“For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
“The saddest of these, ‘What might have been.”
I take some liberty with Whittier’s mournful verse of failure, but none who ever put his hands around a football lived it out to a more miserable conclusion than Randy Johnson. Randolph Klaus Johnson, his headstone will read, if ever one marks his final resting place.
Randy Johnson was the Atlanta Falcons’ first quarterback. (That was 1966.) Tall, athletically lean, handsome and short on self-discipline. He came out of Texas A&I, in Kingsville (now Texas A&M-Kingsville.) His fine structure and striking features generated comparisons to some of the finest quarterbacks who preceded him in the NFL.
“He has that Joe Namath look about him, don’t he?” one scout said. “Some say he’s a lot like (Don) Meredith.”
Don Heinrich and Tom Braatz scouted him for the Falcons, and it could have been either. But in either case, it was a resemblance misplaced, for in the end he lived up to neither heroic reference.
“He’s got a good football mind,” one of the reports read. “He’s no Einstein on the field, but he’ll improve as he goes.”
Johnson had pro scouts beating a path to Kingsville, where he was setting every new passing record in A&I history. He played in the Blue-Gray and Senior Bowl postseason games, and when the Falcons signed him, they considered worth a $l00,000 bonus—which I might say, was a nice figure in those days. He spent three full seasons as a Falcon, but never fulfilled all those projections. A Namath, a Meredith he wasn’t. He drifted around to three other NFL teams, and in the process his marriage—to a coed queen at A&I— came apart. In time, I’ve read, his wife disowned him, as did one of his two daughters by time I had a message from him.
That was about 15 years ago. Neighbors returning from Florida, where they had taken an interest in some real estate, brought home a message. Handwritten by pencil, on notebook paper. “Hope things are going well. Maybe we can get together some time and talk about old times.” It was signed by Randy Johnson.
Our getting together never took place. The next time I heard of him came in a clipping from a Florida newspaper. He had been found by a bridge, the conclusion being that he was contemplating suicide. He was broke, out of vodka money, and had dressed to go jump off the bridge, but was wavering. He was taken into the Bread of Life Mission, a church facility, and that was the last I’d heard of him until an NFL alumni group located him. By this time he was living in Brevard, NC, and when I dialed the phone number given me, the answer was: “The person you are trying to reach is not accepting calls at this time.”
The next time I heard of him, a police detective called from Brevard. Randy had been found dead in the cabin where he lived and police were trying to locate next of kin. He had been dead four days and there was no one to claim his body. Oh, dear God, “what might have been.”
That’s where I leave the devastating life story of Randy Johnson. Tall, handsome, in the likeness of Namath and Meredith, come to his end a derelict with no one to lay him to rest.