Billy “White Shoes” Johnson brought smiles to many fans’ faces during his tenure as a kick returner and receiver for the Houston Oilers. Johnson’s endzone dance probably wouldn’t be acceptable to today’s referees and conservative NFL fans. JW Nix, who believes Johnson should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, allowed me to reprint this tribute to this entertaining and talented player.
William Arthur Johnson was a 15th round draft pick by the Houston Oilers in 1974. He was the 365th player picked overall despite the initial objections of GM/Head Coach Sid Gillman who didn’t want a “midget” on his team.
He had played at Widener College in Pennsylvania, where he was a stand out. He is also a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
He and his college team mate, Joe Fields (a long time NY Jets offensive lineman), both retired in 1988 and are the last players from Widener to have played in the NFL. Johnson was so good that he ended up averaging over 250 all-purpose yards per game at Widener.
He made the team as a return man and stood out immediately. He was given the moniker “White Shoes” in high school when he wore the white cleats, as opposed to most wearing black cleats.
In his first four seasons, he returned five punts for touchdowns, as well as two kickoffs for scores. In 1975 he tied an NFL record with four kick returns for touchdowns in a season.
He would celebrate his touchdowns with the “Funky Chicken” dance. This dance, coupled by his shoes, made him a fan favorite across the league. He was used as a third-down slot receiver in multiple receiver sets mostly.
He caught 116 balls with seven touchdowns his first three years. He was mostly used as a possession type due to the teams offensive scheme, but he also ran the ball for a touchdown.
Johnson caught 20 balls his fourth year for three touchdowns at a 20-yards per catch average. He also took a reverse 61 yards for a touchdown, the last rushing touchdown of his career.
In 1978, he blew out his knee during the fifth game. He only managed two games the following season due to its lingering effects. In 1980, he returned to be used only as a third wide receiver. He caught 31 balls for two touchdowns.
Disenchanted with his role, “White Shoes” bolted for the Canadian Football League to play for the Montreal Allouetttes. That year in Montreal, Billy caught 65 passes for 1,060 yards and five touchdowns.
Johnson returned to the NFL in 1982 by signing with the Atlanta Falcons. He played nine games that year and only caught two passes. He was able to return 24 punts at an impressive clip of 11.4 YPR.
“White Shoes” was used as the Falcons full time punt returner in 1983. He also started at wide receiver. He caught a team and career high 64 passes while scoring five touchdowns total. One touchdown was via a punt return.
He won the Pro Bowl MVP that year when he took a punt 90-yards for a touchdown, as well as accumulating 159 total return yards. Both are still Pro Bowl records.
He got off to a good start in 1984 by catching 24 balls for three touchdowns, as well as a touchdown on a punt return. He was injured the sixth game of the year and did not return until 1985.
Johnson was used very sparingly as a punt returner in 1985, instead focusing on his wide receiver duties. He caught 62 passes for a career high 830 yards to go with five touchdowns.
He was hurt the following year and caught only six passes and took eight punt returns in four games. He came back to play 12 games the following year and returned 21 punts and caught eight passes.
Johnson left the Falcons, but tried to play for the Washington Redskins in 1988. He played only one game and fielded four punts, returning three of them for 26 yards. He then retired.
Billy “White Shoes” Johnson was named to both the NFL’s 1980’s All-Decade Team, and to the 75th Anniversary All-Time Team.
He set seven team records in Houston and four in Atlanta and held the NFL record for punt return yardage when he retired. He is still ranked third all-time in NFL history for punt return yardage and still holds the Oilers / Titans franchise record for punt return yardage.
Johnson may be known to many fans as an innovators of the touchdown dance. He is credited as being one of the first, but certainly his can stake claim to having been the best ever.
Celebrations with more choreography may have been employed since then, but it is much like the students trying to emulate the master. He was not just a crowd pleaser with his dance.
He was a premier return specialist who took eight kicks to the end zone in his career. He also worked hard to become a threat at wide receiver. Others, like Terence Mathis, Troy Brown, and Derrick Mason, have followed similar steps in their careers.
Johnson was a very special player who battled through injuries and came back to produce. One must remember that knee injuries in those days ended, or slowed down, most careers. The surgical procedures used then are a far cry from today’s advances in medicine.
It took even more determination to return, and a lot longer of a rehab session. “White Shoes” may not make every ones list of guys who should be inducted into Canton, but he is on the All-Time NFL Team as the only return specialist.
This fact, coupled with his stats and the fun he brought to the game, make it a no-brainer that he should be inducted into Canton.
See Crazy Canton Cuts for more profiles of gridiron legends.