MARCUS HOOK — The ropes had been untied, the canvas had fallen and the camera phones had clicked, and it was Saturday in full sun, the statue honoring the greatest football player to ever come out of Delaware County.
For Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, it was perfect in every way. In every way except one.
“I think,” he said with a smile, “I look better than that.”
And laughing to himself, he also understood why the life-size bronze statue outside the Marcus Hook Community Center couldn’t have captured the spirit of the tribute better. No, it wasn’t because sculptor Jennifer Frudakis-Petry had fulfilled mandate #2 for the project, which was to treat the masterpiece in a certain way to ensure the soccer cleats were whites. It was because she had fulfilled mandate No. 1, which was to show Johnson in a moment of joy, the football in his right hand above his helmet, his legs bent inwards, as moving. The statue could have depicted Johnson running, or catching a ball, or dodging a tackle or any of the other skills that made him one of the NFL’s 100 Greatest Players of All Time . Instead, it captured him in his famous end zone celebration, the Funky Chicken.
“I’m very proud of that,” Johnson said. “Because for me football was fun. You worked hard. You played hard. really enjoy what you do.
“So when you’re doing all that, you have to have fun.”
Johnson, 70, made the trip from his home in Georgia for the Saturday ceremonies, which began with a breakfast for around 300 people at Lia’s Catering in Upper Chichester, then the unveiling at Marcus Hook in front of around 1,000 others friends and family. On cue, it inspired hours of stories from former teammates and neighbors, with Johnson laughing along with everyone, even those who were over the top, as they always are in meetings.
But Daily schedules Delco sportswriter and sports historian Harry Chaykun shared the most significant story of all, as it digs into the beginnings of what would make Johnson a legend. As the story goes, legendary referee Bill Reynolds caught Johnson celebrating in the end zone during a game a long time ago for Chichester High and mentioned it could result in a penalty. As the story goes, Johnson playfully advised Reynolds to load flags, as he expected to be spinning in the end zone all day.
“It could have been in youth football with the Crusaders,” Johnson said. “We came together, Bill and I. In fact, we entered the NFL the same year. Every time I saw it, we started to laugh about it – but not too much. We didn’t want anyone to know that we knew each other so well.
“But he always gave me a good shake,” Johnson added with a laugh, “whenever it was needed.”
Football ties between Delco’s sporting legends are strong, which is why Don Clune, who shared an All-Delco team with Johnson, was there Saturday, and so was decorated by former touring golf pro Ed Dougherty , former heavyweight contender John Poore, longtime professional football coach Ted Cottrell and Bill Manlove, Johnson’s coach at Widener and member of the College Football Hall of Fame, among dozens of others.
The idea, which was floated by a Delco sports panel including Jim “Boog” Laird, Jim Vankoski, Rich Pagano, Phil Damiani, Brent Hagwood, Cottrell and Chaykun, among others, was to use the statue in a campaign to land Johnson in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. If so, he could be the first player dedicated primarily as a punt and kick returner… and the last. Although Devin Hester is also in the running for a gold jacket, new NFL rules have largely extinguished the return for a touchdown.
“And that worries me,” said Johnson, who has returned six punts and two kickoffs for touchdowns in his career. “Because it’s such an integral part of the game. It can change the complexion of a game so quickly. It makes all the difference in the world. Losing that part of the game, I think, is a travesty.
“It’s to reduce the number of injuries, but some injuries just can’t be avoided. There are head injuries. But maybe that was the natural way of saying don’t play football. And you’re not going to quit football.
The NFL, long criticized as the No Fun League, opened up the game in other ways, and more players were allowed to show their personality. None, however, are as entertaining as Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, with the way he dodged tackles, scored touchdowns and danced in celebration.
“I’m an artist,” Johnson told the crowd on Saturday. “But I’m not going to sing for you today.”
He was, however, persuaded to do another Funky Chicken. As he did, football held aloft, he looked so much like the statue in the background, the one that had it all so well.
Contact Jack McCaffery at [email protected]