If someone were to tell you that there was a former Quarterback for the Denver Broncos who not only led the league in Pass Attempts, Pass Attempts per game and Pass Completions in two consecutive years but also possesses a Doctorate in Chemical Engineering could you name him? How about if you were also told that this player was in the NFL and the United States Army at the same time,? I’m not talking Reserves either.
Well if you said Charley Johnson, you nailed it.
Charley, born Charles Lane Johnson on November 22nd 1938 in Big Spring, Texas, played Quarterback for the St. Louis Cardinals (1961-1969), Houston Oilers (1970-1971) and Denver Broncos (1972-1975) in a 15 year career. The 6′-1″, 200 lb. Texan led the NFL in Pass Attempts in 1963 (423) and 1964 (420); Pass Attempts per Game in 1963(30.2) and 1964(30) and Passes Completed (223), Passing Yards (3,045) and Passing Yards per Game (217.5) in 1964.
Johnson attended Big Spring high school and didn’t play football until his senior year. At the time, BSHS employed a run-first Offense, so Charley didn’t get much notice from College recruiters. He did earn a scholarship to play at Schreiner Institute, but they dropped football from their curriculum the season after he arrived.
His journey to New Mexico State from Schreiner came on a lark too. Johnson actually went to NMSU on a basketball scholarship, after being observed at a basketball tournament at Howard College. He had to walk on at New Mexico State for football and earned the starting job under a coach who opened up the passing game. Charley was the Aggies’ starter for the next three years as their Quarterback and led the team to consecutive victories in the Sun Bowl.
The 1960 NFL Draft saw Johnson selected by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 10th round (109th overall). Television’s partnership with the NFL was in it’s infancy and the average salary was in the $50,000 to $60,000 range, so everyone had an off-season job because football didn’t quite pay the bills at that time. Charley wanted a career in the Army as well, so he balanced being an artillery officer and NFL Quarterback. While he was with the Cardinals, Johnson did his two year commitment (1967-1968) at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and the team supported his efforts by flying him in for games. He avoided the Vietnam War because of knee operations and prior to that, his active duty was delayed so he could attend graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis. Johnson also served at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
Charley played 9 seasons with the Cardinals (1961-69) and made his only Pro Bowl appearance in 1963. His last four years in St Louis were hampered by injuries and benchings that led to his release in 1969. He was then picked up by the Houston Oilers where he went 3-11 in two seasons. Charley’s time in Houston was tough, he went through a number of surgeries and was on the verge of announcing his retirement in 1972. However, a trade to Denver turned things around.
The Broncos sent a 3rd round pick to the Oilers for the 33-year old, 11th year veteran, mainly because new head coach John Ralston had seen first hand what Charley could do. Ralston was coaching the Utah State Aggies when Johnson and New Mexico State Aggies capped their 11-0 season with a 20-13 win over Ralston in the 1960 Sun Bowl. Charley led NMSU to back to back victories in the Sun Bowl (59’ and 60’), and picked up the game’s MVP in both contests as well. As an aside, New Mexico State hasn’t been to a Bowl game since.
Prior to 1973 the Broncos didn’t have a season with a winning record and Charley was a big part of the reason why. It wasn’t because the team was without talent. Haven Moses and Riley Odoms were big targets with good hands and Floyd Little had been carrying a team that hadn’t had a decent passer since Frank Tripucka in 1962. Denver finally had a reliable passer with an intelligent and creative mind that added another feature to the Offense. It was at this point when Johnson enjoyed football the most in the NFL.
He played 54 games for the Broncos, starting 41. Johnson led them to a 20-18-3 record and back to back winning seasons in 1973 and 1974. It was at the end of that first winning season in 1973 when Haven Moses uttered this comment about Charley, saying,
“He taught us how to win.”
And that is pretty much the reason why Charley was inducted in the Broncos Ring Of Fame in 1986.
As a Bronco, Johnson threw for 7,238 yards, had a 53.3% Completion Rate, 52 Touchdowns, 52 Interceptions and a 73.1 Passer Rating. He was also Sacked 84 times in those 4 years and a high of 36 times during the 1974 season. For the first time in 14 years, the Broncos were winners. Under Johnson, Denver went from league doormats to a team opponents couldn’t take lightly.
Johnson started his term in Denver on the bench, behind Steve Ramsey. After a 1-3-1 start to the season, coach Ralston gave the keys to Charley and he guided the Broncos to a franchise best (at the time) 6-2-1 run that had them finish 7-5-2. They just missed the playoffs and their first division title on a tough, season-ending 21-17 loss to the Raiders in Oakland.
Charley was 37 when he played his final NFL game, in 1975. By that time, he’d had numerous shoulder and knee surgeries, and you’d often wince in sympathy watching him walk from the huddle to the line of scrimmage. He once threw for a career-high 445 yards in a game and also threw a Touchdown pass in 10 consecutive games, a Broncos record at the time.
Sun Bowl Most Valuable Player (1959 & 1960)
1x Pro Bowl selection (1963)
Broncos Ring of Fame (1986)
Charter member of the New Mexico State Athletic Hall of Fame
His No. 33 jersey is the only retired number in Aggie history
75th Anniversary All-Sun Bowl Team (2008)
New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame (2009)
Texas Sports Hall of Fame (2011)
24,410 Passing Yards
69.2 QB Rating
Johnson continued his academic pursuits during his NFL career and obtained Master’s and Doctoral degrees in Chemical Engineering from Washington University in St. Louis. He retired as a professor of Chemical Engineering at his alma mater in May 2012.
Small wonder why he was known as “the Professor.”
– Kaptain Kirk