The Rise of Charley Johnson

(Editor’s note: This story is a reprint from the January 1966 issue of Sport Magazine and was written by John Devaney.)

In sports, some success stories begin with a dream. Here is how one dream of playing professional football came true — at almost impossible odds.


The quarterback was sitting bare-chested, on the edge of the rubbing table. He was holding a white towel to his face, and a large crimson stain was slowly spreading over the towel because blood was pouring from a gash in his chin. The quarterback didn’t seem to notice the blood. He was staring at the floor with the rapt concentration of someone watching scenes from his life flash, one by one, on a movie screen.

This was Charley Johnson, St. Louis Cardinal quarterback, in the visitor’s clubhouse at Yankee Stadium one afternoon late this October. Minutes before he had run off the field, plunging almost blindly through the swirling crowd, after New York had beaten St. Louis 14-10. Twice in the game’s closing minutes Johnson had brought the Cardinals inside the Giant 25, and twice he had failed to get the touchdown that would have won.

He was reliving those minutes now as he stared, transfixed at the floor. A little later a reporter asked him a question, and in answering it, Charley Johnson told what he saw on that floor. “I’ll look at the game films on Tuesday,” he said, “and I’ll look at those plays, and I’ll see how we couldn’t score. But anyone can see the right plays to call on a film. My job is to see them in games.”

A doctor came over to the rubbing table and, tapping the quarterback on the shoulder, wrenched Johnson’s gaze away from that private movie on the floor. Charley stretched flat on his back. The doctor jabbed several long hypodermic syringes into the flesh below the mouth. The blood was still flowing from the gas, as it had most of the fourth quarter, and there were splotches of dried blood caking on the table. The sight seemed to affect even the doctor. “I feel,” he said, “like the old doc on Gunsmoke.”

Charley didn’t laugh because the doctor was sewing up his chin, just the way you’d sew a button on a shirt: Stick in the needle, draw the thread taut, turn the needle and stick it through the other side, then jerk the jagged ends of flesh together. four times the doctor did that, with a trainer swabbing blood from the chin, and then they bandaged the chin.

As Charley got up from the table, he saw a writer who’d been with him for more than a week. Johnson rubbed his hand through his wet and mussed straw-colored hair, squinting his eyes in the small-boy way he has. And then, despite the pain of the stitches, the shock of defeat, he smiled that soft, lopsided smile that’s so often on his sleepy face. the writer started to say something, but Johnson spoke first. “It’s going to be kind of hard to write about someone like me.”

It is not hard to write about someone like Charley Johnson. You look back at the things you saw him say and do in over a week’s time, and dozens of scenes rush at you. The only trouble is: How are you going to write a story that will not sound like you are nominating Charley Johnson for sainthood?

Recently Charley visited the office of Cardinal president Stormy Bidwill. The talk turned to a sports show Charley was doing on a small St. Louis radio station. “You know Charley,” said Bidwill, “a lot of bigger stations would give you more money.”

“Maybe,” said Charley. “But they were the first to ask me, when I was nothing. It wouldn’t be right for me to leave now.”

Bidwill then mentioned several other money deals that had been offered through the club to Johnson. Bidwill ticked off the figures he thought Johnson should ask for each.

Charley whistled. “Gee, I don’t know if I should be asking all that money. I’m not a Unitas or a Starr, you know.”

Bidwill leaped from behind the desk. “Now look, Charley,” he explained, “don’t overdo that humble bit.”

Certainly Charley has no reason to feel humble. In 1962, only his second year in the league, he took charge of a pro football offense. Blitzed, bruised and bloodied, he threw button hooks to Bobby Joe Conrad and made him the top receiver in the league in 1963. He whistled bombs to Sonny Randle with a gunfighter’s accuracy, once hitting him in the end zone in a snow storm so thick he couldn’t see beyond 20 yards.

By early this season he had passed the 10,000-yard mark in passing, and at 27 years of age was being mentioned in the same breath with Y.A. tittle, Bobby Layne and John Unitas. In beating Cleveland early this fall, 49-13, Charley passed for 300 yards or more for the tenth time in his career, tying him on the all-time list with Layne and Billy Wade, and putting him only a few behind Unitas (15), Tittle (13) and Sonny Jurgensen (12). And for all of them, 27 was an age they had reached some time ago.

