Bill Little commentary: What it means to be a Longhorn -- Johnnie Johnson
The following is another in a series of chapters reprinted with permission from Triumph Books' collection entitled "What It Means To Be A Longhorn."The book, as told to Bill Little and Jenna McEachern, contains the first person accounts of more than 70 former Longhorn greats. The books is available for purchase on line and at most bookstores.
Johnnie Johnson was enshrined in the National Football Foundation's College Hall of Fame in December, and next month will be in South Bend, Ind., to complete ceremonies at the actual College Hall of Fame itself.
Johnson was chosen the nation's best defensive back by the Heisman committee in 1978. He was a two-time consensus all-American, and a three-time all Southwest Conference choice. He played 10 seasons in the NFL and following his pro career became a motivational speaker and author. He is a member of the Longhorn Hall of Honor:
I was a four-sport athlete at La Grange High School, in La Grange, Texas, and I had a number of tough decisions to make. Would I go to college to play football, run track, play baseball, or would I play basketball, my favorite sport? And the biggest question of all was where would I go college?
No one in my family or in La Grange had experienced what I was about to venture into. Being heavily recruited in four different sports by colleges from around the country became overwhelming. Every time I turned around, there was another recruiter speaking about how great it would be to attend their school.
I played running back on offense and free safety on defense for the La Grange Leopards.
Most schools that recruited me in football did so with the thought of my playing running back. So, not only did I have to decide what sport I would play and which university would I attend, but if I chose football, would I play running back or defensive back, which was my favorite position?
I had taken several visits to other colleges, but it was on my trip to The University that I found answers to my questions. The thought of meeting Darrell Royal made me nervous. To me, Coach Royal was bigger than life.
I was a shy and bashful kid, and when I met Coach Royal for the first time, I shook his hand in a timid and shy manner, as if I did not belong in the same room with him. I further demonstrated my nervousness by not looking him in the eyes when I introduced myself.
What took place next has had a life-long impact on me. Coach Royal, sensing my discomfort, introduced himself and welcomed me by putting his arm around my shoulders. He walked me over to a corner of the room where no one could hear what he was saying.
He asked me to look into his eyes, and as he extended his hand to demonstrate a firm handshake, he stated, "Johnnie, you are a gifted and talented young man. You have every reason to be proud. From now on, when you greet someone, no matter who they are, look them right in the eyes, extend your hand, shake theirs firmly, and say, 'Hi, I'm Johnnie Johnson, pleased to meet you.'" He went on to say, "Each and every time you meet someone, greet them with more and more confidence." He then led me back over to mix with the rest of the crowd, as if nothing had ever happened.
That was so different from other recruiting activities I'd experienced. I recall saying to myself, "The University of Texas is the place for me. They care about you as a person here." I ended up a Longhorn because I felt the coaches cared about the player as a person, as well as an athlete.
Representing Texas as a defensive back and punt return specialist meant great opportunities. Coach Akers often said, "Great opportunities, being accountable, and making plays will enable you to continue that great Longhorn tradition."
The first opportunity came when I earned a starting position at free safety as a freshman against North Texas. I had my first interception as a Longhorn, which I nearly returned for a touchdown. It was also the first game I played in Memorial Stadium.
The opportunities as a Longhorn kept coming. My sophomore year, we went into the annual Texas-Oklahoma game in Dallas with UT ranked fifth and OU ranked second in the nation. Both teams had high-powered offenses and stingy defenses.
Although Texas went into the game averaging more than 61 points an outing, and OU had just beaten Ohio State in Columbus, the game quickly demonstrated it was going to be a defensive struggle. If you were a fan, you held your breath on every play, because you knew either team could strike at any moment. And if they did, you had the feeling the other team might not get an opportunity to answer because of how well the defenses were playing that day. You could feel the pressure in the air.
OU had been winning the battle of field position, when early in the first quarter, our defense held them around mid-field and forced them to punt for the first time. I recall saying to myself, "This is a chance to change the field position in Texas's favor."
I went into the OU game as one of the nation's leading punt return men, so I wasn't sure if thet'd kick the ball to me. They did. Although they kicked it to me, the punt was angled to the yight corner of the field near our goal line. From the Longhorns' perspective, this wasn't the best punt for the play we'd called. We had a left return called, which meant my teammates were on the other side of the field.
As the punt traveled toward me, I first thought about protecting the ball, because that was my first responsibility to the team. As I settled under the kick, I could see a Sooner defender barreling down on me. He arrived about the same time I fielded the kick.
I fielded the ball cleanly while sidestepping the defender. I started working my way across the field toward the left return, but six members of the OU coverage team were taking angles to cut me off and prevent me from getting to the wall. They were between me and my teammates, who had aligned themselves beautifully along the sideline to my left.
I changed directions by making a quick cut, first up the field, and then back to my right. The move enabled me to avoid all six defenders and to break free, running full speed toward the right sideline and away from the wall.
As I exited the pack and ran up field, I angled toward the right sideline. I could see just two OU defenders standing between me and a 91-yard punt return for a touchdown.
One of the defenders was waiting at the 50-yard line near that side of the field, while the other was moving at about a 45-degree angle to my left. Between the two, they had me boxed in with few options for running room.
I made a quick move toward the sideline, went around him right in front of the OU bench and broke into the open, running along the sideline and toward the goal line.
The Longhorn fans roared as I made that move to avoid the last OU defender, and I broke into the open and into the end zone for an apparent touchdown.
After turning to celebrate with my teammates, I noticed that the cheering on the Longhorn side of the field had subsided, and the Sooner fans had begun cheering, because the officials had ruled that I stepped out of bounds around the 50. I told myself, "That's okay, it changed the field position to our favor". We continued to play a game of field position until OU received the ball late in the 4th quarter.
Our defense had held OU to two field goals. With UT leading 13-6, and four minutes left in the game, OU got the ball and began a drive that stalled on fourth down at the Longhorn six-yard line. Down by seven points late in the game, with the Longhorn defense playing well, the Sooners decided to go for the first down or the touchdown.
They ran a down-the-line option to the Longhorn defensive right side. My responsibility as safety was to cover the quarterback through to the pitchman on the option play.
Thomas Lott, the OU quarterback, started down the line, saw what he thought was an opening, and turned the ball upfield. I met him right in the hole he was trying to run through and stopped him short of the first down. We took over at that spot and went on to win the game.
When I think of "What It Means To Be A Longhorn," I think of games like that Sooner game. I think of being ranked number two and traveling to Arkansas the week after that tough OU game to face the number eight-ranked Razorbacks.
Again the defense was outstanding, limiting Arkansas to three field goals during the game. Just like in the OU game the week before, I returned a punt for 57 yards late in the game to change the field position in UT's favor. In the end, the Longhorn offense scored late to win the game 13-9.
When I think of "What It Means To Be A Longhorn," I think of playing the University of Missouri on the road as a senior before the largest crowd to ever watch a football game in the state of Missouri at that time. I think of playing Arkansas on the road that same year before the largest crowd to ever watch a football game in the state of Arkansas at that time.
When I think of "What It Means To Be A Longhorn," I not only think of the Texas-OU rivalry, or the Texas-Texas A&M rivalry, I realize the Longhorns are looked at as a rivalry game by every team on their schedule. I have been blessed to have had the opportunity to carry on the rich Texas tradition and to have had all the relationships I continue to enjoy today. I am a Longhorn for life.
-- Johnnie Johnson