HARRISON TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- The bags needed to be set up. So did the ladder. Someone else, one of the 10 or so volunteers Saturday morning, could have handled it.
But no, Calvin Johnson did it, lugging things across the field himself. After seeing him for nine years in the NFL, does that surprise anyone?
It’s 8:30 a.m. and he’s the one moving the bags around, wearing a backwards hat, a white polo shirt bearing the Calvin Johnson “Catching Dreams” Foundation logo and a pair of blue-and-gray Nike shorts with his Megatron logo on them.
The former Detroit Lions receiver who spent nine seasons standing out in a star-studded NFL blended in. Yes, his name is on the foundation and he’s the draw, but Johnson acted just like everyone else.
He’s the one setting up the bags and the ladders. He’s the one who planned the drills. He’s the one doing the actual instruction.
“When I see the difference it makes in the kids that we work with, the guys that I see for the last three years here or in Atlanta, to see them learning and to see them using the fundamentals that you give them,” Johnson said. “To see them do well in school, not only on the field but off the field, those are things that we check on. To see that progress is big. It’s great.”
In an age where pro athletes put their names on camps for hundreds of children -- some for-profit, some not -- Johnson’s camp is different. It’s barely publicized. It’s free. And it even requires an application process, more for his camp in Tyrone, Georgia next month than the one in Michigan, but the application is more than just a formality.
His Michigan camp this year comprised less than 50 kids all from one school, L’Anse Creuse High School in Harrison Township, a northern suburb of Detroit. The camp is part of a partnership with his foundation and the school -- a school Johnson’s mother, Dr. Arica Johnson, discovered after one of Johnson’s cousins played at L’Anse Creuse.
Johnson, his mother and one of his sisters help run the camp. He had one of his college quarterbacks from Georgia Tech, Tyler Bennett, there to help along with retired Lions offensive linemen Dominic Raiola and Rob Sims, among others in his circle.
His wife of less than a month, Brittney, was one of the camp photographers.
“I like to keep it tight, keep it intimate, I guess you could say,” Johnson said. “I feel like you could get across more to guys, rather than just having groups of 20 or 30, you can’t be hands-on with every single person because you got a certain amount of time you have to get stuff done in.
“So we’re able to calculate our time and fix it so everybody can get some special attention and that’s the way I like to do things.”
That should surprise no one.
At one point, Johnson was working with a group of six campers, explaining the importance of foot positioning and balance in stance for receivers before the start of a play, putting your foot back “just enough to get a little bend.” He taught how to break strong off the line to not give away your route. It was priceless teaching for high school students legitimately for free.
With another group, the best and tallest athlete in camp needed someone to work with him, so instead of standing around and having someone else do it, Johnson jumped in himself and held the back of the rope on a running drill.
He jumped in every huddle with the campers to give speeches and break things down. He coached every camper personally for at least a little while. And, more than anything, he seemed legitimately happy and in his element passing on the knowledge he picked up during his career to the next generation.
He ruled out higher levels of coaching as a possible retirement option, saying if he ever got into coaching, he would never go higher than the high school level. And based on what he showed Saturday, he clearly enjoyed it -- although it doesn’t seem like that’s the likely retirement path.
But the camps? He’ll likely always do that. He enjoys giving back, both in his real home in Atlanta and his adopted home of Detroit. His mom said Johnson’s foundation, which he has always been involved with, will have even more of his attention now as they try to grow it.
“I’m going to run my foundation, training camps or just camps whether it’s here, Atlanta or in Detroit,” Johnson said. “I don’t see that stopping, going between Atlanta and Detroit.
“But at some point, I probably will make Atlanta my home base.”
They plan on having a fundraiser in Atlanta this yar for pancreatic cancer prevention -- a cause important to the Johnson family after Dr. Johnson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2014. She said Saturday she is cancer-free. On Thanksgiving in Atlanta and Detroit, they will give food baskets to needy families. Around Christmas, they will buy gifts for the needy.
It’s all part of Calvin Johnson’s future as he transitions from being a star on the field to even more of a contributor off of it.