Who is USC’s Mike Johnson? He left a legacy before untimely death
The evening of Sept. 29, 1965, Mike Johnson wanted to go see a football game. Not a college or even high school game, but his 11-year-old brother Bill’s elementary school game, played on a Wednesday — normally a church night in his small, tight-knit hometown of Church Hill, Tennessee, near Kingsport.
His family — especially his mother, Mary Ellen, and father, Clay — weren’t sure that was a good idea. The previous December, Johnson, a center for the South Carolina football team in 1964, had been diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his brain. After months of radiation and chemotherapy, he was a ravaged shell of the 6-foot-4, 228-pound player his USC teammates had nicknamed “Big Bear.”
As sick as he was, though, Mike Johnson was also determined. “He said, ‘Well, it’s a good night for traveling,’ ” said his sister, Dixie, now 72. “It was a beautiful night, not a cloud in the sky.”
Everyone knew it was a matter of when, not if, the cancer would claim him.
“Some people had come to the house to see him that day, and everyone wanted him to stay home,” Bill Johnson, now 66, said. “But Mike said, ‘No, I’m going to watch Bill play football. It might be my last time.’ ”
That night, sitting in the stands — chewing a wad of tobacco — the stricken youngster keeled over and died in his father’s arms. “His frail body collapsed as his younger brother played the game he loved so dearly,” a local newspaper article reported afterward.
The too-short life of Michael Forrest Johnson had not gone unnoticed.
‘No one will wear No. 56 again’
College freshmen couldn’t play varsity football in those days, but Johnson had started for the Gamecocks midway through his sophomore season.
Coach Marvin Bass, whose team started 0-5-2 and finished 1964 with three straight wins capped by a 7-3 victory at rival Clemson, called Johnson “the best offensive center I ever coached.” He was certain Johnson would be a star — not just in college, but one day in the NFL.
“He was destined to be really, really good,” said J.R. Wilburn, who later starred at receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers. “If you’d been drawing a football player, you’d draw him.”
“He could’ve been an outstanding offensive lineman or even tight end” in the NFL, said Bobby Bryant, later a perennial All-Pro defensive back for the Minnesota Vikings. “He definitely had All-American potential.”
Following Johnson’s death, an emotional Bass — also USC’s athletics director — announced publicly that “no one will wear (Johnson’s) No. 56 again.” On Oct. 8, 1965, USC officially announced his number’s retirement.
That put Johnson in exclusive company.
The Gamecocks have retired just four numbers in school history, none since first-round NFL draft pick Sterling Sharpe’s No. 2 in 1987. (USC now retires jerseys, not numbers). The first out of circulation was standout running back Steve Wadiak’s No. 37, following his death in a 1951 auto accident. Heisman Trophy winner, all-time rushing yardage leader, No. 1 draft pick and National Football Foundation Hall of Fame member George Rogers had his No. 38 retired at his final home game in 1980.
Every USC fan knows Wadiak, Rogers and Sharpe.
Mike Johnson? Most, even those who’ve read his brief biographical sketch in the football media guide, have no idea who he was.
His teammates knew, though. Fifty-four years later, they haven’t forgotten No. 56.
Johnson a hit on and off the field
Johnson, his siblings said, loved football from the time he was big enough to play. A black-and-white family Polaroid photo shows a skinny Johnson wearing a helmet and pads, in a classic three-point stance. “Mike dreaming the dream,” an inscription on the back reads.
Church Hill, a town of about 6,700 today, was less than half that when Johnson was growing up, but his talent earned him notice in eastern Tennessee playing for Church Hill High’s Panthers. A senior team captain, Johnson was all-Rotherwood Conference and won Church Hill’s Sportsmanship Award. He was also senior class president.
Following that season, Church Hill was selected to play in an Optimists Exchange Bowl game against nearby Johnson City’s Science Hill High and its future Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Steve Spurrier. “It was the last game of our high school careers, but we (the Hilltoppers) weren’t all that fired up for it,” said the former head coach at Florida and USC, now an ambassador for the Gators. “We fell behind 21-0 after a pretty bad first quarter.”
