Robert Johnson will forever be remembered in Aynor High School football lore.
He was the first Blue Jacket to ever score a touchdown, after all.
On Friday, Johnson passed away from natural causes at the age of 87, leaving behind a legacy that included farming, sports and family.
“My dad grew up on a farm and he knew a mule and a plow more than he knew most things,” one of his sons, Dean Johnson, said. “But he wanted to play sports and he loved basketball and he loved playing football and he loved the escape that sports provided him from a hard life of farming and working in a Depression era.”
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When he first started playing football, Johnson would practice right after school before running 7 miles home, where more rigorous activity awaited, his son said.
“My dad was the youngest of his family of eight children and he would practice after school and he ran home every day because he had to plow the fields,” Dean said.
Aynor High opened in 1926 but didn’t have its first official football team until 1947. With the first squad in place that year, the Blue Jackets headed off to Loris for their inaugural game. Before the game even began, the team ran into a problem.
“They didn’t know how to put on their uniforms. They didn’t know how to put the pads in,” Dean said. “They actually drove to Loris and the coach asked the Loris team if they could help the Aynor boys put on their uniforms in the locker room and they did.”
As added motivation, Jim Wall, Aynor’s inaugural coach, told the players that whomever scored a touchdown would have $5 waiting for them. Johnson was the first to cash in and the game wound up being a 12-all tie.
“It’s a great story and I’m very proud of him,” Dean said.
However, a year later Johnson ran away from home, all the way to Asheville, North Carolina, his son said.
“My grandfather finally drove to Asheville and he begged my dad to come home and my dad said ‘I’ll only come home on the condition that I can play sports at Aynor High School.’” Dean said. “And he allowed him to come home and he never whipped him again, he never made him run home again to a mule and a plow.”
As a youth, Johnson did whatever it took to be able to play sports. In those days, games were played on Saturdays so the community could come watch, and Johnson and other athletes would go through a trap door of the gymnasium and “walk up steps to take coal and wood to burn and heat the gym with wood furnaces.”
“My dad would go out there on Saturdays before games and he would help light and stoke the fires to warm the gymnasium so people could come and watch them play,” Dean said. “So many players did that.”
After high school, Johnson joined the Air Force and served in the Korean War. Once discharged, he returned to Galivants Ferry, where he manned the farm and helped his wife Shirley raise their two boys, Dean and Eric.
“My dad was a kind and giving dad. He loved the dirt and he loved the land where he lived and he loved home,” Dean said. “He wanted my brother and I to not have to be farmers and he worked so that he could save so we could go to college.”
Like their mother, both sons went into teaching, careers their father’s hard work paved the way for, Dean said.
“He wanted us to be able to have more and have the opportunity to be more than he did as a kid who had to run home to a horse and plow in a Depression era where they didn’t have anything,” he said.
In 2007, Johnson was among the seven players and one cheerleader from the inaugural Aynor football team who were still living, and they were honored during a 60-year anniversary at a Blue Jackets football game.
“He really enjoyed that,” Dean said.
Dean said his father loved going to games but was unable to be intricately involved with the football program after high school because he had to tend to the farm. Nonetheless, he remained a Blue Jacket at heart.
“He was always a loyal Aynor fan,” Dean said. “He loved sports.”
Johnson is survived by sons Dean and Eric; sister Jacqueline Montgomery; and two grandchildren, Jaycie Johnson and Reid Johnson.
Visitation will be held from 10 a.m.-11 a.m. Monday at Johnson Funeral Home in Aynor. Graveside services will be held at 11:30 a.m. at Aynor Cemetery with Rev. Joyce Murphy officiating. An online guest book is available at johnsonfuneralhomeaynor.com.