Enchanting People of New Mexico - Charley Johnson

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Episode 9 - Charley Johnson

Michael Swickard here. Welcome to Enchanting People of New Mexico sponsored by the Fresh Chile Company in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Our award-winning Hatch Green and Red Chile is from locally owned farms in Hatch, NM, The Chile Capital of the World. Hit subscribe to automatically get these Podcasts. Every Monday and Friday we have regular Historical and Cultural New Mexico Podcasts. Wednesdays, today, we celebrate people important to our area.

One of the interesting people of New Mexico is Charley Johnson came to our little slice of paradise almost by accident. Raised in Big Spring, Texas, he intended to play football beyond high school. One problem: he got a football scholarship to Schreiner Institute which is now Schreiner University a private Presbyterian University in Kerrville, Texas. But the year Charley Johnson arrived the football program was cancelled. So Charley transferred to the College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts in Las Cruces, New Mexico which while he was a student changed its name to New Mexico State University. One problem. He couldn’t get a scholarship for football, so he got a scholarship for Aggie Basketball and an odd thing happened to him.

Now this is a little complicated in that in 1955 Dr. Roger Corbett was selected as the president of the college. He made sweeping changes including making the college a university and changing the name to New Mexico State University. He pledged to increase the football and basketball programs which had been lackluster at best. He hired a very successful coach Warren Woodson for what was then a large sum of money, 12,000 a year which would be 130,000 today with the computation of inflation over the years. Woodson, he did good except he could not find a quarterback that he liked. Basketball coach Presley Askew was talking with Woodson one day and mentioned he had a Texas born player that had great hands by the name of Charley Johnson. Warren Woodson watched him play Aggie basketball and then persuaded Charley to change sports, with a scholarship to be the Aggie quarterback. Football was Charley’s interest.

The Aggies had two consecutive wins in the Sun Bowl and Charley Johnson was the most valuable player in both Sun Bowl games. The Aggies had an unbeaten 11 and zero record in 1960 which they have not equaled since. A little trivia: He was the first player for the NMSU Aggies to have his jersey number – Number 33 – retired. And he graduated in 1961 with a perfect 4.0 grade point average with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Chemical Engineering.

The defining quality of Charley Johnson, besides having, as Presley Askew said, good hands was he really studied the game plan, the opponents and his own players. I was on a board with one of his players who played end and was a target for his passes. That person said that Charley Johnson spent his time on the field and off thinking about the game and what each player could and could not do. Therefore, when a play was called, it was for a serious reason. The effect was an undefeated season and a second win in the El Paso Sun Bowl. The professional scouts caught that he had good skills but a really first-class football mind for the position of quarterback.

Charley Johnson after the 1960 season at NMSU went to the NFL, the National Football League being drafted in the 10th round and had contract offers from both the San Diego Chargers and the St. Louis Cardinals. He selected St. Louis where the first year he struggled. His rookie season in 1961 he only got to pass the ball 13 times but then the next five years in St. Louis he was the starter and was voted to the NFL Pro Bowl in 1963. In 1966 he led the league with four 4th quarter comebacks for wins.

More trivia: Charley Johnson was featured on the Sports Illustrated cover twice, in December 1964 and in November 1965. Every time they wrote about Charley Johnson, NMSU was mentioned and the efforts of Presley Askew and Warren Woodson paid even better dividends.

Like with every high achieving person, Charley Johnson was a man for all seasons, not the meaning of the 1966 academy award meaning in that film but a man of all seasons in that football season, military season, business season, and teaching in higher education season he was the man of the hour. Starting with a highly competitive nature, Charley was a good athlete with a vision of what he was doing that was excellent.

In the National Football League he played for three teams and was successful with all three. His last team was the Denver Broncos, a team I personally enjoyed since I lived five years in the Denver area and suffered through those years of little success. Well, the Denver Broncos did have some success with their halfback Floyd Little, during the late 60s and early 70s.

Michael Swickard, Enchanting People of New Mexico. Each Wednesday we do a podcast on people who are special to New Mexico. Hit subscribe to automatically get these podcasts.

So in just a few minutes of celebrating Aggie Football Player Charley Johnson, there are so many other aspects to feature in the now 84 year old Charley Johnson. He was in Army ROTC, Reserve Officer Training Corp in Las Cruces while at New Mexico State University and while in the NFL he continued his academic studies so he delayed his officer commission until 1967 when he was called into active duty. From all the injuries he got on the football field he was deemed not fit for combat duty was stationed as a second lieutenant in the United States Army Reserve for two years and worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration NASA while also continuing as an NFL quarterback. A busy person, he worked on his doctoral degree while still playing football but got his masters and Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, again while also playing football at the highest level.

