UGA football: Andy Johnson showed what becomes a legend most

Georgia-Andy Johnson-best running quarterback-modest legend
Many feel Athens native Andy Johnson was the best running quarterback the Georgia Bulldogs ever had.

The emotional outpouring from Bulldog Nation this week in response to the passing of Andy Johnson provided a stark contrast to the cool, modest demeanor of Georgia football’s most low-key legend.

Andy Johnson wanted to play for the Dawgs from childhood. (University of Georgia/courtesy)

Athens native Johnson, a classmate of mine from seventh grade on, starred in both football and baseball at UGA, and was, in the estimation of many — including Vince Dooley  — the Dawgs’ best running quarterback ever.

Drafted by the Atlanta Braves, he also could have had a Major League Baseball career, but chose instead to play as a running back for the New England Patriots (the first of 11 Bulldogs that team has drafted), spending nine years in the NFL and another in the USFL.

Longtime Atlanta sportscaster Bill Hartman, another Classic City native, said this week in a Facebook discussion that “Andy was the best athlete ever to come out of Athens, and that covers a lot of ground.” I agree with Hartman; Johnson was the best all-around athlete I’ve ever seen.

Andy, no doubt, would have been embarrassed by such a statement. A quiet, gentle man — the quintessential “nice guy” — he was modest to a fault. As my brother Tim noted, Andy “really could have been the face of UGA football, if he had wanted it,” but he never sought the limelight.

His Bulldog heroics most notably included leading the Dawgs to a last-minute victory over Georgia Tech in a nationally televised game on Thanksgiving night in 1971.

Trailing Tech 24-21, Georgia got the ball at its own 35-yard line with 1:29 on the clock. In one of the most memorable drives I’ve ever seen, Andy led them downfield. Known primarily as a running quarterback, he got the comeback started with a 22-yard scamper, but it was the four passes he completed on that drive that made the difference, especially a clutch fourth-down throw to Mike Greene that gave the Dogs a first down at the Tech 25 with 48 seconds remaining. After another pass to Jimmy Shirer got the Dogs down to the 1, Jimmy Poulos went over the top to score with only 14 seconds left on the clock. Georgia won, 28-24.

Former UGA quarterback Andy Johnson was a constant breakaway threat as a runner. (AJC file)

Another Johnson touchdown — one that beat favored Tennessee in Knoxville in 1973 — also resulted in one of the earliest of those unforgettable radio calls by Larry Munson. Late in the game, with the Vols ahead, Andy faked a handoff, the ball bounced off the turf back into his hands, and he ran in for the winning score. Shouted Munson: “Andy Johnson touchdown! Andy Johnson touchdown! … My God Georgia beat Tennessee in Knoxville!”

For Athens folks, a last-minute comeback led by Johnson was nothing new. In the fall of 1969, when the Athens High Trojans met the mighty Valdosta Wildcats in the state AAA championship — then the top classification in Georgia high school football — Andy ran the ball 70 yards for a touchdown on the final play of the first half. Later, as the clock ticked down in the fourth quarter, Valdosta was still ahead 26-18, but Johnson led the Trojans down the field, throwing for a TD and completing another pass for a 2-point conversion to tie up the game as time ran out. In those days, ties were acceptable, so Athens and Valdosta ruled as co-champions that year.

Ironically, two of the folks I heard from this week mourning Andy were a couple of former Bulldog quarterbacks who grew up on the other side of that Athens-Valdosta rivalry.

Said Valdosta native Buck Belue in a reply to my tweet about Johnson’s death: “Andy was not only the best athlete Athens produced, [but] probably the best athlete to ever play at UGA.”

And, chimed in John Lastinger: “He single-handedly tied VHS in [the] State Title game. I cried then. Cried today! He was such a great guy! DGD.”

Johnson lettered in four sports in high school, including basketball. (Athens High School 1970 yearbook)

Andy, who lettered in football, basketball, baseball and track at Athens High, was a high school All-America selection. Charlie Hayslett, who covered Johnson and the Trojans for the Athens Daily News, recalled: “You only had to see him once to know he was one of those rare, one-in-a-zillion athletes.” 

In his 2005 book written with Tony Barnhart — Dooley: My 40 Years at Georgia” — the legendary UGA coach said Andy “was one of the best athletes I have ever seen. … I remember watching him play one time in high school. He turned to make a lateral pitch, but the back had gone the wrong way. The ball sailed loose and [Andy] outran the entire defense to recover it near the sideline. And the defense was already going full speed! It was an impossible play, but he made it.”

