While there were NFL players before him who celebrated after scoring a touchdown, Billy “White Shoes’’ Johnson is credited with the first end-zone dance. Johnson called it the “Funky Chicken,’’ based on a song by the same name by Rufus Thomas. He did it for the first time as a rookie when playing for the Houston Oilers and as coach Bum Phillips liked to tell him, “You can do anything you want if you can run punts back like that all the time.’’
But the greatest punt returner in NFL history began his career as a quarterback, at Chichester High School in Delaware County, Pa. He also played defensive back and had great speed. While he had a tremendous high school career, he stood only 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds and didn’t get a lot of attention from major colleges.
The recruiters who came by to see him told Johnson they would let their track coach know about him, so he decided to stay in Pennsylvania and go to Widener College, a Division III school. Playing running back at Widener, he broke nine NCAA records and scored 62 touchdowns, including at least one score in 27 of the 28 games he played in. He also was a star on the track team.
Not looked at by many NFL scouts, Johnson was taken in the 15th round of the 1974 draft (365th overall) by the Houston Oilers and went to summer camp that year in Huntsville, Texas, never missing a two-a-day practice in the brutal heat during a time when training camp lasted more than two months and six preseason games. He impressed coach Sid Gillman, making the team. Between kickoff and punt returns his rookie season, he collected 1,194 yards on 59 returns. He also caught 29 passes for 388 yards and two touchdowns.
The next season under the coach they called Bum, he led the NFL with 83 punt returns, averaging 15.3 yards per return, and scored three touchdowns as the legend was born. He returned a punt for a 90-yard touchdown in his first of three Pro Bowls and being named MVP.
Dancing in the end zones, wearing white shoes and wrapping his skinny ankles over his shoes with white tape, he caught 47 passes for 495 yards and four scores in 1976 and the next year had his best season, returning 87 punts, scoring twice and averaging 15.4 yards, including one for 87 yards. He also ran a kickoff back for a touchdown.
But in 1978, Johnson injured his knee. By the time he was completely healthy in ’80, he had been replaced as the kick returner for the Oilers and served as a backup receiver.
The next year he tried to get out of his contract with Houston, but couldn’t do so and so he went to the Canadian Football League and played one season in Montreal, catching 65 passes for 1,060 yards and five TDs and returning for 597 yards. One of his teammates was quarterback Vince Ferragamo.
He returned to the NFL in 1982, at first thinking he was going to sign with San Francisco, but the deal never went through and he came to Atlanta. He appeared in only two games that season but got to play for his idol, receivers coach Jimmy Raye, who played at Michigan State and was a black quarterback from the South who was on the Spartans’ national championship team in 1966.
The next season he took over the full-time punt- and kick-return role for the Falcons and scored his sixth career touchdown on a punt and made his third Pro Bowl, also being named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
Also, that year in a game in Atlanta against San Francisco, he caught the pass, which is referred to as Big Ben II, a Hail Mary 47-yard throw from Steve Bartkowski with time running out to beat the 49ers. Johnson appeared to slip and caught the deflected ball at the 5-yard line and weaved his way and lunged into the end zone. The play remains one of the top moments in franchise history.
He was hurt for most of 1984, but in ’85 led the team in receptions (62) and receiving yards (830) and scored five touchdowns. Another injury in ’86 set him back, and he retired after the ’87 season, though he returned for one game with the Redskins in ’88.
He was named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team in 1994 and remains the only player on that team who has not been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In his 13-plus seasons in the league, he returned 282 punts for 3,317 yards (11.8 yards per return) and six touchdowns and 129 kickoffs for 2,941 yards (23.9) and two TD’s. He also caught 337 passes for 4,211 and 25 touchdowns.
Where he lives: Johnson, now 63, resides in Gwinnett County with is wife, Barbara. He has four children, Marcy, Jasmine, Kendra and Jared, and eight grandchildren.
What he does now: He continues to be very involved in youth sports and is an assistant track and football coach at Duluth High School.
On playing quarterback in high school: “I was a running quarterback, and my coach called a lot of rollouts to throw because I couldn’t see over the box. A lot of college coaches would look at me and see my height and say they would pass along my info to the track coach. But I wasn’t going to college to play pro football.’’
On his career in college: “We were really good and scored a lot of points. There were pro scouts that saw me, but I was playing running back, and they didn’t like my size. But I remember going out in a tryout and running a 4.42 (seconds in the 40-yard dash) in my jeans and the Oilers were there.’’
On his days in Houston: “Our first camp was in Huntsville (Texas), and the strike had just taken place. It was brutal, as we had 50-something days of two-a-day practices. I remember that because that was the year (President) Nixon resigned. But I was out there every day at practice, and I opened some eyes. I knew going in I already had a strike against me because of my size. But I had nothing to lose because no one expected me to make the team. I liked Houston a lot because of the players. They were a big part of the community.’’
On his first TD dance in the NFL: “People thought I was a hot dog. I remember the first time I did it was against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and that was right before they became a great team. I was having fun.’’
On playing for Phillips: “Bum was strictly business. We would go to practice and get our work done in an hour and 45 minutes. It was all about getting our work done. He also had a great way of handling people. He had an innate ability to figure out a situation. He was very popular with the players.’’
On playing with the great Oilers running back Earl Campbell: “He was like Jim Brown, great speed and toughness. And he wasn’t greedy about getting the ball. He was a team player, and being with him on the field and watching him was pretty special. He was a little quiet and didn’t like being around big crowds. He is a good person, and it is great to see where he came from and what he accomplished.’’
On coming to Atlanta: “I thought I was going to San Francisco and play for Bill Walsh, but it didn’t work out in the end. The Falcons signed me right before the Fourth of July. It was a good situation for me, and it was a big comeback for me.’’
On Big Ben II: “The play was called ‘Three Right Rocket’ and Floyd Hodge and Stacey Bailey and myself went down the field in a cluster and then I think it was Floyd that jumped up for the ball. It hit his knee, and I circled around and grabbed it. There were about five or six San Francisco players around the play, and Junior Miller came down and threw a block and knocked two of them out. I couldn’t just dive because I was too far away. I got in, but it was tough. It was like hitting a last-second shot. It was a wow thing, and we knocked them out of the playoffs.’’
On the best thing about playing in Atlanta: “I got to play for coach Jimmy Raye. When I was young I watched him and tried to emulate him. But the highlight of my career came when I was a rookie and had a good game against the Jets, and Joe Namath came up to me after the game and had that smile on his face and said, ‘Hey, you are going to be a good player … keep up the good work.’’’
On possibly getting into the Hall of Fame one day: “Everybody but me on that 75th anniversary team is in the Hall, but I am not going to hold my breath. If it happens, fine. Yes, it would be a nice thing to have.”