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Building Legends by Remembering Legends

Gary "Big Hands" Johnson

Sport: Football

Induction Year: 1991

In September of 1972, Grambling State football coach Eddie Robinson came to Shreveport to promote a game with Nevada-Reno.

After paying the obligatory compliment to his upcoming opponent and making a few routine remarks about his squad, Robinson made a comment that caught the attention of media types attending the press conference.

“Gary Johnson, from Bossier City, is the best defensive lineman in college football."

Pencils halted in mid-air above notepads. Eyebrows were raised. Throats were cleared. Television cameramen tried to suppress chuckles. Didn’t the man who was well on his way to being the winningest coach in college football history know about Rich Glover of Nebraska, the nose guard who anchored the defense of a Nebraska Cornhusker team that had already won one national title and was well on its way to another?

At that time, Glover was considered to have the best chance of any defensive lineman in college football history to win the Heisman Trophy. (He finished third in Heisman voting, one spot above LSU quarterback Bert Jones.)

After the press conference broke up, Robinson was asked if he had overlooked Glover.

“No,” he said. “He’s good, but Gary’s better. He can do more things. We call him ‘Big Hands.’ He’s in the same class with players like Willie Davis, Buck Buchanan and Richard Harris. And before he’s through, he might be at the head of the class.”

At that time, Gary Lynn Johnson was an unknown sophomore who had played at Charlotte Mitchell High School in the final years of its existence. The school was closed at mid-term of his senior year, when Louisiana public schools were integrated, and Johnson was a graduate of Airline High.

Predominantly white universities in the Deep South integrated their athletic programs at the same time, and Louisiana Tech scored an impressive coup with such stars as Fred Dean, Roland Harper and Charles “Quick Six” McDaniel in its first batch of black recruits. But Johnson was the big one who got away. The only schools that contacted him were from the all-black Southwestern Athletic Conference. His coaches at Charlotte Mitchell, Gerald Kimble and Riley Stewart, were enthusiastic supporters of Southern University and Grambling, respectively. They made it very difficult for coaches from other schools to contact “Big Hands.”

“It wouldn’t have mattered if 100 schools had contacted me,” Johnson said when he was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1991. “I was going to Grambling.”

In 1972, he was selected to the Associated Press Little All-American team as a sophomore. He made it the next two years, too. And in his senior season, “Big Hands” was the only small-college player on the first team of the All-American squad selected for the Newspaper Enterprise Association by pro scouts.

That was the year Grambling played No. 1-ranked Delaware in the first NCAA college division playoffs.

“I knew I was in trouble,” Delaware coach Tubby Raymond said later, “when their defensive tackle caught my halfbacks from behind on runs around the other end. We couldn’t pass against them, either. Even if we had time to get the pass off, their defensive backs ran faster backwards than our receivers could run forward.”

Johnson had 136 tackles and 49 sacks in his 12-game senior season despite a late-season injury. Those are incredible numbers for a guy who plays in the middle of the line. But “Big Hands” had amazing quickness. On pitchouts, the 251-pound Johnson and the football often arrived on the same timetable.

In 1975, the San Diego Chargers drafted Grambling’s Johnson in the first round and Louisiana Tech’s Dean in the second. They also grabbed defensive lineman Louie Kelcher of SMU and defensive backs Mike Williams of LSU and Mike Fuller of Auburn. It was a super draft for Chargers and San Francisco 49ers, as Johnson and Dean were traded to the ‘Niners and helped them shut down Miami and Dan Marino in Super Bowl XIX.

When he went into the NFL, a speech for Johnson consisted of six words: “I just want to play football.”

It was a standing joke with teammates and other club officials. “Gary Johnson,” they would say. “Yeah, he just wants to play football.”

He played it very well, making four appearances in the Pro Bowl. Then he was traded to the San Francisco 49ers in 1984, and earned a Super Bowl ring.

“That was the highlight of my career in the pros,” he said later. “It just didn’t last long enough.”

In an 11-year NFL career, he had 72-1/2 quarterback sacks for losses adding up to 659 yards, He had 17-1/2 in one season, 1980. He scored three touchdowns—two on interceptions and one on a fumble recovery—and two safeties in his pro career.

Football was a family tradition for Johnson. His father played football, and younger brother Ron Johnson played at Airline and Grambling. Gary started playing when hew was a seven-year-old in Bossier City. “I like the contact,” he said. “And I like people coming up to me and saying, ‘Way to go!’ and ‘I want you on my team.’ Especially if they were older kids. That made me feel good.”

Gary Johnson? Yeah, he just wanted to play football, And neither Rich Glover nor anybody else played it better.

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