A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor-in-Chief...
A farewell to ‘Hands
Inside of it and on the football field, where he excelled, he simply was “Hands.”
A terrific player, Gary Johnson, who doubled as a good guy, great teammate, a true family man with a winning smile, and a genuine son of the South.
Local publicist Rick Schloss, then young and unattached, was working in public relations for the Chargers in the late 1970s when the affable Johnson asked if he’d like to come to his house for Thanksgiving dinner.
“I said, ‘Sure, what are you having?’â€‰” Schloss recalled. “Hands said, ‘Possum.’ I politely did a U-turn on dinner.”
Hank Bauer, Johnson’s former teammate, laughed when told the story. “That was Hands,” Bauer said. “Pure South.”
Gary Johnson died Wednesday in his hometown of Shreveport, La., never recovering from a stroke he suffered July 20. He was 57. And if anyone expects to hear anything negative about arguably the best defensive tackle in Chargers history, you’re going to have to travel to the ends of the Earth, and that may not be far enough.
“Damn,” Dan Fouts, the Hall of Fame quarterback and Johnson’s teammate for years, was saying from his Oregon home. “That’s the thing about Hands; I was just telling my wife.”
“Everybody liked Hands. He was just a gentle giant, a great guy â€” although I’m sure opposing quarterbacks didn’t think that highly of him. Hands was a real smart guy. Just a huge loss.”
The news comes shortly after the death of Don Coryell, the head coach during much of Johnson’s time with the Chargers and architect of the most exciting run in franchise history.
“Gary Johnson … boy, a great football player and a great guy,” said Willie Buchanon, who played cornerback for the Chargers during that era. “He was like a brother. Too young. Too young. The Chargers family has taken a pretty big hit this past month.”
A star at Grambling, Johnson was the Chargers’ first pick in the 1975 draft, widely considered one of the best in NFL history. Conducted by head coach Tommy Prothro, that draft also included Hall of Fame defensive end Fred Dean, defensive tackle Louie Kelcher, cornerback Mike Williams, offensive tackle Billy Shields, safety Mike Fuller and running back Rickey Young, who later would be traded to Minnesota for Pro Bowl guard Ed White.
“The Chargers remain the only team in history to have three defensive linemen (Johnson, Dean and Kelcher) start in a Pro Bowl,” Fouts said. “What a defensive line that was, when you think about it.”
Johnson played with the Chargers from 1975-84, before being traded to San Francisco, where he won a Super Bowl ring with the 49ers. He was a first team All-Pro for San Diego in 1980 and ’81 and made the Pro Bowl four times (’80, ’81, ’82 and ’83).
In 1980, he recorded 17Â½ sacks, still a Chargers record.
“It’s been a bad year, Coach and Hands,” Bauer said. “People always slammed our defense, but one year we led the league in sacks and turnovers, and a lot of that was Hands.”
“The defensive line was the foundation of our championships. The personalities were all so diverse, and yet we were so close, still close to this day. Hands had a great sense of humor; he was like the little brother of the defensive line and Louie ran the crew, the big Texan.”
Kelcher, said to be extremely distraught over his friend’s death, could not be reached for comment.
Johnson was given the nickname “Big Hands” by a teacher in eighth grade when he went to pick up a basketball in P.E. class in Bossier City, La. The moniker stuck, and as Johnson said before he was inducted into the Breitbard Hall of Fame in 2007, “I can’t put my hands on a counter without people saying, ‘You’ve got big hands.’â€‰”
Before the Breitbard honor, Johnson was voted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997 and the Chargers Hall of Fame in 1999. He was not an enormous tackle, standing 6-feet-2 and weighing 250 pounds when he came to the Chargers.
But he was incredibly strong and there have been few defensive tackles quicker. “He was such a fit guy, always in great shape,” said three-time Pro Bowl guard Doug Wilkerson, who had to go against Johnson every day in practice.
“He was an exceptional pass rusher, so quick. It helped the offensive line a lot going up against those guys every day. After those guys, we felt we could block anybody.
“What a good guy. What a fabulous football player. What a great teammate. What a great man.”
Funeral arrangements are pending.