State Your Case: Billy “White Shoes” Johnson


By Clark Judge

Talk of Fame Network

Quick question: Only one player on the NFL’s 75th anniversary team is not enshrined in Canton. Can you name him?

If you said, “Jerry Kramer,” you would be close. You would also be wrong.

No, it’s former return specialist Billy “White Shoes” Johnson – a guy who not only isn’t in the Pro Football Hall of Fame but who, in all likelihood, never will be.

And that’s not unfortunate. It’s downright wrong.

halloffameWe all know how difficult it is for special-teams performers to reach the Hall. Until Ray Guy was inducted in 2015, there was only one pure specialist in Canton … and that was former kicker Jan Stenerud. Guy was the best punter in NFL history, someone who – like Johnson – was a member of the NFL’s 75th anniversary team.

Yet it took him nearly three decades to reach Canton, and then only on his eighth … and presumably last … try when his candidacy was resurrected by the Hall’s senior committee.

In doing that, the Hall corrected a wrong. Guy should have been admitted years ago if, for no other reason, than this: If he was so accomplished at his position that he was named to the 75th anniversary team by the Hall of Fame’s board of selectors, then how could that same board turn around and prevent his admittance?

In the end, of course, it couldn’t.

It’s the same argument we use with Kramer, who was chosen to the 50th anniversary team as the NFL’s starting guard. So you’re telling me there was no guard who was better … not just during his career, but over the first 50 years … and yet you won’t name him to the Hall? Someone must explain that one to me.

Better yet, explain it to Kramer.

All I know about Billy “White Shoes” Johnson is that he was so good at what he did … and what he did was return punts and kicks … that he not only was chosen to a very exclusive club by a committee that won’t let him in Canton, but he was named to two all-decade teams.

Two. The 1970s and 1980s.

Now you can tell me that he was someone whose numbers don’t stack up against, say, a Gale Sayers as a return specialist … or a Devin Hester … and you would be right. You can also tell me that he didn’t do anything extraordinary after returning to the NFL from Canada in the 1980s, and you would be right again.

But that’s not the point. This is: The guy was held in such high regard that the Hall of Fame named him to a team that includes nothing but Hall of Famers – except for a solitary figure.

Billy “White Shoes” Johnson.

The Hall has a history of barring its doors to virtually all special teamers. Steve Tasker can’t get in. Brian Mitchell can’t get in. Heck, the league’s all-time scoring leader, Morten Andersen, can’t get in, though he’s been a finalist the past three years.

Then there’s “White Shoes,” the MVP of the 1975 Pro Bowl, a time when that team … and that game … meant something.

Yes, he was flamboyant, with his “Funky Chicken” dance routine – one of the first touchdown celebrations – making him a popular figure with Houston Oilers’ fans. But he was also damned good at what he did – returning five punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns in his first four years and adding a sixth punt return when he joined the Atlanta Falcons in 1983.

Maybe he wasn’t the greatest of all time, but he was good enough to be recognized as the greatest return specialist of the NFL’s first 75 years. And that’s good enough for me.

Critics complain that special teamers don’t belong in Canton because … well, because they’re not every-down players, that they’re only on the field for a handful of plays. And my response is: Then try to play a game without them. Better yet, eliminate the position. Neither has happened, and for good reason.

Now tell me why the board that named Billy “White Shoes” Johnson the greatest return man in the NFL’s first 75 years insists on ignoring him. There is no good reason for that.

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5 Comments

  1. bachslunch
    November 1, 2016
    Reply

    Interesting issue on special teams folks. Thus far, every KR in the HoF has had a good case as a player at a full time position (Gale Sayers and Jack Christensen, for two). Dedicated PKs have been honored on a limited basis (Jan Stenerud and sooner or later Morton Andersen) and there are several combo candidates in (Lou Groza and George Blanda for two). There’s only one dedicated punter in (Ray Guy) and combo types like Yale Lary and Sammy Baugh. Getting in a KR whose only argument is returning will be tough. Devin Hester probably has the best argument, though Billy Johnson certainly merits a look among such folks. Am on the fence on this issue, though it wouldn’t be the worst thing to induct the best couple I guess. Can see either side here.

    • November 1, 2016
      Reply

      Should be in. Cant punish him for the position he plays. Did it better than anyone for 75 years. If you dont believe the position merits HOF consideration then remove it from the anniversary team. Or eliminate the position from the game. Neither has happened.

  2. Rick Gosselin
    November 1, 2016
    Reply

    Special teamers are considered part-time players, one-down players. That seems to be the issue. Offensive and defensive players, anyway, are considered three-down players (whether they play three downs or not)

  3. Jeff
    November 2, 2016
    Reply

    I can see why specialists are left out. If you have to whittle it down to 25, then 15 and ultimately just 5, chances are you’re going to choose an every down player over specialists, and I probably would too…and that’s a shame. Perhaps there shouldn’t be a ton of pure specialists in the HOF, but there probably should be more than just two (although I think Andersen and Vinatieri will make it eventually). I’d rather see some really deserving specialists get consideration than a ton of new contributors, personally. Would the Hall consider something like adding a special teams finalist along with the seniors every 5 years or something? As for White Shoes, there have been better returners at this point but he really was great – one of my favorites as a kid. He definitely fulfills the “Fame” part of “Hall of Fame,” ended up with some highly impressive honors and even though they’ve been surpassed, held some key career records when he retired. I don’t expect it to ever happen but I’d be OK with it if he were inducted.

    • November 3, 2016
      Reply

      Jeff, thx for writing. Dont expect it to happen, either. But how can a guy be on the 75th anniversary team and not in the Hall? Illogical. Wont be a separate wing for specialists or separate category. Unfortunately, theyre doomed as far as the Hall goes. Too many voters dont embrace guys who are on field for handfuls of plays … and while I understand I dont agree. White Shoes should be in. So should Andersen. Vinatieri will get there, as you said. But thats it? We must recognize a vital part of the game. Too many years spent with Ray Guy … Ray Guy!!!! …waiting his turn.

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