Editor’s note: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution catches up with former Atlanta sports figures in this occasional series. Today: Billy “White Shoes” Johnson.
Billy “White Shoes” Johnson’s colorful football journey has taken a full arc, from a small town outside of Philadelphia to being a 15th-round draft pick and ascending to the upper reaches of the NFL as a player, coach and executive.
Johnson played at Chichester High School in Boothwyn, Pa., before going to Widener College, a small Division III school. After his NFL career, Johnson was selected as the punt returner on the NFL’s 75th and 100th anniversary all-time teams.
He also was named to the all-decade teams of the 1970s and 1980s.
Johnson went into the College Football Hall of Fame and was inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame in 2018.
He remains the only man selected to the 75th Anniversary team who is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
“It would be nice, but don’t wait until I’m dead and give it me posthumously,” Johnson said recently in a wide-ranging interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Johnson, the son of a police sergeant, grew up in a town of less than 5,000 people. His parents, Leonard and Katherine, who both are deceased, taught him to always be respectful.
“I was blessed,” Johnson said. “Having good mentors coming up. Not to say I wasn’t a knucklehead at times, but I was fortunate to learn from other people’s mistakes. Learn from how other people had success with how they went about their jobs, their attitude and demeanor. I just tried to follow some good people.”
Johnson grew up playing football, basketball, baseball and running track. He said he even dabbled in street hockey.
As a teen, Johnson was captivated by the collegiate play of Michigan State quarterback Jimmy Raye and by Joe Namath’s white shoes.
“I’ll never forget Jimmy Raye at the time,” Johnson said of the Raye, a African-American playing quarterback at a Division I school in the 1960s. “I remember that he was a quarterback and how smart he was. He wore those nice little wristbands.”
Johnson, who was a quarterback in high school, tried to emulate Raye and borrowed the shoe concept from Namath.
“We had a nice shoe guy, we called them cobblers at the time, he was an Italian guy,” Johnson said. “He was really good. We’d just gotten some leather shoes. He did them and they looked like they were brought. He dyed two pair. I had one for practice and one for games.”
Johnson wasn’t sure what his “no frills” high school coach would say about his white shoes.
“Had a good game,” Johnson said. “He never said anything else that year, over the next two years.
“He didn’t mind at all. I just said that they make me run faster, and he said ‘OK.’ That was the only thing I could come up with.”
Folks would ask about the flashy footwear.
“It’s not hurting anybody,” his coach would say.
Johnson was 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds. He was recruited by some area colleges. He liked coach Bill Manlove and went to Widener, which was in Chester, Pa.
“I had a few real big schools after me,” Johnson said. “One of them used to call my father on his job. He was a police officer. He was a sergeant at the time. Local area schools. Some good schools.”
Johnson wanted to play football and run track.
“But when I met coach Manlove, and that’s how I really, for me, ended up going to Widener,” Johnson said. “I felt like I could play at any of them.”
Joe Paterno and Penn State gently turned down Johnson.
“He just thought I was too small,” Johnson said. “That was the same year he turned down Doug Plank. Doug went to Ohio State. We talked about that. I didn’t know that, either. They were nice in the letter and stuff.”
Johnson said that years later, on the award-banquet circuit, Paterno acknowledged that he missed on him.
Johnson would have leaped at the chance to play for the Nittany Lions.
“He was like, you can come up here and run track for us,” Johnson said. “Put on some weight and after the offseason and spring ball we may give you a look. I kind of knew that it was a rejection, but he gave me hope at the same time.”
Johnson, with his white shoes already established, went on to star at Widener, which is where his elaborate end-zone dances started.
“I decided that if I scored, I was going to dance,” Johnson said. “You know how guys are, if you don’t do it and you talked all of that trash, they are going to hold your feet to the fire. So, I said I’m going to dance.
“I think ‘Soul Train’ was out at the time. It was like ’72 when it started. I’m going to dance. What are you going to do? I didn’t know, but you watch this.”
Johnson said after he scored a long-gainer, he knew the peer pressure was on. He had to do something.
“So, the easiest thing for me was to do the ‘Funky Chicken’ by Rufus Thomas,” Johnson said. “So, I did it and didn’t think anything of it. It was cool.
“Coach Manlove never said anything. He loved it. He said just be respectful … which I was.”
Johnson then started adding dance moves.
“I would bow to the crowd,” Johnson said. “Then, I would do a split and then all kinds of stuff.”
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.
After Widener, Johnson was drafted by the Houston Oilers and by Hawaii of the World Football League, both in the 15th round in 1974.
He signed with the Oilers and got a longer look when the players were out on strike from July 1-Aug. 10.
