For the past several decades, the NFL has been called the “No Fun League.”
Regardless of the type of action on the field, players are frequently penalized for showing outward displays of emotion during the course of a game.
One false move to celebrate, and possibly berate, the opponent could result in a yellow penalty flag for excessive celebration.
With each penalty, fans heap disappointment on the powers that be for the lack of authentic emotion in the game.
They would rather see their favorite athlete’s personality instead of robots.
Billy “White Shoes” Johnson sure can relate.
When he scored touchdowns as a member of the Houston Oilers and Atlanta Falcons, Johnson would break out his “Funky Chicken” dance.
— Sports Days Past (@SportsDaysPast) July 23, 2019
His groove ended when the league began imposing penalties and fines for celebrating.
However, Johnson didn’t need to score touchdowns to get the fan base excited.
His ability to make big plays as a receiver and returner brought fans to their feet.
This is the story of Billy “White Shoes” Johnson.
Early Life and Birth of a Nickname
William “Billy” Arthur Johnson was born on January 27, 1952 in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania.
Growing up in a small town, Johnson had to mind his P’s and Q’s, especially since his father was a police sergeant.
He didn’t mind, though, because he felt fortunate to be raised well.
“I was blessed,” Johnson said in 2020. “Having good mentors coming up. Not to say I wasn’t a knucklehead at times, but I was fortunate to learn from other people’s mistakes. Learn from how other people had success with how they went about their jobs, their attitude and demeanor. I just tried to follow some good people.”
As he reached his teens, Johnson began playing sports including football, baseball, basketball and track.
He was a star at Chichester High School in Boothwyn, Pennsylvania.
When he watched football on Saturdays and Sundays, Johnson became a fan of Michigan State quarterback Jimmy Raye as well as New York Jet quarterback Joe Namath.
What really drew his interest in Namath were his white shoes.
Johnson was so captivated that he decided he wanted to play with his own white shoes.
“We had a nice shoe guy, we called them cobblers at the time, he was an Italian guy,” Johnson said. “He was really good. We’d just gotten some leather shoes. He did them and they looked like they were brought. He dyed two pair. I had one for practice and one for games.”
Johnson was a little nervous about wearing shoes that would draw attention to him.
He played for an old school coach that liked things his way or not at all.
However, as the season progressed, Johnson realized his crusty coach didn’t really have an opinion of his shoes.
“Had a good game,” Johnson said. “He (Johnson’s coach) never said anything else that year, over the next two years. He didn’t mind at all. I just said that they make me run faster, and he said ‘OK.’ That was the only thing I could come up with.”
From then on, Johnson wore his white shoes and put on a display every time he was on the field.
Even at a diminutive 5’9, Johnson’s stature grew and he was soon pursued by a number of colleges.
“I had a few real big schools after me,” Johnson said. “One of them used to call my father on his job. He was a police officer. He was a sergeant at the time. Local area schools. Some good schools.”
Johnson was interested in Penn State, but Joe Paterno shied away from Johnson’s small frame.
“He just thought I was too small,” Johnson said.
Another deterrent for many of the colleges was Johnson’s desire to play football and run track.
However, a tiny school from Chester, Pennsylvania had no issue with his request.
A special THANK YOU to College Football Hall of Fame member, Widener Hall of Fame member & NFL All-Pro Billy "White Shoes" Johnson for speaking to our team this evening and sharing his story with our student athletes! Billy is the true meaning of "Pride" and hard work!#PTC #COTP pic.twitter.com/VzFPqfi72y
— Widener Football (@Widener_FB) September 14, 2020
Johnson heard from coach Bill Manlove at Widener College who visited Johnson and told him Widener would love to have him.
Manlove’s personal nature swayed Johnson to attend the Division III school.
“…when I met coach Manlove, and that’s how I really, for me, ended up going to Widener,” Johnson said.
Star at Widener and a Funky Chicken
After receiving the blessing of Coach Manlove, Johnson broke out the white shoes for his Widener playing career.
Not too long into his collegiate career, Johnson decided to have a little more fun.
He wanted to break up the routine of a typical touchdown with a little flair.
“I decided that if I scored, I was going to dance,” Johnson said. “You know how guys are, if you don’t do it and you talked all of that trash, they are going to hold your feet to the fire. So, I said I’m going to dance.”
His next decision was what type of dance to display for the masses.
After a short conversation with some teammates, Johnson had an idea.
“I think ‘Soul Train’ was out at the time. It was like ’72 when it started. I’m going to dance. What are you going to do? I didn’t know, but you watch this.”
“So, the easiest thing for me was to do the ‘Funky Chicken’ by Rufus Thomas,” Johnson said. “So, I did it and didn’t think anything of it. It was cool.”
The dance brought the home crowd to their feet and suddenly Johnson was a star.
As the dance became more popular, he tinkered a little to get the fans more engaged.
“I would bow to the crowd,” Johnson said. “Then, I would do a split and then all kinds of stuff.”
