He avoided answering that directly for a long time, instead sticking to his answer that the physical toll on his body was too much and that’s why he stepped away. But now, about a year-and-a-half into retirement, he confirmed that the constant losing was a factor.
Johnson stomped on the Lions during a news conference in Italy, where he was presenting the game ball for the American football championship game in the country, Italian Bowl XXXVII.
“I was stuck in my contract with Detroit, and they told me, they would not release my contract, so I would have to come back to them,” Johnson said, via ESPN. “I didn’t see the chance for them to win a Super Bowl at the time, and for the work I was putting in, it wasn’t worth my time to keep on beating my head against the wall and not going anywhere.”
The most interesting part of that quote is that Johnson apparently went to the team and asked to be let out of his contract. What if the Lions had done so? That might have changed some NFL history.
Instead, Johnson walked away. That means the Lions had one of the greatest running backs ever, Barry Sanders, and one of the greatest receivers ever retire at least in part because of the franchise’s ongoing futility. Johnson won zero playoff games in his career and Sanders won one. That win Sanders was part of, at the end of the 1991 season, is Detroit’s only playoff win since 1957. In the 51-year Super Bowl era the Lions have won three division titles, and none since 1993.
The Lions already know their sad history. They probably don’t need a future Hall of Famer telling everyone he retired at 30 years old, after nine seasons and still among the best players in football, because the chances of the Lions winning it all was hopeless. Things aren’t going smoothly in the relationship between Johnson and his former team, considering this story and the one earlier this offseason in which Johnson complained about the Lions asking him to pay part of his signing bonus back. Any ceremonies the Lions have for Johnson in the future might be a bit awkward.
The Lions moved on and actually made the playoffs without Johnson last season (take that, Megatron!). But there are always reminders of Detroit’s sad history, even from one of their greatest players in retirement.
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