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NFL: Catching Up With Former Widener U. Star Billy “White Shoes” Johnson

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(Billy "White Shoes" Johnson celebrates a touchdown for the Houston Oilers.)

(Billy “White Shoes” Johnson celebrates a touchdown for the Houston Oilers.)

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DOWNINGTOWN, Pa. (CBS) – One of the most electric kick returners in the history of the NFL has been seen again recently in the Delaware Valley, where he served as an instructor at Football University, a camp for elite scholastic athletes that was held in Downingtown.

The storied career of Billy “White Shoes” Johnson started here at Chichester High School, in Boothwyn, Pa. and then at Widener University.  Eventually, Johnson was named punt returner on the NFL 75th Anniversary team.

Johnson, even at 5′ 9″, dominated as a running back who did it all at Widener (Division III).  He performed at such a high level that he was selected as a member of the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996.

So how does a talent like this end up at the Division III level?

“Obviously, my size!  (laughs)  If you saw a little skinny kid then at that time, you would have probably said, ‘Well, he could probably play Division III, but not Division I,’ ” he told KYW’s Matt Leon.  “And it was good.  When I met Coach (Bill) Manlove, I was done.  That was the end of my aspirations of going to a big school, because I felt as though he was the kind of coach I wanted to play for and he was the type of individual I would like to pattern my life after.”

You can hear Matt Leon’s full interview with Billy “White Shoes” Johnson in this CBS Philly SportsPod…

Johnson would finish his Widener career with 5,404 all-purpose yards, and he headed to the pros after setting nine NCAA records, twelve Middle Atlantic Conference records, and 24 school records.

He looks back on his time in Chester fondly:

“We had a bunch of good guys on that team that were solid individuals,” he says.  “And it came together as a family.  We really had a lot of fun playing.  That was the thing:  we challenged each other in practice.  But more importantly, I thought it was a good academic institution, too, because they didn’t play games.  It was the kind of school — it prepared you.  If I didn’t play football then I would’ve been prepared to go into coaching and teaching.  I can honestly say I have nothing but fond memories of going to Widener University.”

Despite his eye-popping success at Widener, Johnson wasn’t drafted until the 15th round, by the Houston Oilers in 1974.   However, it didn’t take long for him to show that he was NFL material.

“I think my speed helped me get noticed.  Then they saw I could catch the ball, because I was a running back in college, and that helped,” he recalls.

Johnson stepped right into a key role with the Oilers as a rookie.  He also showed he was ahead of his time as a showman.  The “White Shoes” nickname came from high school when he dyed his shoes white and he became one of the first players to turn heads with his end-zone celebrations.

“It was premeditated (laughs) when I first did it,” he says.  “After that it just happened.  It became a part of you.  But I never taunted anyone.  I always went to the end zone and got out of the way.”

Johnson would go on to score 35 touchdowns during 14 NFL seasons, eight of which came on kick and punt returns.

“(Kick returning) was a natural fit,” he says, “and if you were like me, you wanted that ball (laughs)!  You want to get the ball all the time, so kickoff, punt returns… I got the chance to run with the ball. That’s why I think it developed naturally for me.”

Johnson finished his career with 10,785 all-purpose yards and that spot on that NFL 75th Anniversary team.   His legendary career is a source of pride for him:

“I’m just glad that I had the opportunity to play in the National Football League, which people often dream of.”

Reported by Matt Leon, KYW Newsradio 1060

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