He can still do the “Funky Chicken.” And he can still recall the famous Hail Mary play the Atlanta Falcons used to defeat San Francisco three decades ago.
Billy “White Shoes” Johnson had a spectacular NFL career, and he had a special message for more than 200 high school football players from across the area at Evans High School.
Johnson is the regional director of the NFL High School Player Development program, which addresses challenges players face today, such as concussion awareness, life skills and the dangers of social media.
At the camp presented by the National Guard, Johnson said he wanted players to learn about character development.
“The ingredients at the core of a good team and at the National Guard are very much alike as far as integrity, respect, trust, loyalty and those type of things go,” he said. “That’s going to be a big part of their lives wherever they go. The sooner they learn that and the better they understand it, the better it’ll be for them down the road.”
The 62-year-old Johnson, who is married and has four children, wore his signature white shoes to the camp. He started wearing white shoes when he played high school football, but he ramped up his efforts a few years later.
“In pro ball they said you can’t just wear white shoes on the field, you have to wear them off as well,” he said. “I said, ‘Hey, that makes sense.’ I was doing it just as lark, but now it’s my brand.”
Johnson is believed to be the man who started end-zone celebrations in the NFL when he played for the Houston Oilers in the 1970s. His first dance? The Funky Chicken.
“That started back in college when we played a rival team,” said Johnson, who played at Division III Widener College. “They said some things they shouldn’t have said. I told our guys if I score I was going to do this. I would’ve caught more stuff from my team had I not danced.”
A member of the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, Johnson found plenty of time to dance. He returned six punts for touchdowns during his 14-year NFL career and also posted two kickoff return touchdowns. As a wide receiver, he scored an additional 25 touchdowns, including a famous one with the Falcons.
In 1983, Atlanta trailed San Francisco with two seconds left. From midfield, Steve Bartkowski heaved a deep pass toward the end zone. Trailing on the play, Johnson caught a deflection from teammate Stacey Bailey at the 5-yard line, circled back to his right and weaved his way through traffic for a diving, game-winning touchdown.
“We practiced that,” said Johnson, who played six seasons for the Falcons, starting in 1982. “I was right there. I was just trailing. You’ve got to know where you are. I had a coach in high school that told me to run to the furthest corner of the end zone to make them run, and hopefully your speed will win out. That’s what I did, but Ronnie (Lott) and Keena Turner made me cut back just as I was trying to go into overdrive.”
After Johnson dived for the end zone, an official at the goal line waited a moment before throwing up his arms, signaling the touchdown. Some observers have disputed that had instant replay been in effect, Johnson would have been ruled down short of the end zone.
“My knee never touched,” he said. “There’s some other questions, but my knee never touched, because I was on my elbow. Now, that might have been questionable.”