Diverse talents lead Johnson to the top of multiple careers
By Justin Bannister
For the Bulletin
Few people are as athletically and academically talented as New Mexico State University’s Charley Johnson. The NMSU graduate not only became an NFL star and an NMSU professor, he also served his country in the Army. Johnson received an honorary degree from the university on May 14 in recognition of these and other achievements throughout his life.
“NMSU Chancellor Garrey Carruthers called me to tell me they were going to give me an honorary degree,” Johnson said. “He and I joke around a lot, so I thought he was just pulling my leg. When he convinced me he wasn’t joking, I was stunned. It was kind of hard to believe.”
Growing up in Big Spring, Texas, Charley Johnson played high school football, basketball, baseball and golf. After graduation, he received a football scholarship to a private military school and junior college in Kerrville, Texas. The school eventually dropped football so Johnson began playing basketball. That’s when the Aggies noticed his talent.
“I was playing in a basketball tournament in my hometown when a scout came to watch me play,” Johnson said. “He offered me a scholarship and I jumped on that in a hurry.”
Johnson was also promised the opportunity to try out for the NMSU football team and in 1958 he was named the starting quarterback under newly hired Coach Warren Woodson. His college football career included two consecutive Sun Bowl victories and an undefeated 11-0 record in 1960, the only NMSU football team in history to go undefeated. During the three years Johnson was on the team, the Aggies recorded 23 wins and nine losses. He is the first and only player to be named back-to-back Sun Bowl Most Valuable Player and was Border Conference MVP in 1958, 1959 and 1960.
“It was interesting to see how it all just worked back then. We just started winning and didn’t stop,” Johnson said. “Coach Woodson played the biggest role.”
While at NMSU, Johnson was involved in ROTC and planned on being commissioned as a career Army officer. After graduating from NMSU in 1961, however, he was offered the opportunity to play professional football and signed a contract with the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals. He became the starter and played from 1961 to 1969. During this time, he also attended Washington University in St. Louis, and received a Master of Science degree in chemical engineering in 1963.
“It just worked out that way,” he said. “I was commissioned in the Army when I graduated and the Cardinals wanted me to play football, too. Then I went to grad school and the Cardinals kept me on the team. I missed a few practices, but never missed a game.”
Johnson served two years of active duty in 1967 and 1968 as a second lieutenant, conducting research at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. When he completed his tour of duty, Johnson continued his NASA research at Monsanto Chemical in St. Louis as a doctoral project for Washington University, completing his Doctor of Science in chemical engineering degree in 1971.
In 1969, he returned to the NFL to play for St. Louis and in 1970, he was traded to the Houston Oilers. During his two seasons in Houston, he went through a number of surgeries and was on the brink of retirement in 1972, but a trade to the Denver Broncos turned things around. Playing for Denver he led the Broncos to their first winning season in 1973 and was named AFC All-Conference. Johnson is among one of the most efficient quarterbacks in Broncos history and is in the Broncos Ring of Fame. After retiring from professional football in 1975, he stayed in Denver for an additional season, where he coached the Broncos’ quarterbacks.
In 2000, he returned to NMSU as the Chemical Engineering department head. While at the university, he assumed a new position as the assistant to the president for athletic progress under then-President Michael Martin. There, he was responsible for finding ways in which the NMSU President’s Office could have a maximum impact on student athletes and coaches. Johnson continued his teaching responsibilities in the Chemical Engineering Department until 2010. He’s helped coach the Aggies’ quarterbacks for a number of years and continues to help with the team.
When asked what NMSU means to him, Johnson said, “It means a chance. A chance to improve academically, athletically and socially. I wouldn’t have gotten where I am today, without NMSU. No way.”