1965: Charley Johnson threw 6 TD passes in the Cards 49-13 win over the defending NFL Champion Cleveland Browns.

While applauding his passing skills, though, people around the league have had some ifs about Charley: If only he read defenses better. If only he didn’t get rattled when he was in trouble. If only he was a tougher leader in running the club.

You heard the ifs in pre-season and after the Cardinals lost their opener to the Eagles 34-27. This defeat could hardly be blamed on Charley—he threw three touchdown passes. A little later, however, the Cardinals hired Bobby Layne as a kind of personal tutor for Charley. The Cardinals promptly won four straight games, were tied with the Browns for the conference lead, Charley was leading the league in touchdown passes, and Layne was being pictured as a Svengali who’d stared into Charley’s eyes and turned him into a master quarterback. One magazine writer stated that Charley’s “ego can use an occasional boost,” that sometimes he loses confidence and that Layne had been hired to inject “iron” into him.

The story dismayed Johnson. He talked about it one Saturday morning this October in the Cardinal training quarters, an old stone school house in the wooded countryside outside St. Louis. A trainer was massaging his left shoulder, which had been bruised so badly in a game the preceding week that Charley wouldn’t play the next day against the Redskins.

“That magazine writer was wrong,” Charley said in his soft Texas drawl. “I’ve never lost my confidence. If I did, I’d be through as a quarterback. A man loses his confidence, he’s got nothing. Now I have lost my poise out there. When a play wouldn’t work, I’d forget our game plan and start grab-bagging for plays and get into deeper trouble.”

He puffed on one of the small cigars he smokes by the dozen each day, squinting through the smoke. “The thing about me is this—I’ve always had the confidence that if a receiver is loose down there, I can put the ball to him. The times I’ve lost my poise is when I couldn’t come up with the play to get the guy loose down there.”

He laughed. He is the kind who enjoys kidding himself. He smiles his amiable smile when people kid him about his memory. He’s a guy who remembers a thousand things on a football field and forgets things others never would.

In 1963, Charley, who’s a low-80 golfer, hit a 558 yard double eagle, screaming about his 300-yards plus drive, then whacking a No. 2 wood into the hole. Golf Digest, which keeps track of such things, published an article stating that only 58 double eagles had been shot in the country that year, and that Charley’s was the longest of them all. Someone sent a copy of the article to Johnson.

“A double eagle?” said Charley. And then he brightened. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Now I remember. I’d forgotten all about it.”

As a quarterback he came to the pros with more problems than just a misty memory. He is barely six feet, not the rangy kind who can look over charging linemen. He is 193 pounds during the season, but balloons to 210 in the summer, then has to fast like a monk. He is not the kind who can run away from tacklers; he is among the half-dozen or so slowest men on the Cardinals. When he first came up, he overthrew deep receivers, and when he took something off the ball, his passes wobbled.

And there was one thing more: He sometimes seemed too nice a guy to be a leader. At the start of this season Willis Crenshaw, a second-year fullback, was a team joke. On a play to the left, Crenshaw would run to the right. Charley would be holding the ball for a handoff, staring into space until tacklers cascaded on him. Crenshaw would come back to the huddle and say, “Sorry, babe, my fault,” and Charley would say, “Stick in there, Willis.”

The Cardinals thought Charley should hit Willis with a stick. But Charley didn’t and Crenshaw will always be grateful. “Your confidence is pretty low when you make a mistake,” he says. “They yell at you, and maybe you got no confidence at all.” By mid-season Crenshaw had bloomed into a Cookie Gilchrist kind of punishing fullback.

“I don’t like to holler at people,” Johnson was saying after the trainer and finished massaging his shoulder. “Most of the guys on this team, we started out together. We learned together. I don’t think they expect me to holler at them. I don’t want to holler at them.”

“They know when I get mad. They know when I blow a play, and I know when they blow a play. They know I didn’t want to blow it. I know they didn’t want to blow it. I can’t see dressing down a man for making a mistake.”

One who did dress them down was Bobby Layne, the greatest whip-cracker of them all, and when he came to St. Louis, it seemed obvious: He was there to teach Charley to crack the whip.