Science Hill’s superior size and talent prevailed, 28-21, but Spurrier remembered Johnson, who also played defense. “I didn’t pay attention to players on other teams back then, but he was a good linebacker,” Spurrier said.
USC alum David Rikard lived in Kingsport, and “he kept (Bass) aware of who was playing in the area,” said Phil Branson, another Church Hill product who also played for USC. Branson had a car, so after Johnson chose the Gamecocks over Wake Forest — “Mike said, I’d rather play for coach Bass, win or lose,” his sister said — the pair shared rides to and from Columbia.
“He was quiet and shy if you didn’t know him,” said Branson, now retired and living in Columbia, “but on the bus going to games, he was as loud as anyone. Even as a sophomore, he was a leader.”
Johnson, who played for USC’s 4-0-1 “Biddies” in 1963, caught the eye of Bass and freshman coach Ed Pitts. Midway through his first varsity season, Johnson was starting at center and also playing linebacker.
“Coach Bass and the other coaches really thought he’d be the next great center,” said Benny Galloway, a halfback on that freshman team. “Without a doubt, he made a difference” blocking for the run-first Gamecocks.
USC quarterback Dan Reeves, who went on to star for the Dallas Cowboys and later as an NFL coach, said Johnson “had instincts you look for” in a center. “He was so advanced for a young player at that position. Even in spring practice, you could tell he was going to be something special.”
Donnie Myers, Johnson’s roommate in 1964, laughingly remembers a Johnson play in USC’s 37-0 loss to Florida.
“Mike was playing long snapper, too,” said Myers, a former S.C. solicitor from Lexington County. “He snapped the ball over our punter Jack McCathern’s head. Later, we joked that he could snap the ball farther between his legs than Spurrier could throw standing up.”
The Gamecocks ended a streak of 15 games without a win with a 17-14 victory over The Citadel, then beat Wake Forest and star Brian Piccolo (who also died of cancer, in 1970 with the Chicago Bears), 23-13. Reeves was hobbled by a sprained ankle, but USC traveled to Clemson and stunned the Tigers, 7-3, as Johnson again stood out.
He led blocking for backup quarterback Jim Rogers, whose pass to Wilburn set up Rogers’ winning touchdown run, and Johnson at linebacker was part of a successful goal-line stand in the fourth quarter. “Coach Bass said Mike was instrumental in that,” said Doug Senter, who would be a team captain in 1965.
Teammates delighted in Johnson away from the field, too, where his easy-going manner, crew-cut red hair and deep, gravelly Tennessee drawl made him a favorite. Jimmy Gobble, who replaced him at center in 1965, said Johnson was deceptively smart. “He’d say, ‘Gobs, I don’t know what we’re doing in class too good,’” Gobble said with a laugh. “I said, ‘You can’t remember three lines of poetry, but you can remember how to call every defense we run against?’ ”
“When you saw him, you immediately fell in love with him,” Myers said. “He was just this big ol’ rawboned mountain boy who laughed and smiled all the time. We hit it off right off the bat.”
“He was a magnet,” said Stan Juk, Johnson’s classmate and later a Columbia cardiologist. “Wonderful personality, big grin, never met a stranger. And he had a huge laugh that was infectious.”
Butch Reeves, Dan’s younger brother, recalled Johnson also had a playful streak. Once when he went home, “Mike said he’d bring back something special,” Reeves said. “It was some Tennessee moonshine — and yeah, it was good.”
Despite their fifth-straight losing season, USC players believed 1965 would be different. The Gamecocks returned several future NFL players — Wilburn and Bryant — and of course, Johnson. Even a first-ever Atlantic Coast Conference title seemed possible.
They were almost right. But Johnson wouldn’t be around for it all.
