Ex-Falcon QB spent sad life in long, lonely end zone

Johnson was team's first QB in 1966

BREVARD, N.C. — He was Atlanta’s first NFL quarterback, a point man for the birth of the Falcons and the city’s proud rise to the big leagues.

Randy Johnson may not have had much of a football team around him in 1966, but he had all the people in place with whom to build a beautiful life.

He was married to the smart, pretty cheerleader he had met in college. And, while beginning one family with her, he was building another through the fraternal bonding of football.

Yet, when Johnson died in this small North Carolina town Sept. 16, the 65-year-old was as alone as a body could be.

As he was lying on the dirty, worn carpet of the shed that had sheltered him for nearly two years, a gallery of strangers stared down at him. None of the photos that lined two walls of cheap dark paneling belonged to him.

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All the clothes he had on this earth hung on a three-foot rod. The small refrigerator balanced on a nearby counter was empty except for a six pack of Bud Light.

In his wallet there was no money, just the yellowed currency of an athlete’s past: five playing cards picturing a confident quarterback in various incarnations with Atlanta, New York and Washington.

How could the strong, smiling image on those cardboard tributes be the same sad figure on this floor, wasted away to less than 120 pounds by disease and decades of substance abuse and self-loathing?

The answer lives somewhere in the darkness between the glory of his football days and the abyss of his dying days. For Johnson was very good at keeping his misery to himself.

“He had been on a path of destruction for a long time,” said his ex-wife, Pennye Wheeler. “I never understood why, because he had everything. He really had everything. I don’t know what happened.”

“He didn’t leave any tracks,” said Alex Hawkins, a teammate during that first Falcons season.

So completely had Johnson cut himself off from his family and friends that Brevard police would search for five days for someone to claim his body.

Gone Sept. 16 and discovered the next day by his landlord, Johnson actually had been dead to the world much longer than that.

Injuries, bankruptcy

The Randy Johnson Atlanta got to know was a rapidly rising quarterback from Texas A&I (now Texas A&M Kingsville). Most valuable player in two college all-star games, he caught the fancy of pro scouts.

The expansion Falcons had a pair of first-round draft picks before their 1966 debut season, and they would spend them on linebacker Tommy Nobis, first overall pick, and quarterback Johnson, 15th overall.

Johnson was 6-3, 190 pounds and charismatic, every bit the smiling figure on those playing cards. “He had a great sense of humor — and he needed it,” Hawkins said.

Another old teammate and friend, Paul Flatley, remembered: “Randy Johnson was personally a very warm and caring individual. He was very competitive on the field. Those qualities get most guys high accolades.”

On the field, he got knocked around more than any young player should. That expansion offensive line leaked like cheesecloth.

His record as a Falcons starter was 8-28-1. He had the arm, but he couldn’t break away from the undertow of expansion football. And the injuries — to knee, shoulder, ribs — began mounting.

The Falcons shed themselves of Johnson before the 1971 season, and he began roving pro football, with cameos in New York, Washington and Green Bay. He even played one season with the Honolulu Hawaiians of the short-lived World Football League.

After 10 seasons in professional football, Johnson retired in 1977 and was filed away as a footnote in Falcons history.

Within a year, he was divorced. He also was filing for bankruptcy, the result, he would say, of a succession of bad business decisions.

“Back then, we didn’t make a lot of money,” said Johnson’s ex-wife. “At most, he made $120,000 [a year], and he didn’t work during the offseason. That really didn’t go very far.”

When Johnson moved from the couple’s home in Florida and returned to Texas on his own, the real unraveling began.

Divorce, drinking

The route to that red shack behind a house in Brevard, N.C., twisted and turned through a multitude of states and settings. The only constant was drug and alcohol abuse.

As Johnson told a Florida newspaper in 1999 — his last known interview — he began drinking heavily after the divorce. That was his solution to the loneliness and depression that followed him to Texas, he said.

By mutual agreement with his ex-wife, Johnson had cut off pretty much all contact with his two daughters, then both under age 10.

“That decision on my part was the worst thing that ever ever happened to me,” Johnson said in ’99. “I think of (my daughters) every minute and wonder how they are.”

Nor did he have anything to do with a son he had from a previous relationship in high school.

Through the early ’80s and mid-’90s, he had been in and out of multiple rehab and psychological facilities without conquering his abuse problems.