On this Saturday in the Cardinal clubhouse, Charley went off to a meeting, and while he was gone, a writer went over to Layne, who was sprawled on a trunk, his suit rumpled, fingering an inch-long cigarette. He was asked if he had been brought in to change Charley.

“Not at all,” Layne said in his rasping voice. “He was an established quarterback when I got here. You change him, he’s not Charley Johnson, and that’ll hurt him. I just told him that you throw 45 passes in a game and your’e in trouble. A lot of people don’t realize this: If you throw three straight incomplete passes, you use up maybe only 20 seconds on the clock. Now—boom— your defense has to go right back in there again, their tongues hanging out. You use three running plays and even if you don’t get a first down, your’ve reduced the number of minutes your defense has to work out there.”

The Cardinals brought in future Hall of Famer Bobby Layne to coach Johnson (R) and backup QB Buddy Humphrey (L) in 1965.

A little later, smoking a cigar and sipping a container of black coffee, Johnson nodded when he was told what Layne had said. “Before Bobby came here,” he said, “what I had confidence in was my passing. If I was in a pinch, I passed. If I went up to the line and had any doubts, I checked to a pass. The defenses knew I was going to pass, and I got into trouble. Bobby has gotten across to me that the only way to throw effectively is to make them look for the run.”

He smiled. “That seems real simple, doesn’t it? But I’ll tell you: that would still be hard to teach me if we didn’t have the running backs we got this year.”

He ticked them off on his fingers: Crenshaw, Joe Childress, Thunder Thornton, Bill Triplett, Prentice Gautt. “For several years we had only Prentice, Joe and John David [Crow],” he said. “John David was hurt a lot. I had receivers like Bobby Joe and Sonny. Naturally I had more confidence in my receiving than in my running. If I had to make 20 yards, I’d figure: One or two passes and we make it easy. That’s a lot of yards to make running.”

“Now I’m willing to call runs more often. Suppose we run and lose five. Before I wouldn’t use that play again. But Bobby got this across to me: when a defense stops a play, it gets a boot out of stopping it. It’s aching for you to call it again so they can stop you one more time. You wait until you need a first down, and then you show it to them again. But now it’s a play action pass, and I have time to set back there—maybe a lot of time.”

“Another thing Bobby got across to me: Say it’s third and 16. Before I was a cinch to pass. This year I may run, knowing the chances are against us making 16. But later in the game, when I need a first down and it’s third and 12, say, the defense has to think—He ran before… how are we going to play him this time?”

He was talking in the detached way of a scientist, which Charley is—part of the day. Next June, after five years of study, he will get his doctorate in chemical engineering. “What I’m studying,” he told his clubhouse visitor in his polite and patient way, “is rheology—that’s R-H-E-O-L-O-G-Y—which is the science of deformation and flow. Being interested in plastics, I’m more concerned about the flow part.”


For five football seasons Charley has flowed between the Cardinal practice field and the campus at Washington University—exactly 22 minutes by car. He spent his mornings in classes jotting in notebooks titled, “Expansion of Laminar Jets of Organic Liquids Issuing from Capillary Tubes.” Then he’d leap into his car, zoom off to practice, where he’d memorize square-outs and zig-ins. In the evenings he’d often go back to his laboratory and puzzle into the night over the atomic structure of some new plastic resin.

“There were a few days,” he was saying as he dressed in the clubhouse, “when I’d be looking at a playbook and be thinking plastics. Other days I’d be looking at a text book and be thinking about plays.”

He kept them separate often enough, though, to pull down mostly A’s and B’s. He had to; as he says, “C no get ’em here. You get a C and you take the course over.”

Charley Johnson not only excelled on the football field, he excelled in the classroom. Johnson earned his doctorate degree in chemical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis.

A few minutes later, his injured shoulder taped, the empty left sleeve of his cardigan flapping in the breeze, Johnson left the Cardinal clubhouse with offensive captain Ken Gray. As Gray steered his station wagon through the rolling hills of a suburb, he pointed to a rambling mansion. “Now if I had your future, Charley Johnson,” said Gray, a guard, “I’d buy that house.”

Johnson smiled, the sleepy look on his face, and said: “My future is your future.”

Gray burst out laughing. He turned to someone in the back and said: “That Charley’s got so much brains you can’t understand him.”

