The Sad Demise Of The Atlanta Falcons’ First QB

If this had been just about anyone else’s story, it would have been a one-paragraph obituary in small newspaper, and that would have been that. But Randy Johnson’s passing is worth noting because of how little it can take for any of us to fall, no matter how far we have climbed.

Randy Johnson

Johnson, a star quarterback for Sam Houston High in San Antonio and Texas A&I (now Texas A&M-Kingsville), was the Atlanta Falcons’ first starting quarterback, in their inaugural season of 1966. He played 10 seasons in the NFL, including stints with the Giants, Redskins and Packers, and even played one year in the World Football League. But Johnson passed away on Sept. 16 a virtual recluse, broke and living in the backyard shed of an acquaintance’s family.

An excellent article in Sunday’s ATLANTA JOURNAL CONSTITUTION takes us through his charmed early life, and how alcoholism and depression eventually wrecked relationships with his three children, his ex-wife and his friends.

When Johnson died in this small North Carolina town Sept. 16, the 65-year-old was as alone as a body could be.

As he was lying on the dirty, worn carpet of the shed that had sheltered him for nearly two years, a gallery of strangers stared down at him. None of the photos that lined two walls of cheap dark paneling belonged to him.

In his wallet there was no money, just the yellowed currency of an athlete’s past: five playing cards picturing a confident quarterback in various incarnations with Atlanta, New York and Washington.

How could the strong, smiling image on those cardboard tributes be the same sad figure on this floor, wasted away to less than 120 pounds by disease and decades of substance abuse and self-loathing?

The answer lives somewhere in the darkness between the glory of his football days and the abyss of his dying days. For Johnson was very good at keeping his misery to himself.

“He had been on a path of destruction for a long time,” said his ex-wife, Pennye Wheeler. “I never understood why, because he had everything. He really had everything. I don’t know what happened.”

“He didn’t leave any tracks,” said Alex Hawkins, a teammate during that first Falcons season.

Randy Johnson football card

Johnson died weighing less than 120 pounds, due to sickness and alcohol abuse. He had been living in Brevard, N.C., where hardly anyone knew anything about his football past.

From the AJC message board:

I knew Randy long after his football days. He could not get past being on top & falling – He made a lot of mistakes with his family, friends, and life in general and he knew it – most of all he loved his daughters & thought that by staying out of there life he was saving them from the enbarrasment of being their Dad – He was humble about he was its so sad what fame can do to a person – There will always be a place in my heart for Randy!!!!! — D De

Many comments on the AJC message thread tell of how bad those first offensive lines were for the Falcons, and how Johnson would take a beating every Sunday, but continue to pick himself up without complaining. In the end, however, he had been knocked down one time too many.