Writer: David Chavez
The Round Up
Former NMSU and NFL quarterback Charley Johnson will take over as acting head coach at NMSU to help in the transition between head coaches after the firing of Head Coach Hal Mumme on Dec. 2. Johnson is a chemical engineering professor at NMSU.
Following is a profile about Johnson, written by David Chavez and published in the Oct. 27, 2008 issue of The Round Up.
Former Aggie great and NFL QB stays true to NMSU roots
As the Aggies vie for their first bowl appearance in 47 years, the last quarterback to lead NMSU to a bowl game still is as much a part of the university as he was nearly a half-century ago.
Charley Johnson played for NMSU from 1958 to 1960 and, in the process, led the Aggies to consecutive Sun Bowl appearances. After graduating from NMSU, Johnson played quarterback for 15 years in the NFL and earned a doctorate in chemical engineering while in the pros. These two astounding and contrasting achievements make him one of only a handful of NFL players to go on and earn a Ph.D.
Today, Johnson is a professor in the Chemical Engineering department at NMSU.
“Some students know that I played football,” Johnson said, “but for the most part, I don’t mention my football career unless someone asks me about it. It’s not something I lead with.”
At first glimpse, Johnson appears as any other professor, a faculty member students walk past a hundred times to and from classes near the horseshoe at New Mexico State University. His office is tucked away in the chemical and mechanical engineering building, half a mile away from Aggie Memorial Stadium where the name, “Charley Johnson,” and the number “33” stands on the Stan Fulton Center wall.
Johnson was born in 1938 in Big Spring, Texas. His hobbies growing up were playing sports. A natural athlete, Johnson was the quarterback at Big Spring High School and was a standout basketball player as well. He graduated from high school in 1956 and headed to a junior college in Kerrville, Texas on a football scholarship.
In a twist of fate, the junior college dropped the football program after just one year and Johnson was forced to play basketball.
“During a Christmas tournament, New Mexico State head basketball coach Presley Askew approached me and offered me a basketball scholarship at NMSU,” Johnson said.
It’s odd that Johnson would come to the school where he became a football star on a basketball scholarship.
Johnson transferred to NMSU and finished out the 1958 season playing basketball for the Aggies. Johnson’s heart was always on the gridiron, though. He tried out for the New Mexico State football team in the spring and his life would never be the same.
By the time football season rolled around, Johnson was named the starting quarterback. With his wife Barbara at his side, he was at the top of the world as a young star quarterback for a rising football program in Southern New Mexico.
In his three years as the Aggie quarterback, Johnson tallied a 23-9 record and led the Aggies to the Sun Bowl in ’59 and ’60 where he won MVP both years. He is the only player to date to win two Sun Bowl MVP awards consecutively.
Johnson graduated with a BS in chemical engineering from New Mexico State in 1961, but instead of working for an engineering firm, he was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals as the 109th pick in the 1961 NFL draft.
Johnson got off to a quick start in his NFL career. He made the NFL Pro Bowl in just his second season as the Cardinals quarterback. The brutal NFL game would quickly take its toll on Johnson’s body.
“I was banged up quite a bit. I sat out a bunch because of a shoulder and knee injury.” Johnson said. “It definitely hurt financially.”
Barbara said it was difficult raising children with a husband in the NFL, but it was all they knew. In 15 years, Johnson played for three different teams. The moving was hard on the family, particularly the children.
“The last years he was in Denver, it was hard for the kids,” Barbara said. “They had a hard time changing schools. My daughter’s best friend had a new best friend after we came back. It really hurt our son because he started playing football in junior high.”
During that time, Barbara said Charley helped keep the family together through strong faith.
“We are very religious,” Barbara Johnson said.
A strong faith may have helped keep his family strong, but no faith was strong enough to protect him from the more violent NFL game. Injuries in the ’67 and ’68 seasons would limit him to play just 12 out of the 28 games during the two seasons.
While, Johnson was in the healing process for his body, he decided to continue his education. Johnson juggled family life and the scrutiny of pro football while earning a MS and Ph.D degrees from Washington University in St. Louis.
“My parents really supported me to go back to school,” Johnson said of his decision to return to college after a distinguished NFL career. “Plus, I had the money.”
Johnson would play out the remainder of his career with the Houston Oilers for two years and the Denver Broncos for the last four years.
In 1973, Johnson threw for more than 2,400 yards and was named AFC All-Conference. He retired in 1975 as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in Bronco’s history and is in the Bronco Ring of Fame among players such as John Elway and Terrell Davis.
Twenty-five years after Johnson took his last snap in the NFL, he returned to where it all began. Johnson was hired as a professor and became Chemical Engineering Department Head at New Mexico State in 2000.
Today, Johnson still roams the campus where it all started for him nearly 50 years ago and is a strong supporter of NMSU football.