Gray understood Charley quite well. This was Charley’s way of being both modest and truthful. He was, he pointed out, only as good as his offense. And if this young offense—no one is over 30, yet they average five years’ pro experience—should jell, the future of the Cardinals will be as bright as the future of Charley Johnson.

Gray and Johnson were joined at Charley’s house by Joe Robb, the defensive end. In separate cars they drove to Allan’s, a wholesale-grocery warehouse. There Byron Allan, an excitable Cardinal fan, insisted that Charley and the others cart off as many cans of groceries as their cars would hold.

Charley’s Buick sagged as it pulled away. The rear of the car looked like a supermarket, with cans stacked floor to roof. “Weren’t they nice people?” said Johnson, a can of plums at the nape of his neck. “People like that, it’s hard to get to meet them. People who know nice people like that, they keep them to themselves.”

If people really did keep nice people to themselves, Charley Johnson never would have gotten out of Big Spring, Texas. Tell him that and his face would flush and he’d say “Shoot,” an expression he uses a lot. But what he was going to do this Saturday afternoon told something about the kind of person he is.

He was driving to a store to hand out trophies to kids who’d won a football contest. Someone had phoned him the morning before and asked: Please come. No fee was mentioned, but they’d sure appreciate him being there. Charley could have said he had to study plays, which was true. He could have said he had some engineering studying to do, which was true. He could have said the Cardinals have a strict rule against players making an appearance after Wednesdays, which was true. Charley Johnson said, “I’ll come.”

But now he was an hour and a half late. He had called twice from the grocery warehouse to say he would be detained, but as he gunned the car toward the store he pounded a hand against the wheel and muttered, “I feel silly being so late. Making all those kids wait.”

At the store the kids eyes shone ecstatically when he walked in. He handed out the trophies, making sure he mentioned each boy’s first name and he said something to each. The ceremony was held outside, and it was cold and windy, and the only protection for his sore shoulder was that thin cardigan. But when one boy asked for an autograph, he signed, and then they all asked, and he ended up signing some 20 times.

Later, driving to his home, he allowed that yes, he did like children. He gets a dozen or so letters each week from children, and each one gets a personal reply from Charley. “I really enjoy reading their letters,” he said, “though I wish they would put in stamped, self-addressed envelopes. Then I could answer them a lot more quickly.”

He lit a cigar. “When I was a kid back in Big Spring,” he said, “we never saw any famous athletes. I know how much it would have meant for me to meet—or even just see—a sports star.”

Sports star! He was trying to grab back the words even as they were coming out of his mouth. “Oh look,” he said, “I mean it’s not me they get a kick out of seeing. I don’t mean I’m doing some kid a great big favor by giving him my autograph. I don’t mean that at all. It’s the position I hold—a pro quarterback—that’s what they look up to.”

Whatever they look up to, by all the odds in Las Vegas, Charley Johnson should not be where he is today. However, he did get off to a fast start. Charley’s father was the tax assessor in Big Spring, where they raise cotton and drill for oil when they’re not scraping out of their eyes the sand that whips in from the desert. His father had him centering footballs when he was one, and at three he could throw well enough to give a passing exhibition between halves of a football game.

In high school Charley wanted to be a doctor and to play football. His A’s in school indicated he might get the shingle, but his quarterbacking for Big Springs High didn’t induce any college coaches to risk sand-blindness to come see him.

Each year the area’s coaches and sportswriters picked an all-star team. Since the coaches and writers could pick their own player, and since the Big Spring sportswriter was a close friend of the Johnson family, Charley figured he’d get at least one vote. He was the only quarterback of the eight who didn’t get a mention.

Still he had his dreams: He watched Unitas on television and saw himself calling plays with Unitas’ daring. He read in the sports pages—he read them avidly—of John David Crow and Bobby Joe Conrad at Texas A&M, and dreamed of playing in the Cotton Bowl (in the dream he was wearing an SMU jersey).

No college, big or little, was interested in helping him make the dream come true. He enrolled at Schreiner Institute, a junior college at Kerrville, Texas, but Schreiner dropped football, and now the odds had to be a million to one he’d ever throw a football in the Cotton Bowl. Charley went back to Schreiner the next year, because he had nowhere else to go, and made the basketball team.

