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Life after football provides Calvin Johnson a chance to redefine himself

Calvin Johnson, who had his life dictated by football for more than a decade, has enjoyed his freedom since retiring from the NFL. Photo Courtesy of Brittney Johnson

BIRMINGHAM, Mich. -- Calvin Johnson said no at first. He had just retired and gotten married. He had spent the past decade in the NFL spotlight and now, when he wanted to move on to the next thing, reality television was not going to be it.

Besides, Johnson knew he couldn't dance. When people from "Dancing with the Stars" first approached him about joining their show last season, he talked with his mom, Dr. Arica Johnson, and said, "I'm not dancing. I don't dance."

The most Calvin knew was 90 seconds of a waltz he performed with his wife, Brittney, at their wedding last June. Other than that, it was typical dude dancing, otherwise known as simple head bobs from his days going to clubs. Ballroom? No chance. Then the DWTS people came back to him. They asked if he would reconsider. This time, instead of talking with his mom, he spoke with his wife, who had a different response.

"She said, 'Why not,'" Johnson told ESPN.com. "I was like, 'Hell, why not?' I talked to the folks on the phone, and next thing you know, I'm dancing."

Months later, Johnson said he is glad he reconsidered. His time on "Dancing with the Stars" offered him a different perspective on athletes and the world. It allowed him to meet people he never would have otherwise, such as Vanilla Ice, Babyface and Jaleel White. His partner, Lindsay Arnold, became like a little sister to him. She pushed him to embrace his dancing and being able to sell the dance through acting, something he was not comfortable with at first.

His time on "Dancing with the Stars" turned into a somewhat comfortable bridge into retirement. Johnson still competed every week. He still performed athletically. But this was new. He learned as he went -- including hearing the word "musicality" for the first time during his debut performance on the show -- and wasn't really comfortable until the middle of the season, when he was almost eliminated.

The show did something else, too. For the first time, Johnson showed a side of himself only his close friends and family saw. The man who rarely had much to say to the media during his nine seasons with the Detroit Lions was smiling all the time. He was finding things out about himself he never knew before.

"Retired Calvin, he's just happy," Brittney said. "Not to say he wasn't happy when he was playing, because he was, but I think he's able to enjoy life now. He's able to do so many things he's not been able to do for the last nine years.

"Most adults can do things on the weekends and discover themselves in their 20s, but I think now that he's retired, he has the ability to really discover who he is, what he wants to do with his life and what he enjoys."

And it has left him with a simple question, one he started to figure out as "Dancing with the Stars" concluded: What's next for Calvin Johnson, retired 31-year-old?

The rhythms of football dictated his life for more than a decade. There were classes, practices and meetings at Georgia Tech. There was constant training, even during the offseason, along with the weekly in-season regimen to keep himself at a high level. It was, for so long, all he had known.

Now, there's freedom. He hasn't lifted weights or run in months. When Brittney asks him in the mornings if he wants to join her on workouts, he laughs. Then he rolls over, goes back to bed and says he'll make breakfast when she comes back upstairs.

He knows it won't be like this for long. He's used to doing something instead of waking up, making coffee from Dunkin' Donuts or Caribou Coffee, reading the news and figuring out his day. He wants to have a purpose. He wants to make his next step about giving back and creating a business for himself that will help others.

"It's just timing and just being ready when that time comes," Johnson said. "You never know when that time will come or when that time is or who that person might be that might come. You never know what's coming, but a lot of situations, a lot of opportunities that I've had in my life, a lot of those that I've taken advantage of have been strictly timing.

"Just trying to stay ready for whatever's coming, you know."

Johnson has an idea of exactly what that's going to be.


Johnson's non-football side always leaned toward education. It's been a primary focus of his foundation -- one he helped run during offseasons, including reading scholarship applications -- but now he's thinking bigger and broader. He wants to motivate and implement everything he has learned throughout his NFL career -- his entire life, really -- and turn it into something of value to others.

So Calvin Johnson, "Like a life coach," is happening. Soon.

"He definitely is trying to come up with a prototype of how to train young men," Brittney said. "That's important to him, because he had so many great coaches throughout the years and they left such a great mark on his life, not just his football career.

"They left an impact on his personal life, and I feel like he wants to have that impact on young people, too."

Johnson admits it's still in the planning stages. He'd prefer to be an advisor offering individual or small-group attention, much like he does during his foundation's summer camp in Michigan.

