Former Lions Calvin Johnson, Rob Sims believe in the science, potential of cannabis industry

Newly minted Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson has turned his attentions away from the football field and to the cannabis industry. Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

WEBBERVILLE, Mich. -- Calvin Johnson walks into the brightly lit, orange-hued Flower Room 1 and begins to get excited. In front of him are 180 marijuana plants, all lined up in rows of three or four, broken down in identical, segmented trays for optimal growth.

Clad in a mask, black scrubs and Crocs, the retired Detroit Lions receiver walks up and down the aisles, inspecting each plant, looking at the varied flowers. Johnson, who was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this past weekend, looks a little different than he did as an NFL player. He's thinner with strands of gray in the front of his grown-out hair.

Standing alongside his current business partner, former offensive guard Rob Sims, Johnson examines the plants in one of six flower rooms, pleased with the progress.

"Get better every run," Johnson said, particularly happy with the density in each of the flowers he's observing. "Nice little jungle in there."

"Keeps getting better," Sims replied.

This had been the hope all along, what they had been working for the past two years after deciding to enter the cannabis industry. So far, 15 states plus Washington, D.C., have fully legalized cannabis, according to ballotpedia.org, while many others have either approved its medicinal use or decriminalized usage of the drug.

Johnson and Sims went from a life in football, in which so much was dictated and provided, to the world of a startup, building everything from scratch. They created Primitiv, a cannabis company they hope will improve quality of life for those in pain, eliminate some of the negative connotations around marijuana and, of course, make money in their second career.

"Our vision is we're trying to change the stigma around cannabis," Sims said. "We don't call it bud. We call it medicine."

FIVE TO SIX DAYS a week, Sims and Johnson drive from their suburban Detroit homes to Primitiv's cultivation facility in Webberville, Michigan, to manage their 15-person team, inspect their product and make sure their business is flowing toward the level of production they have anticipated.

Combined, they've made more than $130 million in their NFL careers. They don't have to work. They want to work. This has become their profession, investing "easily" more than $1 million in building their company.

"This is our life's work at this point," Sims said. "We've put a lot into this."

Johnson and Sims didn't plan to start here. Johnson first tried marijuana recreationally in college at Georgia Tech. By the middle of his NFL career, he figured out the medicinal benefits it provided.

By the end of his career, Johnson used cannabis after every game and sometimes during the week to help lessen the "daily drag to get up out of bed in the morning, just really inflammation at the end of the day." It became part of his weekly regimen to get himself back to being able to play the following Sunday.

In the locker room during their nine NFL seasons, Johnson and Sims, who were never disciplined for marijuana usage while in the league, saw the combined potential of what cannabis could do for pain management. They believe it's a safer alternative to painkillers.

"There are a lot of untold stories about this, and to be quite frank, a player is going to have to deal with pain either way it goes. There's a safer way," Sims said. "There's an alternative that can help guys and that is safe, you know what I mean? It's not something that guys can get all messed up on and it's a lot to lose.

"What do you do when you're done playing the game and you need painkillers and you can't get them as easy as you could when you played? What do you do? What's the answer for that?"

The NFL loosened its marijuana policies last season, eliminating suspensions, shortening the testing period to two weeks in training camp and upping the amount of THC necessary for a positive test. Sims called this a victory for players, who now have another way to handle their pain.

Pain doesn't stop when football careers end. In retirement, Johnson almost quit "Dancing With the Stars" in 2016 because of the agony and swelling in his ankles. In California, where medical marijuana was already legal, one of Johnson's friends from Georgia Tech gave him a small brown jar with a golden cap, a topical.

"I was using it every day for the dance show," Johnson said. "I still have just a little bit left at home, but I literally got through that dance show because of that. Literally."

Johnson, who said topicals are his favorite, was sold. He uses it on his fingers -- beaten up and twisted from years of football -- and rubs his joints with it before rounds of golf.

WHILE THEY WERE INTRIGUED by getting into the industry, cannabis was not recreationally legal in Michigan until 2018. Both were focused on other ventures since Sims retired after the 2014 season and Johnson after 2015.