In the winter of 1957 a scout from New Mexico State came to Big Spring to see a basketball tournament in which Charley was playing. Charley’s Uncle Jack, big and persuasive, badgered the scout with praise of Charley’s skills in basketball and football. Late one night in a chili parlor the scout caved in (it was either the hour or the chili) and agreed to give Charley a basketball-football scholarship.

Charley lit out for Las Cruces, New Mexico, where State coach Warren Woodson was busy stuffing bolts of lightning in a bottle. The bottle was his football team and the bolts of lightning were fleet types like Pervis Atkins, Bobby Gaiters, Bob Jackson, E.A. Sims and Bob Kelly.

With Charley pulling the cork at quarterback, the bolts of lightning ran over and around Border Conference teams, and when they weren’t running, Charley was flicking the ball to them. By Woodson dictum, he threw about 20 passes a game. Johnson finished second in the nation in total offense in 1959, third in 1960. The team was unbeaten in 1960, and in 1959 and 1960 it went to the Sun Bowl, where Charley twice was MVP.

Charley Johnson starred at New Mexico State University and led them to an undefeated season in 1960.

Well, he never played in the Cotton Bowl, but he had played twice in the Sun Bowl, and for Charley the dream had come true. He was married now, to Barbara Lynne Shields, a high school sweetheart. They had a small apartment in Las Cruces, and Charley had what he calls “my career plan” all mapped out. Two years in the Army, then a career as a chemical engineer, maybe settling down in a small town in the Southwest like Las Cruces. There, on weekends, he played golf, hunted or fished. On Sunday nights he and Barbara, both devout Methodists, taught lessons from the Bible to teenagers, then chaperoned a quiet social affair of dancing and Cokes. This was their kind of life.

In 1959, the then Chicago Cardinals drafted Charley as a future on their 10th pick, but the Johnsons didn’t think pro football would ever be a part of their life. “I never even dreamed of it,” says Barbara. “Chicago, it seemed like the very end of the earth.”

“I’d seen only one live pro game,” Charley was saying on this October afternoon as he steered the Buick home. The stacks of groceries from Allan’s were teetering in the back, and Charley’s passenger visualized the headline if the car should suddenly jerk to a stop: CARDINAL QUARTERBACK CHARLEY JOHNSON AND WRITER CRUSHED UNDER GROCERY CANS.

“But I was a real big sports fan,” Charley went on. “I decided I’d go to the Cardinal camp because I’d always wanted to see what pro football players were really like. I wanted to get a close look at all the famous names—Crow and Conrad, maybe Unitas and even Tittle—that I’d been reading about. I figured, even if I get cut the second day, the thrill of getting to see some of these guys up close will be worth it all.”

At the camp in the fall of 1961, Johnson was fifth of five quarterbacks. “I had a good day in one scrimmage,” he said, “and I thought to myself: This isn’t so hard. Then I started to read about defenses, and I thought: Oh, no, I’ll never learn all this.

But he stuck as No. 3 quarterback behind the veteran Sam Etcheverry and Ralph Guglielmi. The Cards’ new coach, Wally Lemm, traded Guglielmi when the 1962 season started, and now Charley was No. 2. Midway through that year the Cardinals trailed the Giants, 31-7, and Lemm threw in the kid to see what he could do.

The kid threw seven straight completions and Lemm started him the next week against the Redskins. Johnson brought the team from a halftime deficit to a 17-17 tie. In the clubhouse the sore-armed Etcheverry presented him with the game ball—and with it, his job.

Charley Johnson took over as the Cardinals starting QB in 1962.

The Cardinals were 3-6-1 in 1962 under Charley. In 1963, playing in the Cotton Bowl as he dreamed he would, Charley helped lift the club to 9-5 and third place. But he was making lots of mistakes. “When my receivers would be covered,” he was saying as he drove the Buick, “I’d run around back there, waiting and hoping somebody would get clear. I just hated to see a play go down the drain. But I would have had fewer interceptions and lost less yards if I’d just thrown the ball away.”

“I also had to learn to have faith in our game plan. If a play didn’t work, I scrapped it. I had to learn that when a play doesn’t work, the reason may be any one of three things. One, the play just may not be good against this team’s personnel, and in that case it should be scrapped. Or, two, the defense may have used a stunt that busted the play this time., but the play is still good if I use it when they’re not stunting. Or, three, someone on our side busted an assignment.”

