Calvin Johnson used the highest stage reserved only for athletes at the pinnacle of his sport to share his passion for cannabis.

At his induction ceremony into the NFL Hall of Fame last April, the former Detroit Lions wide receiver—widely regarded as one of the best players ever at his position—spoke of a “primitive” and “healing” plant that helped him survive nine years of grueling physical punishment from some of the world’s hardest-hitting cornerbacks and linebackers.

He was talking, openly, about cannabis.

It was a stunning moment for the NFL community. The world’s most lucrative and popular sports league has long held a hardline anti-cannabis stance. Even now, testing positive for THC during the season lands players an automatic suspension.

“I’m a firm believer that the Lord put everything on this earth that we need to heal our body,” Johnson said in an interview with Cannabis Business Times. “I apply that to my food, my supplements and now my medicine.”

Inspired by his passion for the plant and personal need for physical healing, Johnson and former Detroit Lions teammate Rob Sims opened a cultivation facility in the nearby town of Webberville, Mich., back in 2019. After COVID-19 stalled the duo’s plans for a retail store, Primitiv dispensary finally launched earlier this year in the small city of Niles, 150 miles southwest of Webberville on Michigan’s border with Indiana.

The project born from their friendship on the gridiron is just getting started. But Johnson, 36, and Sims, 38, have grand plans for both their company and their activism.

An Effective Healer

Recreational marijuana has been legal in Michigan since voters greenlit the industry via the 2018 ballot. Johnson and Sims had retired from the NFL just a couple years earlier, and were working together on real estate projects at the time. In cannabis, they saw a new opportunity that aligned with their values.

The pair of former Lions stars admit they self-medicated under the table with cannabis while still playing in the NFL. None of the pharmaceutical drugs administered by team doctors worked as well for their pain.

“Plant medicine is one of the world’s earliest and most effective healers,” Johnson said. “Generations before us never needed Tylenol or anything synthetic.”

Since retiring, Johnson and Sims have incorporated cannabis as part of their daily wellness routines. Instead of treating pain, though, they now consume the plant’s chemical constituents for their calming effects— A sense of calm was important for them; the road to getting Primitiv up and running as an operational business was hardly a cakewalk.

“We were one of the original groups back in 2018 pushing to acquire these licenses,” Sims explained, “but we originally got denied. There are a ton of challenges as a startup in an evolving industry like cannabis, but we also dealt with a pandemic and people not wanting to go back to work.”

The dispensary finally opened in January 2022, and now serves about 300 paying customers each day. On the side, Primitiv donates to cannabis research at Harvard University and is an advising member of the Last Prisoner Project, a nonprofit that advocates for cannabis criminal justice reform.

Engaging the Customer

Customers walking into Primitiv during its first couple weeks in business might have run into Johnson or Sims. Yes, the former NFL stars were on the floor sharing their thoughts on  which strains had worked best for them for treating insomnia and anxiety. They also filled orders behind the counter and walked outside to deliver product, greeting customers who ordered curbside pickup.

That’s not the case as much now that operations are up and running; the two owners make the three-hour drive across the state only a few times a month. Instead, Niles native and lifelong Lions fan Ryan Horn serves as Primitiv’s general manager, overseeing the dispensary’s 20 staffers.

A modern, open-ceiling style lobby dubbed “the Locker Room” offers patients a smorgasbord of cannabis education materials while they wait to shop. Posters about the human endocannabinoid system complement a small library of books about the plant’s health benefits and how individual flower strains work differently. A signed Calvin Johnson jersey in Primitiv’s black and gold colors, with a “P” logo above the name plate, is framed in a display case.

Primitiv calls its 1,200-sq.-ft. shopping floor “the Playing Field,” where three big-screen TVs cycle through videos featuring Johnson and Sims, interspersed with the company’s mission and some sponsored cannabis brand messages throughout the day. A half-dozen glass showcases exhibit the latest Michigan market products, and a table of microscopes lets customers take closer looks at the trichomes of various flower strains for sale.

“Part of the goal is trying to engage as many customer senses as we can and spark inquisitive conversations when they speak with our [budtenders],” Horn said.

Juice and Influence in Michigan

In Detroit sports, little is guaranteed on the field. The city’s four major teams have collectively reached record levels of futility in recent years after a relatively successful run in the 2000s and early 2010s.

Something that is usually guaranteed? Athletes playing for the local teams taking the first plane out of Michigan when they retire or finish their contracts, never to return. The allure of California, the sunshine in Florida, the opportunity in New York or the charm and recognition in their hometowns almost always draw even the most beloved Detroit athletes away from the down-on-its-luck Mitten State.

But just like their decision to foray into legal cannabis in the first place, Johnson and Sims broke the mold by settling in Michigan.

“As the years went on, I started to put my business hat on,” Johnson said. “There were a lot of opportunities that presented themselves in the state because I’ve been here for my whole adult life.”

Sims, whose father and father-in-law also played in the NFL, says he learned by example. He didn’t plan on staying in the area when Seattle traded him to Detroit back in 2010. But once the Lions offered him a four-year contract extension, he knew he’d found a permanent home.

“We believe you should stay where you retire because that’s where your juice and your influence are,” he said.

But why Niles, a tiny town of just 12,000 people on the rural west side of the state, for Primitiv’s dispensary?

For one, it’s less than five miles from neighboring Indiana, where adults still can’t buy marijuana legally. Second and perhaps most importantly, local governments in some of Michigan’s more populated cities—Detroit, Warren and Sterling Heights to name a few—still don’t allow recreational cannabis sales.

If and when those cities open for adult-use, Johnson and Sims say they’ll be ready to expand.

“This location gets our products in the most people’s hands,” Sims said. “Now that the train is on the tracks, our focus is what’s next and where’s next.”