During his time at Widener, Johnson had plenty of opportunities to dance.
By the time he graduated, he had set over 20 program records.
— Widener Alumni (@WidenerAlumni) October 20, 2021
Johnson also broke nine all-time NCAA records and 12 Middle Atlantic Conference records.
The Funky Chicken was on display a whopping 62 times from touchdowns during Johnson’s college career.
He rushed for 3,737 yards and racked up 5,404 all-purpose yards.
White Shoes was named All-American in both 1972 and 1973 by the Associated Press and the American Football Coaches Association.
Although he was at a small school, NFL scouts were aware of Johnson.
However, they had the same concerns Penn State’s Paterno had a few years earlier.
Johnson hadn’t grown any taller.
He was scorching earth, but it was at a tiny DIII school.
Could he really make it in the NFL?
Drafted by the Oilers
Apparently, the Houston Oilers thought so and took Johnson with the 365th overall pick in the 15th round of the 1974 NFL Draft.
Although he was a low draft pick, Johnson was ecstatic to prove his worth at the highest level.
“It was probably one of the best feelings I’ve ever had,” Johnson said in 2016. “Here I am, a small guy from a small school, getting an opportunity. And I knew that just because you’re drafted, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get to play in the NFL. But I was getting the chance to live what people dream about. And for me it was never a matter of, ‘I’ve got a chance, and that’ll be it.’ I really felt, deep down within, that I had the ability to play in the NFL.”
When Johnson arrived in Houston, most of the Oilers were taking part in a players’ strike.
That gave him the perfect opportunity to display his talent to the coaches.
“It gave me and all of the rookies a chance to get a better look,” Johnson said.
Johnson quickly noticed that the practices in the NFL with head coach Sid Gillman were much more intense than his college days.
“When I (went) to Houston, we went for something like 50 straight double-days with (coach) Sid Gillman,” said Johnson. “He was a taskmaster. He would bring guys in on the bus. Right after that, you’d see 100 guys go out. Then you’d see another bus come in.”
Johnson’s hard work and determination paid off when he made the team.
As his rookie year began, Johnson decided to break out his routine during the preseason.
Super B-Day to Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, who elevated the touchdown celebration to an American art form. pic.twitter.com/eUGr2K8Vr0
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) January 27, 2019
In a game against the Steelers, he scored a touchdown and danced a jig.
“We did an end-around. I’ll never forget that,” Johnson said. “You know how fast they are in the NFL. If you’re not careful, they’ll psych you out. When I finally out ran the angles … I guess that boosted my confidence. I got in the end zone and I danced. Man, the people of Houston loved it. I had fun.”
Johnson briefly worried about what his coaches would say.
However, he soon found out that they weren’t concerned, as long as it was the result of something positive.
“I went past (defensive coordinator) Bum (Phillips),” Johnson said. “Bum said, ‘Well, shoot, if that is what it takes to get into the end zone, I expect to see more of it.”
In his rookie year, Johnson started five games and caught 29 balls for 388 yards and two touchdowns.
He also rushed for a third score and had 409 punt return yards and 785 kick return yards.
Johnson Shines in Houston
In 1975, Phillips took over as head coach and allowed Johnson to continue with his dancing.
That season, White Shoes started every game and hauled down 37 passes for 393 yards and a score.
He also picked up 612 punt return yards for a league-leading 15.3 yards per average and three touchdowns and 798 kick return yards with another score.
Johnson was voted to his first Pro Bowl and selected as a First-Team All-Pro after the year based on his electric return game.
In 1976, Johnson corralled 47 passes for 495 yards and four touchdowns and 403 punt return yards and 579 kick return yards.
1977 was another banner year for Johnson.
Happy birthday to former #Oilers WR Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, who turns 68 today. A 15th-round steal in the 1974 draft, Johnson brought immediate excitement to Houston with his electrifying play and the Funky Chicken dance when scoring TDs. Johnson spent 7 seasons in Houston pic.twitter.com/jG74SuG4Az
— 𝕃𝕦𝕧 𝕐𝕒 𝔹𝕝𝕦𝕖 (@BudsOilers) January 27, 2020
Although he did not start a game at receiver, he caught 20 passes for 412 yards and three scores.
Johnson was voted to his second Pro Bowl and received a second First-Team All-Pro nod on the strength of his 539 punt return yards and league-leading two scores and 15.4 yards per return average .
He also returned 25 kicks for 630 yards and another score.
During the 1978 season, Johnson sustained a knee injury which limited his playing time for the next two years.
The timing of the injury couldn’t have been worse.
In ‘78, the Oilers returned to the postseason for the first time since 1969.
Houston advanced to the AFC Championship before being blown out by Pittsburgh 34-5.
It was the same result for the Oilers in 1979.
After an 11-5 regular season, the team faced the Steelers again in the AFC title game only to be defeated 27-13.
Johnson saw the field a bit more in 1980 as a backup receiver.