“The good quarterback finds out why a play didn’t work. It’s easy to get disillusioned about a play. It’s hard to find why a play didn’t work.”

“You have to know defenses. Sometime I’d think I saw them doing a certain thing, and I’d figure this play would work against that defense. And boom!—now it’s second and 20 to go I’d think: I was so sure that would work, and look where it got us. My poise would be shattered and I’d start grab-bagging for plays.”

In a big game last year Charley showed he was learning to keep his poise. This was the next-to-final game of the season, against the Browns. If St. Louis won, the Cardinals would be Eastern champs, provided New York beat the Browns the following week. But early in the second period Cleveland led, 3-0.

“Our game plan was to throw short passes into certain lanes,” Charley said above the clatter of the grocery cans. “I called for a short pass to Prentice [Gautt], but the Browns blitzed a linebacker. Prentice was thinking, and he picked up the blitzer.”

But now Charley’s primary receiver was sprawled out on the grass. He did some quick computing and looked down the middle. There, as he figured, was Joe Childress—all alone. Charley hit him and Childress ran 46 yards to score. St. Louis won, 28-19. But Cleveland beat the Giants to win the Eastern title by half a game. This fall, on the wall of the Cards training room, was a sign:

His passenger mentioned the sign to Johnson. Did he think about it much? “Oh, I blame myself,” he said. “If I’d been more consistent, we wouldn’t have lost the three games we lost during a slump. I got to come through when we really need it. That’s something that doesn’t show in the statistics.”

“Look, I go over films of games we won, and I find a gross of things I did wrong. Like I call for one play when I should have called for something else. But the plays work and I get credit. It’s credit I don’t deserve.”

His passenger wondered aloud: Might not such agonizing introspection be damaging to a quarterback’s confidence?

“I don’t think so,” he said. “Shoot, I was a starter in my second year up here. I couldn’t believe it. I was afraid the big bubble would burst. Well, one way to make sure it didn’t burst was to make mental notes of everything I did wrong.”

Charley Johnson led the Cards to a 30-15-3 record in games he started from 1963-1966.

Did he still think the bubble might burst?

“Not this year,” he said. “Not any more.”

A little later, after parking Buick grocery store in the basement garage, he was showing his visitor through his new split-level home, set on a curving street amid rows of lush green lawns in Ladue, a St. Louis suburb. “We’ve lived in old Army barracks at school,” he said, “in apartments, in rented homes. This is the first place of our own.” There was pride in his voice.

“Good heavens!” someone screamed downstairs.

“My wife’s just seen all those cans of groceries,” said Charley. Downstairs Barbara was staring button-eyed at the stacks of cans. After explaining where he got them, Charley showed his visitor his wood-paneled basement den. On shelves were trophies from college, the game ball Etcheverry had given him, and autographed ball from his 1964 Pro Bowl game, a picture of himself with Wally Lemm.

Charley flopped on a couch and started playing cowboys and Indians with his son, Craig, 3, but Charley was an easy target because his daughter, Jill, 1, was trying to smother him with blubbery kisses. When there was a lull in the kissing and the “bang-bang-you’re-dead” action, Charley suddenly turned and said: “I feel strange, knowing I probably won’t play tomorrow. I don’t have that anxious feeling I usually get.”

He didn’t play the next day. Cardinal No. 2 quarterback Buddy Humphrey was brilliant, but Sonny Jurgensen was deadly with third down passes. The Redskins won 25-21, and Cleveland won. Now St. Louis was a game back in second place.

Charley Johnson led the Big Red to a 4-1 record in 1965 before injuring his shoulder against the Steelers. The injury would plaque him the rest of the season.

Shortly after five o’clock the next morning, lights flicked on in the Johnson split level. Yawning, Charley stumbled downstairs, sat at a table, and began writing, in a flowing long-hand, the script for his radio show. By six, when an engineer arrived from the station with a tape recorder, Johnson had finished.

At eight that morning St. Louis sports fans heard a WIL announcer shout: And NOW, WIL’s sports director, Charley JOHNSON.”

