Old Vol Bill Johnson has died

Marvin Westwestwords

We’re running short of old Vol football all-Americans.


Bill Johnson, prominent two-way guard on the 1956 Tennessee championship team and captain a year later, died Sunday at his home in Sparta. He was 84.

Bill Johnson

William Marvin Johnson was famous as a Volunteer. The Football Writers of America chose him as an all-American. He was also an academic all-American. There have been only two others with that dual honor – Bob Johnson in 1967 and Peyton Manning in 1997.

Johnson was a UT Torchbearer.

“Bill was a leader in the classroom, on campus and on the field while he was a student,” said Dr. Joe Johnson, former UT president.

After earning a degree in finance, Bill was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army. After that, he became a director and eventually president of the family-owned bank in Sparta. He was active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He was a director of the East Tennessee chapter of the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame.

He was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 1980.

Dr. Johnson praised Bill Johnson’s service to the university. He was on the Athletics Board for two years before being elected to the Board of Trustees in 1985. He was vice-chair of the board from 1987-1991. He retired in 1996.

In his spare time, he was a gentleman farmer and community leader.

There are some good stories from the good, old days.

Bill’s father allowed the son to think for himself in the recruiting process. One day he did ask about college plans. Bill said he was going to Georgia Tech and play for Bobby Dodd.

The senior Johnson said Dodd was a fine coach and Georgia Tech was certainly a good school.

The father then asked the son what he was planning to do after he graduated. Bill said he had always thought he would work with the family at the bank.

“Son, if that’s the case, you may want to reconsider. If we go through the accounts ledger, I know we will find it full of people who love Tennessee football. To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t one single Georgia Tech fan on the books. More to the point, I don’t know of any in all of White County.”

That might have helped the Volunteers edge out the Yellow Jackets for the football services of Bill Johnson.

Alabama had a 1957 Johnson story. Crimson Tide scouts decided the way Johnson lined up on offense was a tipoff to what play Tennessee was going to run. Tide practice was based on that key. There was no way Alabama would lose the game.

Two days before kickoff, Johnson suffered an ankle injury. Headlines proclaimed the all-American guard was going to miss the game. Tennessee won, 14-0.

Old Vol tackle Jim Smelcher has a story, too.

“Kentucky game, 1956, Lou Michaels, one of the best players in Kentucky history, broke Bill Johnson’s face mask. Bill got up and came to the huddle with a piece of plastic sticking through his cheek. He didn’t realize what had happened.”

Doctors repaired the damage. Johnson played against Vanderbilt in the next game.

“Bill was a great blocker at 195 pounds. He was a captain, a good player, a good person. We’re running a little short on men like him.”

So said Tommy Bronson, Tennessee fullback, 1955-57.

“Bill and I were roommates for those three years. Bill was a great football player and a great human being.”

Some of us who saw their double-team blocking smiled and agreed Bronson and Johnson made tailback John Majors famous. John was pretty sure it was the other way around.

The Johnson-Bronson tie runs deeper. Tommy’s son, Tom, married one of Johnson’s daughters, Carolyn.

“Our full life span was linked,” said Bronson. “Bill and I talked on Saturday. I am certain he understood. I told him that I accepted the family responsibilities we had shared.”

Interesting that, for this column, nobody said anything about the Majors-Doug Dickey-Phillip Fulmer-Joe Johnson-Bill Johnson controversy.

Johnson was a fourth-generation member of the First United Methodist Church in Sparta. He served the denomination as a trustee of Martin College in Pulaski, as director of the Tennessee Conference United Methodist Foundation and as a lay preacher.

Bill is survived by his wife, Rena, and daughters Cynthea Amason, Cathryn Rolfe and Carolyn Bronson and their families.

There will be a visitation from 4-7 p.m. on Thursday at Bilbrey Farms in Sparta. A celebration of life is planned for 2 p.m. Friday at Duck Pond Manor. Bronson, Carl Johnson, Fulmer, Gary Wyant and Doug Matthews are among the honorary pallbearers.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com

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