And now he has unlimited hours to make sure the next step is the correct one. He said that people have already inquired about his services. They want him to be able to help young men in both football and life.

"The things he's been through over his time, his nine years in the league, he's definitely got something to offer," said his friend and former Lions teammate, Rob Sims. "He’s somebody I look at, somebody that did it the right way.

"When you got a guy who has done it the right way and wants to share that, I think nothing but a good thing. It's an outlet for him to get involved."

It's what Johnson is passionate about. The logistics still need to be figured out, including whether he'll work more as a consultant for potential clients or if he'll open up a stand-alone mentorship/athletic facility in his hometown of Atlanta.

He also knows his market. He won't be, at least at first, helping athletes whose sports he's not familiar with, such as basketball, soccer or lacrosse. He'll stick with football and potentially dip into baseball, a sport he loves and played as a kid. He's open to helping those coming up through high school and players who are looking to make the jump to college or the NFL.

What it'll finally look like when he starts officially offering his knowledge and years of football-and-life wisdom for purchase, he doesn't know. But it's coming.

"I'm getting into that realm," Johnson said. "So people that want those services, they are there. I don't know, it might get really busy or it could be a dud.

"But whatever happens, for right now, that and getting that degree at some point."


The degree is interesting. Johnson remains 30 credits shy of his bachelor's degree in management from Georgia Tech. The initial plan was to start taking classes last fall. It would have meant actually going into college classrooms in Atlanta to finish up the credits.

It was something he wasn't looking forward to -- sitting in a college class as a multi-millionaire at the school where he became a first-round draft pick is going to be different -- but it has always been important to Johnson. Plus, he knows the strength of the Georgia Tech network and what different avenues that degree could open up for his future, even if he is a familiar name.

He was going to start working while the 2016 NFL season was unfolding, but that's when "Dancing with the Stars" called. It's also why he laughs whenever he hears he retired to do the show and then he'd come back. First, he's not coming back to the NFL. He has moved on. Second, he said no to the show at first, and because Johnson has always wanted to keep his private life private, those on the outside had no idea what he was doing anyway.

Me and the fellas ran the slopes at Breckenridge this weekend good times

A photo posted by Calvin Johnson, Jr. (@megatron) on

"Usually, my reaction was, 'Little do they know,'" Johnson said. "People, they just react to what they see. You know, that's all they saw. They don't know the sequence of events that led up to that. They don't know. Yeah, they know I retired. They might know I got married.

"They didn't know that I turned down 'Dancing with the Stars' the first time."

"Dancing with the Stars" was merely another part of the change of Johnson. For years, people only knew the visor-wearing, defense-demoralizing man known as Megatron, who set the NFL single-season record for receiving yards in 2013 with 1,964. They didn't know much else.

So Johnson ... slowly ... began to open up. Once averse to social media, he has begun to use it more. This started while he was still playing, when he re-emerged on Twitter following the shootings in Charleston, South Carolina, to voice his opinion months before his final season.

Since he retired last March, he has posted pictures offering glimpses into his life on golf courses in San Diego, on fishing boats in Florida and skiing in Breckenridge. These were all things he rarely did during his football days and hardly ever shared with the public.

But there's still part of Johnson who wants his privacy and likes being able to come and go in anonymity. As he slid into a booth at a local steakhouse in December, he went about as unnoticed as a 6-foot-5 former NFL All-Pro and Nike pitchman can in the state he called home for close to a decade. There were no turned heads, no picture requests or autographs, just a man and a visitor grabbing a meal to chat.

He still avoids the grocery store, something Brittney is OK with because their rule is that if she picks up the groceries, he has to cook. But he has reclaimed a lot of his anonymity.

As he enjoys retirement and continues to find out whom he is going to be in the next few decades of his life, Johnson is looking forward to sharing this wisdom. He's looking forward to being able to help young people through the experiences he lived and the knowledge he picked up.

His football career taught him that. So, too, did his experience on "Dancing with the Stars," something his friends from his old life still don't quite believe he did. And that is part of what Johnson learned, part of what he took from the show and could help shape his future.

"You gotta just put that first foot forward and follow up, and that's one thing, if anything, I take away from this experience," Johnson said. "This is something that I never thought I would do. This was something that was totally uncomfortable to me, but it was OK to go out of your comfort zone.

"It's OK to do those things, because you never know. It might be something that you're really good at."

Consider that some free advice from Calvin Johnson, aspiring life coach and former NFL superstar.