They invested in real estate. Johnson dabbled in franchising the pretzel store Auntie Anne's and mentored receivers preparing for the NFL draft -- including future Pro Bowler and Tampa Bay Buccaneer Chris Godwin. Johnson ran his youth camp, assisted with his foundation and occasionally showed up at practices of various teams to help impart knowledge on future generations.

Through their company, Locker Room Consulting, Johnson and Sims came up with plans to help athletes transition out of college and professional sports into the real world by helping them figure out what interests them. When cannabis was legalized in Michigan, Sims and Johnson wanted to become involved there, too.

"I have long been silent in other partnerships in other states, so it's just like, I want to get involved on the grassroots level from the ground up, you know?" Johnson said. "I really want to be involved in this thing. I believe in it. I know it because I used it. It helps me with inflammation. It helps me with pain. So I'm like, 'OK, let's really get down to the science of this.'"

Johnson and Sims did more than lend their names. They became entrepreneurs, running every aspect of the up-and-down life of a startup, including initial licensing rejection in December 2018 due to an unpaid speeding ticket in Georgia for Johnson and real estate issues for Sims.

Those problems resolved, they reapplied, received their license in February 2019 and began their company. The two talk multiple times daily and work multiple days per week in either their facility in Webberville or at their soon-to-be-open first dispensary in Niles, Michigan.

Cannabis is a growing industry. In 2019, a Pew Research Center study showed two-thirds of Americans believe marijuana should be legalized. Johnson and Sims entering the space is another boon for a cannabis industry already on the rise. Between medical and recreational sales, the industry is projected to have brought in $18.2 billion in 2020 and grow to $23.9 billion by 2021, according to numbers provided by Headset.io, which tracks the cannabis industry.

When they started in the space, Sims and Johnson said their families had questions -- in part because of the connotations they are trying to eliminate.

"Shoot, it's a big stigma," Johnson said. "Mom, Mrs. Johnson, didn't like it. I can't say my dad was a big fan of it. But now, they haven't been able to see it, but they've been able to see the time, just from what I've shown them and what Brittney [Johnson's wife] talks to them about it. I don't even talk about it that much, but I do like to show them.

"I'd rather show them in person. I get them on FaceTime and I walk them through the facility, but they really see the time that goes into it and I'm able to show them the things that we're doing and they were like, 'OK, this isn't a hobby. This is real. This is a business.'"

Johnson says this in one of the many rooms of their nondescript, two-story building in a Webberville office park 70 miles northwest of Detroit. On this October day, their address is scrawled in black writing on a big, white, poster board sign. The faded stenciling of ML Chartier, the building's former tenants who moved next door, is visible. Johnson and Sims have since improved their signage, one of many small things in building a company from the ground up.

They are here because this is the "green zone," an area denoted by the state of Michigan for cannabis growth. This building, where every inch of space is being used, is the first phase of what they had been working on for two years.

And having their names attached -- not as just spokesmen, but entrepreneurs in the space -- can help the industry.

"Athletes like those guys getting in and being the face of a cannabis company, being a face of the cannabis movement is very helpful," said Andrew DeAngelo, a consultant for the global cannabis industry and the co-founder of Harborside, one of the oldest dispensaries in California. "Because it gives another archetype in pop culture that's cannabis-positive. That's very helpful to the story of cannabis, the brand of cannabis as a plant, as a healing agent in society.

"I'm thrilled that folks like that are coming in."

As the business has grown from concept to construction and then production, Sims and Johnson began implementing another plan: making sure the cannabis they harvested would eventually be ready for consumption.

DR. WILFRED NGWA STUDIED all over the world, and for the past 10 years, he's been working at Harvard, researching ways to increase quality treatment for cancer patients.

In 2019, he was one of the organizers at the Global Health Catalyst summit at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. One of the goals of the summit is to introduce people from different areas and businesses to see if they can work together on shared visions addressing disparities for the future of global health. One of Ngwa's invitees was Dr. Tommy Shavers, the co-founder of NESTRE Health and Performance, a neuro-strength company working with neuroplasticity that had begun a partnership with Johnson and Sims. One of the people Shavers brought to the conference was Johnson.