‘They’ve taken Mike to the hospital’ ... ‘It’s bad’
Between the Clemson game and Christmas holidays, teammates began noticing odd behavior in Johnson. The big lineman slept for hours on end; fullback Bob Cole recalled Johnson waking up in his dorm room once and realizing he’d slept nearly 36 hours. There were also episodes of memory loss.
Wilburn said after a trip to The Candy Cane bar in Five Points, players returned to the Men’s Towers Dormitory Complex, where most lived, for a “bull session” in one player’s room.
“Mike comes in later and says, ‘Where y’all been?’ ” Bryant said. “We told him, and he said, ‘Why didn’t y’all ask me to come?’ In fact, he’d been and had already forgotten.”
Myers, Johnson’s roommate, saw changes, too.
“One afternoon he went to the YMCA to work out,” Myers said. “Afterward, he said he was going to lie down a while. When I came back from a shower and woke him up, he didn’t remember anything about the Y, or going out.”
That night, Johnson went out with other players.
“Later, they told me he kept falling asleep; some girls were throwing ice at him sleeping, like it was a game,” Myers said. “He didn’t remember that, or going out earlier to buy gloves for his father for Christmas, or even that it was Christmas break coming.”
Branson said Johnson slept most of their trip to Church Hill for the holidays, and a day after they reached Church Hill, Clay Johnson called, asking, “Hey Phil, what’s wrong with Mike?” Shortly before Christmas, Myers — who’d visited Church Hill and gotten to know Johnson’s family — called and spoke with Dixie, then 19 and a nursing student.
“She said, ‘They’ve taken Mike to the hospital,’ and she was very upset,” Myers said. “She kept saying, ‘It’s bad, bad.’ ”
When doctors diagnosed Johnson’s cancer, Myers and his mother drove to Church Hill, where he spent several nights in the hospital with Johnson.
“One time they had to take him to a lab for tests, pushing his bed down the hall, and he was whipping the sheets like he was riding a horse, laughing,” Myers said.
Johnson’s sister Dixie, though, saw his decline over time: “I stayed with him at night in the hospital, and when he came home, I had a cot in his bedroom. If he woke up at night, I had to orient him. He didn’t even remember playing in 1964.”
Throughout Johnson’s illness, Bass stayed in touch, offering encouragement and support. In one hand-written letter, dated April 22, 1965, Bass wrote: “I hope you know that we don’t have anyone who can beat you out at center.”
The Gamecocks opened the 1965 season — without Johnson — on Sept. 18 at The Citadel. Trailing 3-0 at halftime, a tearful Bass “laid it on the line,” Senter said. “He said, ‘You guys go out there and win this game for Mike.’ ”
After USC rallied to win, 13-3, Bass and three players, including Senter, flew the following day in a university plane to Church Hill to present Johnson with the game ball. A 1965 Associated Press story chronicled their visit; Mary Ellen Johnson told the AP her son was “not too uncomfortable, but he’s not doing well,” that Mike “talks about going back to South Carolina all the time,” and that she and husband Clay “don’t know what to do. It’s something we hope and pray for.”
Johnson told the reporter he was happy to get the game ball. “I hope to get back in time for spring practice” the following year, he said. “I sure was glad to see those boys.”
The following Saturday, Johnson came to Columbia for USC’s home opener vs. Duke, his father pushing his once-robust son in a wheelchair. “He was so skinny, had lost so much weight,” Myers said.
But “even though he was extremely weak, he rode the bus with us to the stadium,” Gobble said. “In the locker room, he was motivation for us, and when we ran out there, he was on the sideline with us.”
Before leaving following a 20-15 USC loss, Gobble and others said Johnson told them, “Boys, I’ll see y’all when we take on the Vols,” referring to USC’s game at Knoxville on Oct. 9. Gobble said he heard Johnson telling his mother, “Mom, I had a visitor last night. An angel sat at the foot of my bed and said it’ll be all right. He said it won’t be long, but you’ll see some football.”