Since he was still bothered by his injury, he did not return any punts or kicks.
However, Johnson did start seven games and had 31 receptions for 343 yards and two touchdowns.
When the ‘80 season concluded, Houston released Johnson after seven seasons.
Brief Stop in the CFL then Signed by Atlanta
With NFL teams scared off by his knee injury, Johnson was signed by the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League in 1981.
Montreal was a 3-13 team, but Johnson shined with 65 receptions for 1,060 yards, five touchdowns and 597 punt return yards.
His lone year in the CFL showed NFL teams that he still had the skills to be a pro.
Atlanta decided to take a chance on Johnson and signed him before the 1982 season.
That year, he only had two receptions for 11 yards as a backup.
However, Johnson also returned punts again and had 273 yards on nine returns.
The following season, the coaching staff got Johnson more active in the game plan and he made the most of it.
Even as the team finished 7-9 in coach Dan Henning’s first season, White Shoes had a career-high 64 receptions for 709 yards and four scores.
This @AtlantaFalcons legend has ALWAYS been a fan favorite!
— Antwon Smith (@FatboiSlim_21) September 5, 2021
He added 489 punt return yards and another score.
Johnson’s breakthrough year led to a third Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro selection as well as being named NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
In 1984, the Falcons began to taper Johnson’s time as a returner.
He caught 24 passes that season for 371 yards and three scores.
However, he could no longer break out the Funky Chicken.
After sacking quarterbacks and making big defensive plays, Gastineau would shake and shimmy.
The league grew tired of it and forbade any such celebratory moves then and in the future.
Billy “White Shoes” Johnson🏈
— Goat Jerseys (@GoatJerseys) November 29, 2019
That meant Johnson had to stop as well, or be subject to fines and penalties that could hurt his team.
Johnson shrugged off the new rule by catching 62 balls in 1985 for 830 yards and five plainly celebrated touchdowns.
1986-1988 and Retirement
Despite a good year in 1985, the Falcons reduced Johnson’s role significantly beginning in 1986.
For the next two years, Johnson had a total of 14 receptions for 141 yards.
He was released and signed by Washington in 1988.
However, after a season that saw him appear in one game, Johnson retired.
In 14 years in the league, Johnson had 337 total receptions for 4,211 yards and 25 touchdowns.
He added 3,317 yards and six touchdowns on punt returns and 2,941 yards and two scores on kick returns.
Johnson was a three-time Pro Bowler, three-time First-Team All-Pro, Comeback Player of the Year and a member of the NFL’s 1970s’ and 1980s All-Decade teams, and the 75th Anniversary and 100th Anniversary All-Time teams.
Billy “White Shoes” Johnson is one of the 6 specialists selected to the #NFL100 All-Time Team!
👟 1977 All-Pro, 3x Pro Bowl selection
👟 Career: 123 kick returns, 2,941 KR yards, 2 KR TD, 6 PR TD
👟 23.9 yards per kick return pic.twitter.com/2qrdRZ57nq
— NFL (@NFL) December 7, 2019
Since retiring, Johnson has stayed busy and found himself in the limelight on various occasions.
He has spent time in the Falcons organization as an assistant strength and conditioning coach.
Johnson was honored in 1996 with induction in the College Football Hall of Fame due to his exploits at Widener.
Johnson is currently the only member of the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team who is not also in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Could someone please explain to me how Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, a member of both the NFL’s 75th & 100th anniversary teams, has never been discussed as a #HOF finalist!?
(BTW: He’s only player from the NFL’s 75th team NOT in Canton)@KevG163 @Super70sSports @80sFootballCard 🤷♂️ pic.twitter.com/ugmCI29nY8
— TB (@tonybarnack) July 17, 2020
Ever the competitor, Johnson has competed in sprints for Masters Track and Field events.
Most recently, he has been an assistant coach at Duluth High School in Duluth, Georgia.
Johnson enjoys working with youth and has imparted wisdom for football and life.
“There’s always one or two (players) where, seemingly, a light goes on and you can sit down and talk with them and get them on the right track,” Johnson said in 2016. “Some of these young men, it’s amazing, they think they know it all, but they don’t. And they’re looking for something to grab hold of that’s positive. So I just try to provide that direction.
I would like to think (the kids are motivated by my NFL experience), but I don’t harp on the fact that I played and how long I played. I just tell them I was given an opportunity and I took advantage of it to the best of my ability — and what’s to say that they can’t do it when that opportunity arises, too? But they’ve got to position themselves in a way that they’ll get that chance. Everybody talks, but they don’t have a clue what it takes, and I tell them it starts right now.”
The No Fun League continues to frustrate fans and players alike.
However, the player with the “White Shoes” moniker and Funky Chicken dance thinks the league is still fun.
“People say it’s the No Fun League, but there’s still a lot of fun going on. Just not when you’re on the receiving end of a penalty for doing it.”
Johnson and his wife, Barbara, currently live in Georgia.
The couple has four children and eight grandchildren.