ATHENS — I didn’t know Andy Johnson personally, or at least not in the way one can honestly say he knows somebody. But I did know him and interacted with him several times over the years. I will have lived in Athens 34 years this fall and you could not have lived in this town and not known who Andy Johnson was.
I knew Johnson mainly as a distinguished UGA football letterman and pillar of the community. That’s the uniform in which I would see him, at community and philanthropic events. And, of course, he was always at Georgia games, not just football games, but baseball games, basketball games, tennis matches, you name it.
Unfortunately I never got to see Johnson play football, and that’s where a lot of folks will tell you I really missed out. He played for the Bulldogs when barely any games were on TV and before I made Saturday treks to Athens with my family. But those who saw him play say he unquestionably should be included in any conversation about greatest athletes to wear the UGA uniform.
Upon learning of Johnson’s death Tuesday after a long illness, I called Ray Goff. Goff informed me that Chuck Fairbanks, who coached Johnson with the New England Patriots, once told him that Johnson was the greatest athlete he’d ever coached, in the NFL or at Oklahoma.
“I know he was the best I ever saw,” said Goff, a UGA freshman when Johnson was a senior. “He could do anything. He was good at basketball, baseball, you name it. But I’d never seen anything like him in football.”
Goff, you might recall, was pretty good at football himself. But he started out as the third-string quarterback behind Johnson, who ran Georgia’s veer offense to near perfection. As a sophomore in 1971, Johnson led the Bulldogs in rushing, passing and scoring as they flew through a season that saw them lose one measly game all year, Auburn in Athens. That was the one in which Pat Sullivan and Terry Beasley went berserk with the forward pass and won 35-20.
Otherwise, the Bulldogs went through that season unscathed. Oddly enough, Georgia never rose higher than No. 6 in the polls of the day. The Dogs had to settle for a Gator Bowl bid, where they beat North Carolina 7-3 to finish 11-1. It was the greatest season under Vince Dooley to date.
“We thought we were going to take off from there,” recalls Loran Smith, UGA’s intrepid sideline reporter and resident historian. “But things kind of went south the next couple of years. We just couldn’t keep it going. But it wasn’t because of Andy.”
Johnson was drafted in baseball — he hit .281 in three seasons with the Diamond Dawgs — but he chose to return for his senior season in football. He left Georgia with the SEC record for career yards rushing by a quarterback (1,799). Johnson was drafted in the fifth round as a running back and played eight seasons with the Patriots in the NFL and one in the USFL. He retired with 3,914 total yards and 22 touchdowns — and with an NFL pension.
After football, Johnson immediately returned to Athens, where he was born and became a sports legend. In 1969, he famously led Athens High to the state championship game against Valdosta. They played to a 26-all tie in what’s remembered as one greatest title games ever.
Back in Athens, Johnson founded a life insurance company and did well in business. But he never acted like a legend or played it up in any way. He was quiet, almost introverted, and always credited others for his success. Seemingly every comment on his passing Tuesday included the word “humble.”
Details aren’t important, but Johnson had been very sick for a long time. He hadn’t been out and about in Athens for a few years. News began to circulate late in the morning Tuesday that he’d finally succumbed at age 65 to an illness he battled for 10 years.
Johnson is survived by his wife, Charlotte, who everybody called “Chot”, and three grown children: Kristy, Brent and Brooke. Visitation is scheduled for Saturday at Bernstein Funeral Home in Athens and a graveside service will be held Sunday at Oconee Hill Cemetery.
It’s fitting Johnson will be laid to rest in those rolling hills right next to Sanford Stadium. He was indeed one of the best to have played next door.