He bounced around the country, each move signaling another step in a steady descent. To Texas to Rhode Island to Georgia. Then to Florida, where, he said in the 1999 interview, another business scheme failed, costing him his last $1,200.

To that point, Johnson had maintained sporadic contact with his ex-wife and friends. “Understand, Randy was wonderful to me,” said Wheeler, explaining why she was willing to keep in touch with him for so long after she remarried.

“All those years, we kept in touch. He always called me on my birthday. I always was willing to help him if he wanted to be helped — and he did not. Most calls he had been drinking and wanted to reminisce. I told him that was not healthy; he needed to move on. He’d hang up and, next year, I’d get the same phone call.”

That 1999 newspaper article told of a one-time NFL player who had been on the brink of suicide and living at the Bread of Life Mission in Punta Gorda. He reportedly was subsisting on an NFL pension of $600 a month.

About that time, Flatley made one last attempt to reach out to his former teammate. While in Florida, Flatley had arranged to meet Johnson at a restaurant. A mutual friend was going to drive Johnson to the meeting.

The friend showed, but not Johnson. The old quarterback explained himself in a handwritten note that Flatley keeps today.

“He said in the letter: ‘I can’t go with you to see Paul. As I hope you know I am devastated and very ashamed about the way my life has turned out. I don’t think I could look Paul in the eye,’ ” Flatley recounted.

The combination of shame and addiction was overwhelming, pushing Johnson further and further away from all who cared about him.

The annual calls to his ex-wife stopped shortly after he arrived in North Carolina in the fall of 2007. Gravely ill, Johnson had traveled north with an acquaintance he made during another stay in rehab. That man had a sister in Brevard, and she had this little place out back where, it turns out, a man could die alone.

It was a sparse 20-by-12 structure that Regina and Tom Ontis built originally to house Regina’s father. After the father’s death, his hospital bed remained, as did all his family photos on the walls. The one luxury Johnson allowed himself was to add the NFL package to his cable, so he could watch any game he wanted on a 14-inch television.

He gave lie to the adage that everyone knows everyone’s business in a small town. Johnson moved about like a ghost — certainly he was so thin you almost could see through him.

No one in town asked about Randy Johnson last week could place his name. Not the manager at the Huddle House where he often ate breakfast. Not the longtime high school football coach who now sells cars no more than a mile from where Johnson lived. Not the staff at the bi-weekly town newspaper, the Transylvania Times, who could recall no mention of Johnson in the past two years.

“No one came to visit,” said Tom Ontis, “and he didn’t visit anyone. A good guy. Just a recluse.”

The couple knew Johnson had played football, and a signed photo of him as a Redskin hangs in their TV room. They knew he had a family somewhere, but beyond that, no details.

“He wanted to go out of this world alone,” Regina Ontis said. “We’d talk and I’d say, ‘Randy, you know what’s going to happen here. I want to know what to do [after he died].’ And he’d just say, ‘Don’t worry, everything will take care of itself.’”

Johnson made the Brevard police work for their money the week after his death. There was no autopsy — he was suffering from bone cancer and diabetes, said police, who declared he died of natural causes.

But there was a body to deliver to family.

“We were really driven to find someone,” said Lt. Steve Woodson. “There were a lot of dead ends.”

Finally, they found Johnson’s mother in San Antonio, and eventually they made contact with his ex-wife.

What no one could solve were the greater mysteries of Johnson’s life and why he removed himself from those who might have made it worth living. Johnson’s legacy has little to do with football and much to do with regret.

“It’s a shame how he turned out. I can’t get him off my mind,” said old teammate Flatley.

“It has been very difficult for the girls,” said Pennye Wheeler. “We talked occasionally how one day we knew we’d get this phone call. Even though you try to prepare yourself for it, they weren’t quite ready.

“I’m just so relieved he’s not in pain anymore. Now (the daughters) are anguishing over ‘Why didn’t we do more.’ And I’m consoling them with ‘There is nothing more we could have done.’ ”

After his death, there was discussion of donating his body to a research project at Boston University. But Wheeler stepped in. She began making arrangements for services in the town where they were married, Cuero, Texas.

After so long in the dark and in doubt, family and friends will know with certainty where Randy Johnson is now.

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