Charley came on just as strong. “Good MORNING, sports fans. Well, yesterday the Washington REDSKINS played the kind of football they have been capable of playing all year long. Unfortunately, of ALL places, they played it here in St. Louis, winning their first GAME of the season…”

He went on to give all the pro football scores, his voice as bouncy as a disc jockey’s. A little later someone who heard the show told him he sounded more forceful on radio than he does in person. “When I started doing the show,” he said, “I’d speak the way I normally do, and it came out flat—just awful. Then I started hitting some words hard, going up and down in volume. I felt like an awful phony, but when they played it back on tape, it sounded alright.”

His success on radio has brought offers of public relations jobs. “I use my school work as an excuse to turn down job offers,” he says. “I’m the type who has trouble saying ‘no’ to people. Anyway, people forget that I’ve spent ten years studying chemical engineering. Even if I could make more money in public relations, I’m not going to junk engineering until I find out whether I like it or not.

At 10 on this Monday morning he was in room 18, a laboratory at Washington University. Johnson’s doctor’s dissertation will concern a machine he and other graduate students have designed and had built. It is called an extruder, a basic device in making plastic products. Pellet-shaped plastic resins are dropped into one end of the extruder, which passes them through a long barrel, squeezing and heating the resins to form a liquid, which flows out the other end. Poured into a mould, the liquid hardens into anything from a child’s toy to a structural I-beam.

“Our extruder will be used to test new plastic resins,” Charley explained slowly, and as always, with patience. “The extruders they have now, they are big and they use up a lot of resins in a test, maybe $250,000 worth. Ours is small, only an inch-and-a-half by a foot. It will use up only a small amount of resins, maybe only $1000 worth, yet we hope it will yield the same formation.”

On his desk was a thick book. The Design and Evaluation of an Extruder. His visitor thumbed through it. There were 114 typewritten pages, cluttered with diagrams and chemical formulas. This was a thesis a previous graduate student had done. Would Charley’s be as complex?

He looked surprised. “Oh, more involved,” he said. “This is a master’s thesis. I’m doing a doctorate thesis, and there is a lot more you have to add.”

His visitor left him reading a paper on extruders. By that Wednesday though, Charley’s reading had shifted to the Cardinal game plan for Sunday’s meeting with the Giants. Lemm believes in simplicity. He gave Charley six running plays and six passing plays, with maybe half the pass plays coming off play-action.

On Friday Layne ticked off a half-dozen things that Charley should look for in the Giant defense. “They are things we see on films or things we know about the thinking of the Giant defensive coaches,” said Charley. “Things like habits of personnel, is this guy still doing that? Bobby keeps reminding me of them—right up to the game.”

Late Saturday afternoon the team flew to New York. In room 1540 of the Belmont-Plaza Hotel, Johnson stiffly peeled off his jacket. A visitor asked how his shoulder felts.

“Sore, but I think I’ll play.”

His visitor mentioned something that Prentice Gautt had told him earlier in the week. In a game against Pittsburgh, Gautt had fumbled, killing a drive. Gautt came off, head down, angry at himself. Johnson grabbed him by both arms and said, “Keep your head up. Remember, you’re a pro.”

“Nobody had ever said anything like that to me before,” said Gautt. “Golly, I thought, I am a pro, and I felt better. It was the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me in football.”

“Did Prentice really say that?” said Johnson, obviously pleased, looking at his hands. “Prentice, you see, he gets to carry a ball maybe only five or six times in a game. If he makes a mistake one of those times, he gets down on himself.”

His visitor asked: Was this incident another sign of Johnson’s maturity as a quarterback—this ability to pick up his players mentally?

He put up his hand. “Oh, please,” he said, “don’t make it sound like I’m using people, that I’m making someone do my bidding. It’s just that I hate to see anyone get down on himself.”

What he was saying, of course, is that first of all Charley Johnson is a human being, second a quarterback.

But at 4:17 the next afternoon, standing in the eerie shadows of the artificial lights of Yankee Stadium, hands on hips, staring, then staring again and again at the Giant defense, he was every inch the quarterback. From his bench they were hollering, “Take it in, Charley!” But he was a long way from taking it in.

He was 95 yards from taking it in. The ball was on this own 5, there were exactly two minutes to play, the Giants led 14-10, and now—standing outside the U-shaped huddle in his own end zone—Charley stared at the Giants, searching his mind for everything he had learned about defenses in the past five years.

