The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced its nominees for the 2023 class earlier this month, and former Houston Oilers wide receiver and returner Billy “White Shoes” Johnson was one of 25 semifinalists in the Seniors category.
A 15th-round pick of the Oilers in 1974, Johnson spent seven seasons with the team and is one the best returners in NFL history, ranking in the top 10 in punt return yards, yards per return and touchdowns.
Johnson also led the NFL in punt return touchdowns three times, punt return average twice, and he was a three-time Pro Bowler and once a First-Team All-Pro.
While he would obviously like to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, Johnson says the fact that he’s being mentioned at all is enough for him.
“Being mentioned as a Hall of Famer, that’s big-time, I think,” Johnson said to Jim Wyatt of Titans Online. “For me, I am just glad to be mentioned. I look at it as: The league doesn’t owe me anything. When I played, I played to have fun, and I enjoyed it. But it is good to be recognized among your peers.”
Johnson’s play on the field made him memorable enough, but his “Funky Chicken” touchdown dance cemented him as one of the most unforgettable players in franchise history.
“Hopefully, as a punt returner and a guy who enjoyed the game, I did something,” Johnson said. “They always want to talk about end zone dancing, for entertainment purposes. I just enjoyed it, and I am thankful that I was able to have the career I had and thankful I was able to play with the guys I played with. Those are the guys who helped make it happen, and I would be remiss if I didn’t say that.”
On top of his impressive return numbers and legendary touchdown celebration, Johnson also contributed as a wide receiver.
While he was fairly productive with the Oilers in that area, Johnson’s two best seasons as a receiver came during his time with the Atlanta Falcons, where posted 709 yards and four scores in 1983, and then career-highs with 830 yards and five touchdowns in 1985.
Before putting together a successful career, Johnson had plenty of doubters because of his size. In fact, the 5-foot-9 Johnson says he was even lighter than the 170 pounds teams had him listed at.
“There were some naysayers, because of my size, and because of where I went to school (Widener). But there were also people pulling for me because I was an underdog. I kind of looked at it as: I had everything to gain and nothing to lose. And I was willing to do whatever it took to stay around.
“Sometimes I played around 156 pounds,” Johnson added. “I tried to come into camp around 160-165, but in training camp [you lose weight]. But I was around big guys all the time, so I didn’t think of myself as a small guy.”
Johnson isn’t the only Oiler up for induction. He joins founder and long-time owner Bud Adams and former scout C.O. Brocato, both of whom are semifinalists in the Coach/Contributor category.
When speaking on Adams specifically, Johnson says it would be “a travesty” if he doesn’t get in.
“[Titans owner Amy Adams Strunk’s] dad, if Bud doesn’t go in, now that’s a travesty,” Johnson stated. “Here’s a guy who founded the old AFL, which parlayed into the old AFC, which parlayed into one of the better conferences in the NFL. I mean, c’mon, he was one of the guys who really got it started. If he doesn’t go in, there’s something wrong.
“For me, it would be fantastic if it happened. And don’t get me wrong – if it doesn’t, I am going to live life and enjoy myself, but boy, it would be nice to have that label. But make sure you give a plug for Bud, because I think he really deserves it also. Not just for Amy, but because what he did speaks for itself.”
In 1994, Johnson was named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team as a punt returner, and interestingly enough, he remains the only player on that team that isn’t in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Hopefully Johnson shakes that distinction with an induction in 2023, and hopefully that induction comes in tandem with Adams’.