Ag great continues to support program
By Mike Cook
Las Cruces Bulletin
It’s hard to know if retired quarterback Charley Johnson had a bigger, more lasting impact at New Mexico State University or in the National Football League.
Johnson, 76, who moved back to Las Cruces with his wife, Barbara, more than a decade ago, led the Aggies to their last undefeated season in 1960 (11-0), their second consecutive Sun Bowl victory and a 17th-in-the-nation ranking. He is a charter member of the New Mexico State Athletic Hall of Fame, a member of both the New Mexico and Texas sports halls of fame, and his No. 33 jersey is the only retired number in Aggie history.
In his 15 years in the NFL, Johnson quarterbacked the St. Louis Cardinals, Houston Oilers and Denver Broncos. He was one of the league’s leading passers in 1963 and 1964, and played in the1963 Pro Bowl. In 1986, Johnson became one of the first inductees into the Broncos Ring of Fame, which today includes John Elway, Floyd Little, Terrell Davis and a handful of other great players from Denver’s 55year history in the American Football League (AFL) and the NFL.
‘A dream come true’
Playing for the Aggies, Johnson said, was “a dream come true.” Being drafted by the Cardinals – his favorite team growing up – and playing in the NFL was “breathtaking. It was awesome,” he said.
Johnson was born and grew up in Big Spring, Texas, where he lettered in football, baseball, basketball and golf. After high school graduation, he attended Schreiner Institute in Kerrville, Texas on a football scholarship.
“I was so good they dropped the sport,” Johnson said, Even so, Johnson went back the next year and played basketball. He was recruited by New Mexico A& M (which became NMSU in 1960) on a basketball scholarship, but tried out for football team. The coach, Warren Woodson, “liked the way I threw it,” Johnson said, so he joined the Aggie football program in 1958.
The Aggies won the 1959 Sun Bowl 28- 8 against North Texas State, and won again the following year, defeating Utah State 20-13. They were also Border Conference champions in their undefeated 1960 season, which included three shutouts and only one close game – a 27-24 road win against the Arizona State University Sun Devils. Johnson was named most valuable player in both Sun Bowls, and remains the only player in NCAA football history to win the MVP award two consecutive years in the same bowl game.
He was named to the 75th Anniversary All-Sun Bowl Team in 2008.
Johnson had a passer efficiency rating of 134.1 in 1960 – the highest of any NCAA quarterback that year.
‘Big, dumb Aggies’
Before coming to Las Cruces, “I’d never even heard of the Aggies,” he said. And often, during his early days on campus, he heard the university’s athletes referred to as “big, dumb Aggies. We changed that,” Johnson said.
The 1960 season was the last time the Aggie football team was undefeated or appeared in a bowl game. The Aggies have had just four winning seasons since the departure of Woodson as coach in 1967. ‘Tall cotton’
Johnson graduated from NMSU in 1961 with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. He was drafted in the first round by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League, in the sixth round by the AFL’s San Diego Chargers and in the 10th round (player number 109 in the 1960 draft) by the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals (they moved to St. Louis that same year). “I was a Cardinal nut,” Johnson said. “That was an easy decision.”
Johnson signed with the Cardinals for $15,000, including a $3,000 advance. “I was happy I made the team,” he said. He got a $500 raise in 1962. “I was in tall cotton then.”
Johnson started 10 games for the Cardinals during the 1962 season, and started all 14 games in 1963, throwing for more than 3,200 yards and 28 touchdowns and leading the Cardinals to nine wins and the NFL’s fourthranked passing offense.
Johnson’s 423 pass attempts led the NFL in 1963. In 1964, he led the league in pass attempts (420), completions (223), passing yards (3,045) and passing yards per game (217.5).
Footballs and classes
Johnson earned a master’s degree in engineering (1963) and a PhD. in chemical engineering (1966) from Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) while playing for the Cardinals.
“Of all of graduates of distinction, perhaps the most unusual was Charlie Johnson, who, on his graduate school application listed his occupation: ‘Quarterback—St. Louis Football Cardinals,’” says A History of Chemical Engineering at WUSTL. “During the 1960s, Johnson tossed footballs during the fall semesters and took courses during the spring terms.”
“In the morning I went to class and studied,” Johnson said in a 2012 story by the NMSU News Center. “Then I would practice football. The university held classes in the late afternoon/evening, so (after practice) I would go back to class.”
Johnson also served two years of active duty with the United States Army while he was the Cardinals quarterback. He was stationed at Fort Sill, Okla., for 10 weeks in 1967, spending Monday through Saturday at the base. The Cardinals sent a plane for him on Sundays, flying him to games in St. Louis and across the country. He later served at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., doing research for NASA.
“I got gung ho” about the military at Schreiner Institute, a military school, Johnson said. “It was going to be my career.” Johnson would have fought in the Vietnam War if numerous knee injuries he suffered playing football had not prevented him from passing the Army physical.
