I learned long ago how to suppress resentment toward millionaire sports figures whose atmospheric salaries could, in some cases, feed a village of the world's citizens. It's pointless, it only leads to further angst and it's really nothing more than capitalism at work.
Yet as I watched Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson take the podium Wednesday to accept the biggest contract in NFL history, I found myself moving in the opposite direction. I was glad to see someone who, frankly, isn't an idiot -- and doesn't act like one, either -- get rewarded for performing and behaving at the highest levels of his profession.
I won't pretend to be close with Johnson or to have great insight into his life off the field. I'm sure he has an ego and that he has had some moments of weakness. But viewed in the context of professional sports, I think it's well-known that Johnson is a quiet, thoughtful and humble person who is so good at what he does that he never feels compelled to tell you about it.
That's why so many people were using the word "special" Wednesday to describe Johnson, let alone a contract that would pay him $132 million over the next eight seasons. Lions president Tom Lewand said Johnson was "truly deserving of a contract this size" and coach Jim Schwartz -- after checking to make sure negotiations were complete -- said: "Whatever you pay him, it's not enough."
In one of the more memorable compliments I've heard a coach give a player, Schwartz added: "This is a great day for every kid who was early for every meeting. This is a great day for every kid that stayed after practice, every kid that put the team before himself, every kid that let his play speak for him, because as good a football player as Calvin Johnson is, he's a better teammate and he's a better person. So we're very glad to have him here."
This is not to suggest Johnson is the second coming or that he makes a habit of rescuing cats from trees in between running routes at the Lions' practice facility. He is just a rare NFL superstar, especially at his position, who appears to have no compulsion whatsoever to draw attention to himself. It sounds trite, but Calvin Johnson simply does his job.
He showed up Wednesday wearing a short-sleeved plaid shirt with a white T-shirt showing underneath. If he owns a $5,000 designer suit, not even Wednesday's event qualified as a reason to break it out.
After thanking everyone who worked on the deal, Johnson simply said: "I'm very appreciative and ready to go to work." He let out a few embarrassed giggles when the size of the contract was mentioned and said his otherwise placid demeanor on what was probably the most momentous day of his life is "just me."
In recent years, that personality had caused some of us to wonder if Johnson was too nice, or perhaps not competitive enough, to be the NFL's most feared receiver. Any questions about his edge were answered in the final month of the 2011 season, when he produced three 200-yard games in the Lions' last four games, including a divisional playoff game against the New Orleans Saints.
We should be realistic for a moment and note that the Lions didn't simply reward Johnson because of his good play and citizenship. As we've discussed, a series of events related to the NFL's old and new collective bargaining agreements put them in a spot where they had no choice but to break all financial precedents if they wanted to keep him on their roster.
"He's a guy you have no doubt will handle all that comes with it, with a great deal of skill on and off the field," Lewand said.
Does anyone deserve $132 million for playing football? Wrong question. If you had to give a $132 million contract to someone, wouldn't you hope it was someone like Calvin Johnson? I know I would.