Thirty-two-year-old William Arthur Johnson, best known by his nom de grid, Billy White Shoes, feigns mild indignation when asked if he's 32.
"Do I look 32?" A compactly muscled 5'9", 172 pounds, he really doesn't.
"Good," says Johnson, " 'cause I'm only 27."
But what of the Atlanta Falcons' media guide, Mr. Johnson, which lists the year of your birth as 1952?
"I know, I know," he says irritably. "They get that wrong every year."
Having spent much of the preceding five seasons injured, benched or playing in the Canadian Football League, Johnson was named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year last season after leading the NFC in punt-return yardage with 489 and the Falcons in pass receptions with 64 and finishing third in the NFC in punt returns with an average of 10.6 yards. And his resurgence is unabated. So far this year Johnson has caught 18 passes for the 2-2 Falcons, three for touchdowns. Moreover, through Sunday he led the NFC in punt returns (13.6 yards per return), and he needs just 85 yards to surpass Rick Up-church's 3,008 and become the NFL's alltime punt-return leader. Upchurch retired last year—at 32.
"You'd be surprised what you can ask of your body," Johnson says, driving from the Falcons' training complex in Suwanee north of Atlanta to his home in Duluth, Ga. On the way he points to a golf course that can be seen from the road. Johnson isn't so much enticed by the prospect of playing 18 holes on his off-days—"I like something a little more strenuous"—but by the rolling hills on the course. "I run a lot of hills," he says.
He has had to, to return to pro form after undergoing surgery on his left knee in 1978 and on the right one in '79. At the time of the first operation Johnson was 26, officially anyway. It was an unfitting epilogue to four outstanding seasons as a return specialist and receiver for Houston, during which time he set five team records. After seeing only limited action with the Oilers in '80, and labeled damaged goods, he asked for a release and signed with Montreal; he was the second-leading receiver for the Alouettes that season with 65 catches.
Johnson was picked up by the Falcons in '82, and his knees have held up. Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium has natural turf and the practice fields at the Suwanee Complex could pass as fairways, and so Johnson has seen little of the training room. "I was putting in five, six hours a day rehabbing the knees in Houston," he says. "I've had enough of that."
Thanks to his footwear and distinctive post-touchdown routine—which he is keeping a lid on this year because of the "Gastineau Rule"—Shoes was preceded in Atlanta by a reputation for showmanship. He was warily received. But as one Falcon now says, "That's not Billy, that's surface stuff." The real Johnson writes down passages of Scripture along with his autograph. He's a substitute English teacher at local high schools and is active in charities. When he says, "I try to return something to the community for what it gives me," he means it.
Stroking his gray beard, Atlanta's All-Pro center Jeff Van Note, who admits to being 38, touches on another reason for Johnson's popularity and esteem. "You expect the ball at midfield, and he gives it to you on the 20," says Van Note. "It's nice."
That specifically was why Leeman Bennett, the Falcon coach at the start of 1982, plucked a disgruntled Souliers Blancs out of Montreal and signed him to return punts. Shoes dutifully led the NFC in that category (averaging 11.4 yards per return) but caught only two passes in that strike-shortened season. Yet Johnson bears Bennett no malice for seeing so few balls coming his way—he seems incapable of bearing anyone malice.
Bennett was fired after the 1982 season and replaced by Dan Henning, who promptly made Johnson an H-back. That's the motion back who runs behind the line of scrimmage during the cadence like a target duck in a shooting gallery. "That way I can attack the defense from anywhere," says Johnson. "Hopefully, a linebacker will have to pick me up, or a strong safety who's used to covering tight ends." Another recent innovation for Johnson is gloves. Not white ones to match his shoes, but black scuba diver's gloves like those that some of the Washington Redskin receivers have been wearing.
Asked to evaluate Johnson, Henning offers a gumbo of superlatives—"excellent work habits...fine example...terrific attitude"—and finishes by saying, "I'm just glad we have him here."
The Johnsons, in turn, are glad to be in Atlanta with a new lease on life. Shoes' wife, Barbara, recently gave her own explanation for her spouse's professional renaissance. Looking up from the kitchen table, where she was checking the homework of their 8-year-old daughter, Kendra, she said, simply, "He eats my cooking." The Johnsons have another daughter, Marcia, 12, and a 2-year-old son, Jared. Billy and Barbara met when both were students at Widener University in Chester, Pa., a 10-minute drive from Marcus Hook, where Johnson was raised. He was a junior quarterback at Chichester High when he first wore white shoes, in emulation of Joe Namath. At the time he told Chichester coach Tony Apichella they would make him run faster.
"He was Tony's boy," recalls Rick Comegy, a teammate of Johnson's at Chichester and now an assistant coach at Colgate. "Coach used to just yell on the field, 'Billy, sweep right!' and he would, and he'd score. He was that good."
In Johnson's three seasons at Widener he averaged 9.09 yards per carry. Eight times he ran for 200-plus yards, and in '72 he averaged 10.5 yards a carry. All three of those marks are still Division II records. He also scored 372 points and rushed for 3,735 yards.
Johnson was running up his numbers in the Philadelphia Eagles' backyard, and they had hoped to sign him as a free agent after the '74 draft. But Oiler coach and general manager Sid Gillman beat them to the punch, taking him in the 15th round.
"They got White Shoes and we got red faces," said Eagle G.M. Jim Murray.
Saints coach Bum Phillips, who was at the Oiler helm during most of Johnson's stay in Houston, reminded the press not to overlook Johnson after New Orleans' opening-day loss to the Falcons this season. Interrupting a hail of questions about other players, he said, "Don't forget Billy Johnson. He hurt us a couple of ways today." And so Billy had, with four catches, three for first downs, and a 37-yard punt return that set up Atlanta's first score. "He surprises me," said Bum, "playing the way he does at his age."
Whatever that may be.