Charley Johnson in action against the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium in 1965.

In the first half he had picked apart the Giant defense, mixing passing and running artfully, and the Cardinals had gone off leading 10-0. But the Giants went ahead 14-10 midway through the last period.

Immediately Johnson had rallied the Cardinals, moving from his own 19 to the Giant 24. But here the Giants held, stopping Crenshaw on fourth and two.

Johnson came back to the bench with blood rimming his mouth, splotching his jersey. A trainer tried to close the gash on his chin with bandages, but the blood burst through, turning the bandages soggy red. Buddy Humphrey stared at him and said, “You alright, Charley?” But Charley—eyes fixed on the field—didn’t hear him.

Out there the Cardinals held and the Giants had to kick. Ernie Koy sailed out a beauty, the ball rolling dead on the Cardinals 5. At the bench Charley said something to Lemm, and Lemm nodded and said, “Okay, do that.”

He tossed a flare to Crenshaw, who got to the 14. He missed on a sideline pass, then threw on third and one to tight end Jackie Smith, who got the first down on the 24.

He rolled out on the next play, hitting Smith at the sideline on the 42. The Giants were peeling off on Conrad, and Johnson hit him in the gut with a pass that took the ball to the Giant 38. Little Billy Gambrell came into the game, ran a circle pattern toward the left sideline, where Johnson nailed him, and Billy toe-danced all the way to the 14.

One minute to go. First down on the 14. The stadium one big roar. Players off the benches. Charley staring at the Giant defense, his chin covered with blood.

Charley missed Conrad in the right flat. On third and 12 on the 16, Johnson floated a pass toward Conrad at the right sideline, but Conrad caught the ball out of bounds. Forty-five seconds to play. Johnson came out of the huddle in a saunter, a man calmly walking to church. Back he dropped, and up through the middle came Gambrell, weaving like a runaway snake, then cutting sharply—and falling down.

And as he fell, Johnson threw. The ball flew over Gambrell’s head. The crowd, suddenly silent, erupted, showering sound and bits of paper onto the field.

Johnson came off kicking at the ground. He looked up at the clock: 37 seconds to play. The Giants bucked a play up the middle, but even before the players had untangled, Johnson was racing pell-mell toward the dugout that leads to the clubhouse, dodging shrieking fans, like a man running from something awful.

In the clubhouse he sat for nearly 15 minutes, his stool jammed tightly to his stall, head in his hands, the blood still dripping from his chin. He looked as thought he wanted to close a door behind him.

But there was no door, and the reporters came, and after four stitches had been put in this chin, Charley talked to them, quietly and politely. Yes, sir, he’d been cut by a face mask, he thought.

Did he feel personally responsible for the defeat?

He was buttoning his collar, but he turned to look directly at the questioner. Yes, sir, he said, he did.

After awhile the reporters went away, and he turned to someone who’d been with him and said, “I get that little pass to Billy, he doesn’t fall down, he’s all alone, and this would be a mighty different day.” There was that lopsided smile, kind of rueful now. “A mighty different day,” he said.

Now there was only he, Layne, Randle and a few hangers-on in the room. A writer who’d been bothering him with questions for a week said goodbye, and he smiled, shook hands and said, “I’ve enjoyed it.”

“I’ll see you at the championship game,” said the writer.

Charley Johnson laughed and turned to leave with Layne and Randle. But then he looked back and said, “Okay. It may take some doing, but we’ll be there.”

He walked out of the room and out into the cavernous tunnels under Yankee Stadium, and someone who watched him walk away noticed that his head was up.

(Editor’s Note: Charley Johnson led the Cardinals to a 7-1-1 start in 1966 before suffering a season ending knee injury at Yankee Stadium. He was called to active duty by the US Army in 1967 and was stationed at Ft. Leonard Wood, MO. He was able to attend games on the weekends over the next two seasons, however he lost his starting job to Jim Hart. Charley was traded to Houston in 1970 and, in 1973, led the Denver Broncos to their first winning season in team history.)

1 thought on “The Rise of Charley Johnson

  1. Pingback: Jim Hart: The Early Years | THE BIG RED ZONE

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