He would see one more game: in Church Hill, watching his little brother. The night his struggles ended.
Mike Johnson still an inspiration
Two days after Johnson’s death, Bass and six players traveled to Church Hill once more. The pallbearers were teammates Myers, Branson, David Berry, Randy Harbour, Gary Musgrove and Jon Linder. A local newspaper reported First Baptist Church was “overflowing with people who loved and admired Mike Johnson.”
A week later, when the Gamecocks lost a closer-than-the-score-shows game to Tennessee, 29-17, Johnson’s parents — and his No. 56 — were there, the jersey hanging in USC’s locker room. And on May 20, 1966, the Michael Forrest Johnson Lounge, located between two of the six Men’s Towers dormitories (aka The Honeycombs) where many of USC’s players lived, was dedicated.
A portrait of Johnson was hung in the lounge. When the Men’s Towers, built between 1958 and 1965, were demolished for new construction — two in 1996, the last four in 2007 — Johnson’s portrait disappeared.
The 1965 Gamecocks finished 5-5 — their first non-losing season since 1959 — and claimed a share of the ACC title. A year later, though, with Bass fired, an investigation discovered an ineligible player had played that season, and the ACC wins were stripped from the official record. The title wound up being shared by two teams the Gamecocks had defeated, N.C. State and Clemson.
Losing Johnson took a toll, his 1965 teammates said.
“Mike’s death devastated everybody,” Myers said. “But he inspired us, too. We dedicated the season to his memory.”
Today, Johnson’s three siblings, including youngest brother Bob, remain close to several former players, notably Myers. Bill Johnson, who also played center and made all-conference in high school, often attends USC games with the Lexington resident. Dixie Johnson Gilliam’s daughter, Rebekah, earned two degrees from USC.
“Donnie (Myers) has been really good to me,” Bill Johnson said. “South Carolina was good to us, too.”
In 1966, Church Hill’s stadium where Johnson died was renamed Mike Johnson Memorial Stadium. It now plays host to eighth-grade games. A rock column outside the entrance gate reads: “It is not the duration of life that counts — not how long, but how well.”
No. 56’s retired status will last as long as USC football does. “We all wanted that for Mike,” Myers said. “All of us supported that — big time.”
More than a half-century later, they still do.
The four retired USC football numbers
With bios from the South Carolina football media guide
No. 2 STERLING SHARPE, WR, 1983, 1985-87
Sterling Sharpe concluded his career as the school’s all-time leading receiver with 169 catches for 2,497 yards and 17 touchdowns. Sharpe had his jersey retired following the 1987 regular season. He became only the second Gamecock to have his jersey retired while he was still active at the school. Sharpe was a first-round draft pick by the Green Bay Packers in 1988. He was inducted into the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame in 2014.
No. 37 STEVE WADIAK, RB, 1948-51
Running back Steve Wadiak, who wore No. 37 for Carolina from 1948-51, was the first to have his number retired, after a tragic automobile accident claimed his life. Wadiak, who still appears throughout the Carolina record book, was the school’s all-time rushing leader for 28 years after his senior season. Wadiak rushed for 2,878 yards in his career. He led the team in scoring and rushing all four years he played. His number was retired in 1951.
No. 38 GEORGE ROGERS, RB, 1977-80
Considered the greatest player in school history, 1980 Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers had his No. 38 jersey retired during halftime ceremonies at Carolina’s final 1980 home game. Rogers was the first South Carolina player to have his jersey retired while still active at the school. Rogers was the first player chosen in the 1981 NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints. He was inducted into the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame in 1997.
No. 56 MIKE JOHNSON, OL, 1963-64
Mike Johnson, a 6-4, 226-pound offensive center from Church Hill, Tennessee, became gravely ill around Christmas time prior to the start of his junior season and the illness cut short a potentially great football career. While just a sophomore, Johnson served as the Gamecocks’ starting center over the final half of the 1964 campaign. His number 56 was retired following his death in 1965.