Johnson spoke about cannabis, how it minimized his pain, and their plans for the industry. He explained the concerns about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, brain degeneration likely caused by repeated head trauma and more commonly known as CTE, in football players. Johnson said he doesn't think about whether he has it; Sims does think about it. They both have wondered how cannabis might provide relief. By the end of the summit, Johnson and Sims began speaking with Ngwa about potentially collaborating on finding better treatment for pain and CTE.

"That kind of fit," Sims said. "We had an opportunity in cannabis and at the same time, in parallel, realized that, hey, some of these things that are ailing us as former players are things that we are able to explore and find treatments for. I would say they happened in parallel."

Ngwa works with nanodrones, which can help target medicine to patients more precisely in their bodies instead of it having an overall effect. Ngwa's hope is the technology can even cross the blood-brain barrier -- a layer in the head that keeps out toxins that could cause infection -- to deliver medicine more effectively.

It would eliminate the side effect of the general high from cannabis -- not everyone likes that, Ngwa said -- and can focus the medicine to where it's most needed.

"Tommy, he shared that with Calvin and Rob, they started this cannabis company as a way you could deliver some of these cannabinoids," Ngwa said. "One, to direct pain, and two, we have preliminary research that kind of shows, if you target these drugs across the blood-brain barrier in your head, they can inhibit the degeneration of when you have a concussion and slow that down."

The plan, once Johnson and Sims donated money to the International Phytomedicines and Medical Cannabis Institute, a multi-institutional collaboration located at Harvard, was to provide concrete evidence this could work.

Donating the funds allows Johnson and Sims to have their cannabis tested by Ngwa and his team for quality assurance. It will develop a profile of each strain and product to get a gauge on its efficacy, as well as breakdowns of THC or CBD.

After quality assurance, Ngwa hopes to use their product in a multi-institutional research agreement still being finalized for clinical trial use. This is not exclusive to Sims and Johnson's company, but the hope is to work with them to find potential real ways to use cannabis to help with pain management and CTE.

Ngwa said putting the cannabis through that type of study can help create "a reference or uniform standard for medical cannabis products."

"We have to do studies that show that their formulation of cannabis really can do the things that we want to see in terms of chemical benefit," Ngwa said. "So if someone is using it to address pain, then it actually does that.

"So by doing studies in animals and then doing clinical trials to show that it can eliminate pain, so, yeah, we want to use, they are providing cannabis from the company."

The plan initially was to start last year. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed things. Now, Sims and Johnson are planning to send their first samples to Ngwa within the next few months for testing once the paperwork is finalized.

Sims said they would send samples from their rarer flower strains and, once the other ideas are finalized, fully packaged versions of the nasal sprays, nebulizers and other products. Some of their bulk product, not under their name, is already being sold. Primitiv products should hit shelves of some dispensaries, along with the opening of their first dispensary in Niles, by the end of March. A second dispensary in Lansing, Michigan, is on track to open this summer.

"There will be different applications," Sims said. "Whatever we find that is helpful for pain or CTE, we want people to be able to experience it in different formats."

THROUGH THEIR WORK WITH Ngwa and their partnership with NESTRE, which aims to improve brain health and mental wellness, Johnson and Sims are hoping to alter the cannabis space. Johnson is listed among NESTRE's industry partners and advisors alongside Julius Thomas, Josh McCown and Hue Jackson.

Sims went through the NESTRE program himself and believes together they can "really find treatments for people." It's part of the broader vision Johnson and Sims have. They've spent years developing their partnerships and trying to figure out where they fit in the cannabis space they so passionately care about.

They believe they've found it. Through their own experiences in the NFL and business, they hope to provide something for current and future generations of athletes and people in chronic pain.

That's something many NFL players suffer from.

"To be able to provide solutions to guys that have been in our shoes and continue to be in our shoes, create solutions for those guys and just people in general," Johnson said. "But definitely looking out for our counterparts and just dealing with pain and the neuroscience, we can really change the game and get on the leading edge of some of this nanotechnology.

"Create some of these products that are able to help these guys, people, veterans, anybody dealing with pain or neurocognitive disease. Anybody."