Calvin Johnson's legacy is how he played on the field, acted off of it

E:60 profile: Calvin Johnson's road to NFL (14:58)

After nine professional seasons, Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson is retiring from football. E:60's Lisa Salters tells the story of how a kid from a small town in Georgia grew up to set the NFL record for most receiving yards in a season. (14:58)

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- It was the game after the most memorable moment of Dan Orlovsky's career with the Detroit Lions and once again, the team was backed up near their own end zone.

Detroit lined up in a formation that looked like it was running against Houston in 2008. Orlovsky smiled. He knew what was about to happen. Orlovsky got the ball. Then he threw it up to Calvin Johnson, who scored 96 yards later. Yes, the Lions lost and it was part of the team's 0-16 season, but the play sticks out all these years later.

"I just wanted to take a shot with Calvin," Orlovsky told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "We were in a run formation, trying to show we were going to hand it off and it was first down. It was just a shot to Calvin."

"A shot to Calvin" was the safety blanket for so many Lions quarterbacks over the past nine seasons, from Orlovsky to Matthew Stafford to Jon Kitna and Shaun Hill. He was the guy who could beat double and sometimes triple coverage, the man who could take over a game instantly and a player who was as close as a guarantee as you could get in a one-on-one situation.

When players were drafted to the Lions or came over in free agency, it frequently amazed them exactly what he could do.

"It's just amazing to watch somebody with that athletic ability," former Lions offensive lineman Rob Sims said. "To me, it would be like if Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love watching LeBron [James] go dunk a basketball, how good would it feel to be a part of that. Just to be around that and pick him up when someone knocks him down and to be in the huddle looking at him from where I was standing, it was crazy."

His on-field play was superb and should eventually land him in the Hall of Fame. He finished his career with almost every significant Lions receiving record and the NFL's single-season receiving yardage record of 1,964 yards set in 2012. His 731 receptions for 11,619 yards and 83 touchdowns won't hold up in the NFL's record books due to the relatively short time he played in the league, but he was the dominant receiver of his generation.

He also kept the Lions relevant during a time when irrelevance was realistic. Johnson played on winning teams just twice in nine seasons. He made the playoffs twice. He never won a playoff game. He had more 10-plus loss seasons (three) than 10-win seasons (two), including the 0-16 season in 2008.

In that time he signed a lucrative Nike contract, got his own shoe and eventually a commercial with P. Diddy. And then there was the nickname, Megatron, that turned him into a transformer and made him a household name.

"What he meant to the Lions, I'm certainly not going to be able to put into words. What he meant to the NFL, he had kids going up and saying, 'I want to grow up and be like Megatron,'" Orlovsky said. "And it no longer referenced a transforming robot, it referenced an NFL athlete.

"So he took a word that was used to describe a fictional character and made it real. What he's meant to the NFL, what he's meant to the Lions, it's hard to put into words. Guys like me who somehow, someway were fortunate enough to watch him be great, not on Sundays only but on every single day, we never take him for granted. There are just not human beings like him. There are just not. He was just so special."

The consistent message from those who played with him and coached him was as much about who Johnson was on the field as who he was off of it. He was almost a reluctant superstar, shying away from the limelight as much as possible. Even in retirement, a day where good feelings would likely come, he eschewed a news conference in favor of a lengthy statement explaining his decision to walk away.

He acted more like just another player in the locker room, joking around with teammates, being open to giving advice and introducing himself like he was one of the guys instead of the best guy. He'd offer receivers advice on adjusting to the NFL and those tips helped make those players better -- along with providing a refresher for Johnson if he needed it. He reminded TJ Jones about peeking at the line before a play but also understanding how coverages would change. He helped him with his routes.

For Johnson, it was about trying to win in Detroit even though it never really happened. That was something he always wanted for the city, from his rookie year to his final one.

"I can say he was the best player/teammate that I've been around," former Lions center Dominic Raiola told ESPN in a text message from Hawaii. "The most humble on and off the field. They only make so many athletes like this. It's amazing what he did on the field day in and day out, but it's more amazing what kind of a person he is."

His teammates and coaches understand why Johnson is retiring and they are glad he is able to walk away when he wants, on his terms. Even if they did hope he would change his mind and come back for one more run.

"A little bit surprised," Jones said. "I thought he would come back and give us one more year. But at the same time, I know the beating his body has taken over the past nine years and seeing him on a day-to-day basis, all the maintenance he goes through just for a practice or for a game.

"He's the first guy in, last guy out. After nine years of doing that, sometimes you just have to think about your future after football and think about your body."

For Johnson, that future started with a 445-word closing statement on his career.