“A little turnaround,” said Johnson, 73, who was usually the one giving autographs as a decorated quarterback in the National Football League.
The football signed by partygoers was a fitting twist for a life full of surprises.
After all, Johnson was the guy offered a lone football scholarship out of high school in Big Spring, Texas, who went on to have a 15-year-career in the NFL. He was the athlete who transferred to New Mexico State University in 1958 on a basketball scholarship, and ended up the university’s most accomplished football player, the quarterback who led the school to Sun Bowl victories in 1959 and 1960, the program’s last bowl win, and its only undefeated season in 1960.
The athlete who earned a place on the college team as a walk-on, rather than being recruited with a scholarship offer, is one of only two players in the school’s history to have his number retired.
He made the NFL’s Pro Bowl in 1963, his third season, when he led the league in pass attempts and was second in passing yardage. And that was from the athlete who, as a high schooler, was coached to throw the ball out of bounds, if he was inclined to throw at all, in a run-oriented offense, Johnson recounted.
Further confounding expectations, Johnson, while playing pro football for the former St. Louis Cardinals, obtained a doctoral degree in chemical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. He was inspired to pursue a career in engineering while digging ditches in Texas one summer as he saw a man drive up to the job site, scribble some notes down and leave. “I knew right then I wanted to be an engineer,” Johnson said.
When his football career ended in 1975 after stints with the St. Louis Cardinals, Houston Oilers and Denver Broncos, he worked in the private sector for several decades before returning to NMSU to take a faculty job. He headed the chemical engineering department from 2000 to 2004, and in 2008 was briefly named acting head coach of the Aggies after the firing of Hal Mumme.
Now, Johnson and his wife, Barbara, plan to spend more time visiting children in South Dakota and south Texas. He also expects to be active in NMSU fundraising and hopes to gain emeritus status so he can continue to work out of his office. Johnson, who was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame last year and is part of the Denver Broncos’ Ring of Honor, also plans to attend Aggie football games and root for the team he led to its heights.