‘I still wanted to play’
Johnson was picked up by the Oilers in 1969. During his two seasons in Houston, Johnson had five surgeries and played with three different head coaches. One coach, he said, had “a problem communicating. He would stand on his helmet and hold the sideline under his arm.”
“I’d been beat up,” Johnson said, and he was starting to think about retiring as a player. “But, I still wanted to play.”
That was a lucky thing for the Denver Broncos, who traded for Johnson in 1972. (Denver Head Coach John Ralston had been the coach at Utah State University and remembered Johnson and the NMSU Aggies beating his team in the 1960 Sun Bowl.) The Broncos had not had a winning season in their 12year history. “They were having quarterback problems. They couldn’t put anything together,” Johnson said.
Johnson moved to Denver, put on the orange and blue and helped the Broncos “get things started.” The offensive line wasn’t very strong, Johnson remembers. “I couldn’t get decent pass blocking.” So, he started throwing the ball quickly downfield. He also had future pro football Hall of Famer Floyd Little in the backfield. Johnson called him “Mr. Reliable.”
“All of a sudden, we started beating a few people,” Johnson said. One of greatest memories is returning to Houston and beating the Oilers, along with beating the Raiders in Oakland. “We had some tremendous games in Kansas City,” he also remembers.
The Broncos had seven wins, five losses and two ties in 1973 – the first winning season in franchise history – and were seven- six and one in 1974, as Johnson was named to the AFC all–conference team. In Denver, Johnson had a record of 20 wins, 18 losses and three ties in the games he stared. He passed for 7,238 yards and 52 touchdowns.
“He taught us how to win,” said Broncos receiver and Ring of Fame member Haven Moses of Johnson.
Denver started the Ring of Fame in 1984 to honor its greatest players; Johnson was inducted in 1986. He still wears the huge gold and diamond ring he received for helping to turn the Broncos around.
Johnson remembers playing against the Falcons in Atlanta Nov. 23, 1975 – the day after his 37th birthday. A teammate fell on Johnson, breaking three of his ribs and his collarbone. “I couldn’t breathe,” Johnson said, but he stayed in the game, and even held for kicker Jim Turner. Johnson still called the plays, but he was so short of breath that center Bobby Maples had to call the snaps.
Johnson said he also probably suffered three to five concussions during his NFL career. “Only a couple of them did I have to stay in the hospital overnight,” he said.
Johnson said the NFL has ignored statistics “for years and years” that clearly indicated the serious nature of head injuries suffered by players. “It doesn’t take many of them to permanently alter your brain function,” he said. The NFL Players Association also failed to press the issue, he said. The league is “finally following through on what they should have done,” Johnson said. But, “there’s a lot more to go because they’re still denying a lot of things,” he said.
Johnson retired as a player in 1975. He continued as quarterbacks coach for the Broncos in 1976, and applied for the head football coaching job at NMSU in 1977. That’s still a sore spot for Johnson, not only because he didn’t get the job, but because of the way he found out. NMSU’s assistant athletics director called Johnson’s home in Houston. Neither he nor his wife was at home, so the AD left the “you didn’t get the job” message for Johnson with his daughter. “I wouldn’t treat people like that,” he said. “That was heartbreaking.”
Excited to return
Johnson returned to Houston in the late 1970s, opening Johnson Compression Services in 1981. He was an engineering and product development consultant until 1999, when he got an offer from NMSU, not to coach football, but to be the head of his alma mater’s chemical engineering department. “I was excited to come back,” Johnson said.
Johnson took over in January 2000. The department, he said, was “kind of a mess,” but Johnson helped to get “things straightened out.” He served under five deans of engineering, including two who were “really good,” he said. “I had a great time.” Johnson retired in May 2012.
But he wasn’t done with NMSU football. Johnson filled in as interim head coach for the month of January 2009, as the university searched for a new coach after firing Hal Mumme. “We were undefeated,” Johnson said.
‘The future’s looking good’
Today, Johnson said things are looking up for the Aggie football team. “It takes a program to be successful,” he said, and NMSU President Garrey Carruthers is committed to the success of Aggie football. Coach Doug Martin, who took the reins in 2013, “will get it done,” Johnson said. NMSU Athletics Director Mario Moccia, hired in late 2014, “puts us in a whole different category. It’s going to be fantastic in the next few years. I think the future’s looking good.”
Johnson returns to campus several times a week to help Martin with his quarterbacks. He also works on fishing lures and hopes to return to playing golf despite the knee and hip damage from his long football career. Johnson said Barbara, his wife of 56 years, also keeps him going with a long “honey-do” list.
“Charley Johnson is one of our NMSU icons – football star, businessman, faculty member/academic, soldier, department head and always a great Aggie,” said Carruthers, a former governor of the state. “A bright man who received his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering while playing NFL football. It is my honor to call him friend. He also supported my governor’s campaign which just further elevated my opinion of Charley.”