Calvin Johnson, who retired from the NFL early because his body was starting to break down, said many players are choosing to do whatever it takes to stay on the field.
That includes taking painkillers.
"I guess my first half of my career before they really, you know, before they were like started looking over the whole industry, or the whole NFL, the doctors, the team doctors and trainers they were giving them out like candy, you know?" Johnson said in an interview with ESPN's Michael Smith for E:60 that debuts Thursday at 10 p.m. ET.
"If you were hurting, then you could get 'em, you know. It was nothing. I mean, if you needed Vicodin, call out, 'My ankle hurt,' you know. 'I need, I need it. I can't, I can't play without it,' or something like that. It was simple. That's how easy it was to get 'em, you know. So if you were dependent on 'em, they were readily available."
Johnson, 30, said he knew he couldn't do what it would take to overcome his injuries, of which there were many, to keep playing. The former Detroit Lions star underwent knee, ankle and finger surgeries. He retired in March after nine seasons in the NFL.
"I know where my body's at, know how it feels, you know," he said. "I know how it felt to one, get it to go every day. And to be out there actually doing it every day, you know -- the pain to do it. So I'm just like -- and you can't take Toradol and pain medicine every day, you know. You gotta give that stuff a rest, and that was one thing I wasn't willing to do."
Johnson currently stands second on the all-time list in receiving yards per game behind Julio Jones at 86.1. He led the league in receiving twice and went to six Pro Bowls in his nine-year career. Despite an 88-catch, 1,214-yard season last year, he has repeatedly said he's not coming back to the league.
He said he wants to be able to function after football and finish his degree at Georgia Tech. Many players are dealing with the post-football concerns, including the effects of concussions. Johnson was asked if he's had to deal with concussion issues. He said that even before the movie "Concussion" came out and elevated the discussion in popular culture, he was concerned about it.
"Concussions happen," he said. "If not on every play, then they happen like every other, every third play, you know. With all the helmet contact, guys hitting the ground, heads hitting ground. It's simply when your brain touches your skull from the movement or the inertia, man. It's simple to get a concussion, you know. I don't know how many I've had over my career, you know, but I've definitely had my fair share." Johnson didn't come out and blame the league for knowingly putting players at risk, but he described a culture that demands that players play.
"The team doctor, the team trainers, they work for the team. And I love 'em, you know," he said. "They're some good people, you know. They want to see you do good. But at the same time, they work for the team, you know. They're trying to do whatever they can to get you back on the field and make your team look good. So if it's not gonna make the team look good, or if you're not gonna be on the field, then they're tryin' to do whatever they can to make that happen."
Johnson went onto the field many times when injured, but he finally decided he didn't want to do that anymore. Still, he doesn't regret his career. And he said he will definitely miss it.
"I mean, who's not gonna miss it, you know?" he said. "It's ... you're playing the greatest game against some of the best athletes in the world. You know, and it's a bone-crushing game, and you gotta love that about it, because it takes everybody to do their job right in order for you just to, just to sniff victory, you know? So, like I say, I love it, I loved it. I left it all out on the field, I feel like. And had a great time, made some great plays that I felt like my fans will remember."