Andy, whose uncles, Walter and Harold Maguire, played for UGA, started playing football at age 6 in the same Cobern Kelley-led Athens YMCA football program that produced Fran Tarkenton and Jake Scott. He turned heads from the start, and also was a baseball prodigy in Little League.

Helen Castronis’ dad, Mike, was on the UGA coaching staff and recruited Andy for the Bulldogs. “We took Andy to McWhorter Hall for lunch every Sunday,” she recalled.

It probably wasn’t necessary. There really never was any question where he would play his college ball. As Andy told Loran Smith for his 1989 book “Dooley’s Dawgs,” “I always wanted to be part of the Georgia tradition, dating back to the time when I scored a touchdown between the hedges for the Athens YMCA [in a pregame scrimmage] and the Redcoat Band played a Bulldog fight song or two after I crossed the goal line.”

But, as fellow Athens native Owen Scott recalled this week: “Andy was more than just a great athlete, he was an amazing person. … He never displayed the kind of ego that some highly gifted stars develop.”

Said Bill Bryant, who worked with me on the Athens High newspaper: “Andy was one of the nicest guys any of us has known. To have that much talent and good looks, it took a special person not to be consumed with himself. He was one cool guy who never tried to be. Secretly, I think we all wanted to be Andy. He really had it all: an abundance of natural ability, good looks, an unassuming style.”

Ben Anderson, one of Andy’s high school basketball teammates, said he was “awed by Andy’s seemingly effortless athleticism.”

Recalled another Athens native, Bill Berryman: “I first realized that Andy was truly gifted when our group of Y boys lined up for a wind sprint for fourth or fifth grade football practice. … By the time most of us reached yard 15, Andy was at 25.  His lead only grew, and we were in awe. … But Andy was gifted in another way, too — genuine and self-effacing, he was the epitome of sportsmanship, from the sandlot to the NFL.”

Johnson was an early athletic prodigy in the Athens YMCA and Little League. (Courtesy of Jessica Jordan)

Despite his stardom — he was inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 1996 — Andy always had time for others. Said classmate Saye Sutton: “His countenance was gentle, kind and attentive. You knew he was listening to you and always learning something new about everyone he encountered.”

Or, as my buddy Charles Isbell put it: “His easy-going personality and his warmness and friendliness to everyone” was “pretty much his normal demeanor.”

“He was also the most humble person I’ve ever known,” said former Bulldog football player Dave Williams.

Betz Lowery, who was three years behind us at Athens High, said she had a “huge crush” on Andy back then, but never got to meet him until she attended a UGA lettermen’s banquet a few years ago. “I tried not to gush when I told him that I had a crush on him since I was 14. He shook my hand and was so gracious and thanked me for telling him that. I also told him I was thrilled to meet him. He then gave my hand a kiss before saying goodbye.”

Another classmate of Johnson’s, Dan Pelletier, summed it up: “Amazing how everyone’s memories of Andy are so positive. He truly was loved and admired by all he met.”

MiMi DuBose Gudenrath dated Andy when they were juniors at Athens High. She reminisced this week: “I always contended we broke up because his mother didn’t like me. We used to joke about it. About a year ago, I got a text from Andy with an attachment; it was the prom picture of us at the Junior-Senior. He found it as he was cleaning out his mom’s house after her death.”

Andy and MiMi at the 1969 Athens High Junior-Senior. (Courtesy of MiMi DuBose Gudenrath

Added Andy in the text: “See, I told you my mom liked you; she kept our picture!”

My own experiences with Andy after college were mainly limited to chatting at our class reunions, held every five years. After I started doing the Junkyard Blawg, I saw him at a reunion when the Dawgs were in a bit of a down period, and he gently chided me, “You’ve been kind of hard on them lately.”

It’s fair to criticize the coaches, Andy said, but he urged me always to remember “there’s nobody in that stadium who wants Georgia to win more than the players do.”

I knew Andy had been battling illness for at least a decade, but, when I saw him at our most recent reunion, in the fall of 2015, his gaunt appearance surprised me.

We chatted about Georgia football, as we usually did, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I might never see him again.

So, before we parted, I told him how special he was, how much he’d meant to all of us, and how he’d have been one of my all-time favorite Bulldogs, even if we hadn’t gone to school together.

He smiled broadly, took my hand, and, in that quiet way of his, said, “You’re so kind.”

This week, after word came of Andy’s death, it meant a lot to me that I took that opportunity to tell him how we all felt about him.

It was a privilege to know him.

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