He left the St. Louis Cardinals and was traded to the Houston Oilers for two seasons and then spent the final four years of his career with the Denver Broncos. In the 1973 season with the Denver Broncos under Charley Johnson’s leadership, the Denver Broncos has their first winning season, ever. They went 7 and 5 with two ties like he took the NMSU Aggies to 11-0. He was an inspiration leader with this important moment of a winning season. Later Denver went on years later to the Super Bowl and finally a victory under then quarterback John Elway.

Charley Johnson is on the Denver Broncos Ring of Fame which was created in 1984 by team owner Pat Bowlen to honor former players and administrators who played significant roles in the franchise's history. Johnson was inducted onto the Ring of Fame in 1987.

With his Chemical Engineering degrees, masters and doctorate, he spent a couple decades in the Houston area working in Chemical Engineering both with companies he owned and for other businesses. He had and has both the theoretical aspects and the practical aspects of Chemical Engineering and Houston was a rich environment for those work areas.

To understand Charley Johnson’s professional activities, I need to do a little bit of explaining about Chemical Engineering. It is a field of study for at least 170 years that looks at the design and operation of Chemical Processing plants using the principle of chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics, and economics to improve the processing and transportation of energy materials. Houston, with all the chemical plants of different types and processes was a great place for all the possibilities of Charley Johnson’s professional career in engineering.

But the best was yet to come for us in New Mexico. For a second time Texan Charley Johnson packed up and came to Las Cruces. The first time was to play ball for the Aggies and get a degree, In the year 2000, he was hired by the NMSU College of Engineering as the head of the Chemical Engineering Department for four years and then became a professor of Chemical Engineering until his retirement in 2012.

But there is one more note. When Head Football Coach Hal Mumme was fired after a disappointing season, Dr. Charley Johnson was appointed as interim head coach during the search for a replacement. What a circle from coming to Las Cruces to play basketball for Presley Askew because there were no football scholarships available for him to a two time most valuable player in the El Paso Sun bowl to 15 years as an NFL quarterback on three teams to then be there to fill in as an interim coach of the NMSU Aggies.

One other inside look at Charley Johnson. It is my understanding that even today the engineering students at NMSU really value the Charley Johnson Football playing cards. It is the sign of respect they still have for him as a professor of Chemical Engineering.

Our area is fortunate that Charley Johnson moved here not once, but twice. We have been blessed by his athletic, managerial, and engineering and teaching abilities. He is one of our enchanting people of New Mexico. A man for all seasons of New Mexico.

Let me speak of something from our sponsor, The Fresh Chile Company of Las Cruces New Mexico. The 2023 Big Jim Hatch Green Chile special reserve varietal is coming. Varietal means that this product will only be made with Big Jim Chile, which is sweet and has a medium heat level. The harvest of the Big Jim crop is going on right now so the jars will be available in a few weeks. You can preorder this at The Fresh Chile Company website: freshchileco.com

Now I want to tell you about something just about to be put on the shelves of the Fresh Chile Company and yes, I had an advance taste of a jar which went fast in my household. It is Hatch Sweet Onion Dressing. Everyone knows that the Hatch Valley is renowned for its Chile since it is the Chile Capital of the World. Onions from the Hatch Valley and surrounding fields are some of the sweetest of all well-known varieties and sweeter than most.

This Hatch Sweet Onion Dressing combines those Hatch Sweet Onions with avocado oil and our very own Green Chile Dijon Mustard to create a dressing that’s so good you can marinate and baste with it as well as douse your salads and fruit with it. Coming very soon. I certainly will mention it on the podcasts when it is on the shelf and ready to be ordered.

Michael Swickard here. This is the Enchanting People of New Mexico. Thank you for your time today. We will always have lots of News and stories about New Mexico for you on these Podcasts. If you have something you want me to talk about in a future podcast, write to: michael@freshchileco.com The same is true if there is someone you would like me to talk about who was or is important to our little slice of paradise. Have a great rest of your day. Oh yes and eat plenty of that good Hatch Valley Chile. Like I always say, “Some Chile is good, more is better.” Bye for now.

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