“It gave me and all of the rookies a chance to get a better look,” Johnson said.
Training camp was grueling.
“When I (went) to Houston, we went for something like 50 straight double-days with (coach) Sid Gillman,” Johnson said. “He was a taskmaster. He would bring guys in on the bus. Right after that, you’d see 100 guys go out. Then you’d see another bus come in.”
Johnson was determined to make it.
“It was an eye-opener for me, coming from a small school,” Johnson said. “The only thing you could do is prove yourself on the football field.”
Johnson was one of three draft picks to make the team.
“I was in the right place at the right time,” Johnson said.
He was immediately a fan favorite.
“When I first scored, I danced for the first time (in the NFL) it was against the Pittsburgh Steelers,” Johnson said. “It was in ’74 when they went on to win their first Super Bowl. ... It was in the (exhibition) season.
“We did an end-around. I’ll never forget that. You know how fast they are in the NFL. If you’re not careful, they’ll psych you out. When I finally out ran the angles ... I guess that boosted my confidence.
“I got in the end zone and I danced. Man, the people of Houston loved it. I had fun.”
He didn’t know how the pro coaches would take it.
“I went past (defensive coordinator) Bum (Phillips),” Johnson said. “Bum said, ‘Well, shoot, if that is what it takes to get into the end zone, I expect to see more of it.”
With the green light from Phillips, who took over as head coach in 1975, Johnson’s dances took off.
“I wouldn’t do it out of disrespect,” Johnson said. “It was all out of fun.”
Johnson said he was mostly well-received, and he received only one negative response, in his third season in the league from a disgruntled Miami player.
Johnson made the Pro Bowl in 1975, 1977 and 1983. He was All-Pro in 1977.
After seven seasons with the Oilers, Johnson went to Montreal to play in the Canadian Football League. He came back to the NFL in 1982 and played for the Falcons through 1987. He came back briefly to play for Washington in 1988.
“Steve Bartkowski was here,” Johnson said. “William Andrews was here. Jeff Van Note and those guys received me as a veteran. They understood and they were a welcoming team. I wanted to be on a team that had a chance to go to the playoffs.”
He just returned punts the first season, but in 1983 he caught a career-high 64 passes on his way to his third Pro Bowl berth.
“I just knew that in the right scheme, with the right coach, things would work out,” Johnson said. “The way Steve could throw the ball, I just wanted to get a chance on the field with that guy.”
In 1985, he broke the all-time NFL record for punt-return yards, which has since been eclipsed.
The NFL clamped down on dancing when they instituted the “excessive and premeditated celebration” rule in 1986.
After his playing days, Johnson worked as the Falcons’ director of player development and then as a strength-and-conditioning coach.
“It’s now called player engagement,” Johnson said. “It was good. We’d have seminars. We’d talk and get things done. Guys going back to school. Guys changing agents. It was just like a concierge service.”
Johnson doesn’t like using the term “fixer,” but that also was part of the job.
“Helping guys to find the right way,” Johnson said. “Some of them wouldn’t listen. You’d bring them into your office, sit down and talk to them. … I would never turn any of them down whether they listened or didn’t listen.”
He liked working with running back Warrick Dunn and quarterback Michael Vick.
“I never had any problems with Mike,” Johnson said. “Mike was really good. People don’t know how good of a person that he really is. I can tell you this, he’s such a benevolent person. You would never believe about how he would keep things close and wouldn’t want people to know about his community work.”
Johnson tried to encourage players to go back to school, save money and tried to keep them socially away from trouble.
Former Falcons coaches June Jones, Dan Reeves and Jim Mora all believed that players would perform better with fewer distractions.
“I was free to work with players as long as (the coaches) didn’t get blindsided,” Johnson said. “That’s what it was, keeping the distractions to a minimum so that you can be the best ballplayer that they could be.”
Johnson also has served as the regional director of the NFL’s High School Development Program.
“Why not give back if they will listen to the advice and warnings,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t hurt anybody. That’s why I feel fortunate that I’ve been in position to where sometimes they’ll listen. If they listen, they won’t incur as much negativity as they ordinarily would.
“I feel fortunate about the guys who came into my life and showed me the right way.”
Johnson, now 68, resides in Gwinnett County with his wife, Barbara. He has four children, Marcy, Jasmine, Kendra and Jared, and eight grandchildren.
He continues to be very involved in youth sports and is an assistant track coach at Duluth High School.
The Bow Tie Chronicles Podcasts:
Can be found on Google, iTunes and TuneIn
For more content about the Atlanta Falcons:
Follow me on Twitter @DorlandoAJC
On Facebook at Atlanta Falcons News Now
Atlanta Falcons coverage on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Have a question? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.
Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.