sit down."
Over a nine-year career, Johnson racked up seven 1,000-yard seasons and earned an invite to six Pro Bowls. And he accomplished a good deal of this, it's fair to assume, while playing through concussions. In a sport centered on violence, Johnson said brain injuries occur far more frequently than people realize.
"Concussions happen. If not on every play, then they happen like every other [play], every third play. With all the helmet contact, guys hitting the ground, heads hitting ground. It's simply when your brain touches your skull from the movement or the inertia. It's simple to get a concussion. I don't know how many I've had over my career, but I've definitely had my fair share," he said.
Though the NFL has tightened its concussion protocol recently, there was a time, not long ago, when trainers were taught to ignore them and players were expected to play through them. Again, in a fierce win-loss environment, the only concern on the part of NFL teams was whether or not a player could make an impact on the field.
"Early in my career if you talked about a concussion, everybody would try and hush you up real quick because the team would get in trouble if they didn't diagnose a concussion that you might have got in a game," Johnson explained. "It's clear to see when you get a concussion, man."
Johnson doesn't seem to bear any ill will toward the Lions' doctors or training staff, particularly. He understands they were merely following orders. But he lamented a league-wide practice of pushing compromised players back on the field.
"The team doctor, the team trainers, they work for the team. And I love 'em," he said. They're some good people, they want to see you do good. But at the same time, they work for the team. They're trying to do whatever they can to get you back on the field and make your team look good. So if it's not gonna make the team look good, or if you're not gonna be on the field, then they're trying to do whatever they can to make that happen."
Many fans were shocked to learn of Johnson's retirement earlier this offseason. At 30 years old, he seemed to be calling it quits prematurely. But a lifetime in the NFL is unlike any other.
Asked what kind of player he would have been this season, Johnson thought about it for a moment and gave the most telling answer of all.
"An unhappy player."
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