O'Hara: Calvin Johnson Sr. on family, retirement and superstar son...Calvin Johnson

Posted Jan 6, 2013

There is a reason Calvin Jr. is an anti-diva who doesn’t indulge in what his father calls “the foolishness” at a position where showmanship sometimes takes precedence over performance. He wasn’t raised to act that way.

Calvin Johnson is planning the date for his retirement. Sometime next August, he will call it quits. There will be no more long road trips for work, or following a daily routine and work regimen.

The end of a rewarding career is in sight, and he has no regrets.

“It’s time – 60 and 35 years,” he said.

“It’s time to retire.”

Exhale, Lions Nation and fans everywhere of the man who slew the Madden Curse with his record-breaking performance in the 2012 NFL season.

Calvin Johnson Jr., the Lions’ All-Pro  receiver  who broke Jerry Rice’s record for receiving yards in a season and won the league’s receiving title with 122 catches, isn’t hanging up his cleats.

It’s another story for his father, Calvin Johnson Sr.

Like he said at the end of the season on a visit with his family to Ford Field to watch his son play, it’s time to retire at age 60 with 35 years working on the railroad as a freight conductor for Norfolk Southern Railway.

Calvin and his wife, Arica, who holds a doctorate and is an administrator in the Atlanta public schools system, have raised their four children. The one the public knows best is Calvin, the superstar receiver with the nickname “Megatron.”

A discussion of any length with the parents shows that that even the superstar reflects qualities they instilled – hard work, education, commitment and humility.

There is a reason Calvin Jr. is an anti-diva who doesn’t indulge in what his father calls “the foolishness” at a position where showmanship sometimes takes precedence over performance. He wasn’t raised to act that way.

“He really runs from the attention, simply because he could not care less about everything that goes with it – the publicity, the glory,” Calvin Sr. said. “He thoroughly enjoys what he’s doing.”

As much as his parents might enjoy the stature and acclaim their athletically gifted son gets for his performance on the field, it means a lot more to hear comments about his work ethic, and that as good a player Calvin is, he’s a better person.

“Oh absolutely -- that he does things right,” Calvin Sr. said. “That’s what you want. If you do the right thing, if you work hard, often times it manifests itself into something more than you can imagine.

“It makes you feel like, not that just you’ve done something right, but that he listened to what you wanted him to do – what you had to say.

“I’ve said this before, and sometimes I get a little bit of blowback, but you have to give kids a lot of credit for accomplishing what they accomplish. I know parents who put as much work as I have into raising my kids, and they haven’t gotten the same result.

“It’s a wonderful thing when a kid listens and does what you want him to do. He’s done that.”

Calvin Sr. has spent his working career at a job that is part of America’s fabric, even if some of the threads have been pulled loose in recent decades as America has moved away from trains as a primary method of travel.

There are iconic symbols that have been riveted into the American landscape that will endure forever – bridges, silos, smokestacks, freighters, skyscrapers - and trains.

Trains, with the whistles, clickety-clacking wheels, whooshes of air and roars of power as they thunder through town like a stampeding metal giant, have been the subject of songs and movies.

Early in his career, Calvin Sr. felt the mesmerizing pull of the railroad.

“At one time, it was almost romantic,” he said. “After a while, it becomes basically a job. People write songs about it.”

Norfolk Southern is a major freight hauler in the railway industry. In Michigan, that includes hauling auto parts.

“Basically, I keep up with the train, what it’s hauling,” he said. “I maintain the paperwork and make sure it (the freight) gets where it’s going.”

His regular route is roundtrip, from Atlanta to Macon, about a hundred miles each way.

He used to ride in the caboose, but no more – because there is no caboose.

Which begged an obvious question: how many people have waved to him over the years?

Answer: too many to count as he watched the scenery change in four decades on the rails.

“Everybody waves at trains,” Calvin Sr. said. “I’ve watched every pine tree grow alongside the tracks. I have a personal relationship with every pine tree.”

He also watched Calvin grow like a weed – and a big one. The family home is in suburban Atlanta, and Calvin was always bigger and stronger than other kids his age – and better.

His mother wouldn’t let him play football until he was in middle school. By then, his natural athletic skills had presented themselves in baseball, and golf.

“From the time he started playing baseball, he had something that most kids his age didn’t have,” Calvin Sr. said. “That’s hand-eye coordination, when he was five years old. Tee ball for a lot of kids is hard to do. He could always hit the ball.”

Calvin was good enough in high school to be drafted by at least two major-league teams.

Pardon the pun, but the Johnsons weren’t going to let their son get rail-roaded into missing out on something that they considered the top priority – going to college.

“The Reds and Angels wanted him,” Calvin Sr. said. “We wouldn’t commit to him not going to school. We told them no, no, no. He was going to college.”

Arica Johnson also had her son take golf lessons.

“My wife took him to play golf, to expose him to most things,” Calvin Sr. said. “The golf pro said he had the most natural swing you’d ever seen. He watched Tiger Woods and the other professionals players play golf. If he sees somebody else do it, he can do it.”

Calvin’s parents attend every Lions game, home and away. That’s common in the NFL, because of the short 16-game schedule.

Calvin Sr. was on the sideline for the Atlanta game, when his son broke Rice’s receiving yards record. A 26-yard completion with 2:57 left put Johnson over Rice’s mark of 1,848 yards, set in 1995.

The game was not stopped to recognize the moment. Calvin jogged to the sideline, hugged his father, and handed him the ball. For the game, Calvin had 11 catches for 225 yards. He finished the season with 1,974.

At the post-game press conference, Calvin Sr. stood to one side in the interview room, leaving the spotlight to his son. Like his son, he enjoyed the moment but recognized something was missing in the equation as the Lions finished far out of the playoffs with a 4-12 record and a season-ending eight-game losing streak.

“We were just hoping that it would mean something special in Detroit,” Calvin Sr. said. “Last year, you got a taste of what it would be like.”