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A voice that carried: Church Hill's Johnson left lasting impact in life cut short

Douglas Fritz • Apr 25, 2020 at 10:30 PM

Neither an on-field battle with Steve Spurrier, a youthful friendship with Lloyd Carr nor the rare honor of having a number retired at South Carolina defines Mike Johnson’s life.

Those anecdotes have their place, but the bigger picture reveals a silenced voice that has found a way to carry for more than five decades. The Church Hill native died in 1965, but somehow — in a life far too short — managed to impact a future world he never saw.

“If I knew I had 1½ years to live and tried to make that much of an impact, I couldn’t,” his sister, Dixie Gilliam, said Monday. “I used to think it was Mike, but it was actually how God used him. When your mother tells you a dozen times the same thing and you don’t hear it, and then someone else tells you and you hear it, that’s how it was for me to realize God used him.”

VOICES CARRY

In the final game of the 1964 college football season, South Carolina was coming off its first two wins going into its game against rival Clemson. Trailing 7-3, the Tigers were trying to punch the ball into the end zone in the final minutes of the fourth quarter.

In those days, players performed on both sides of the ball and Johnson — a standout offensive lineman — was at linebacker. Gilliam said her brother was always a shy kid but not when he was on the football field. This was for a victory over Clemson, and Johnson wasn’t holding anything back. While the Gamecocks were pulling off the goal-line stand, Johnson was in full voice.

Gilliam was in the stands that day, not very close to the action on the field, but she heard it. Crystal clear.

“His voice carried,” Gilliam said. “We could hear him in the stands, yelling to the other boys. I said, ‘Hey! That’s Mike!’ ”

In a way, Johnson’s encouragement to his teammates continues to ring true from Columbia to Church Hill.

“There have been several articles written about how good Mike was,” Gilliam said. “But his real strength was the relationship he had with his teammates. That’s what really stood out.”

HEART OF THE MATTER

In a vicarious way, Johnson has been saving lives for many years.

Former teammate Stan Juk, a standout defensive back for the Gamecocks, was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in 1967. He also had three academic scholarship offers from Duke’s medical school.

Juk went on to become one of the most prominent cardiologists in South Carolina.

The decision between the NFL or medical school was swayed by Juk’s days playing alongside Johnson.

“He told me Mike was the reason he went into medicine,” Gilliam said.

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE

Johnson’s story presents a different perspective for what high school seniors face in today’s coronavirus world, especially those hopeful of athletic futures.

“We have to count the blessings,” Gilliam said. “Unfortunately life throws us big obstacles, but look at how many times the kids have gotten to play and how many times they enjoyed what they had.”

Johnson had the same post-graduation hopes as today’s athletic standouts. When he walked out of Church Hill High School in 1963, the sky seemed to be the limit. It wasn’t long before South Carolina teammates pegged him as a potential All-American and an NFL-level talent on the offensive line.

Former Dallas Cowboys star and NFL coach Dan Reeves, one of Johnson’s teammates in 1964, recently told The State newspaper in Columbia that Johnson “had instincts you look for” in a center and added, “He was so advanced for a young player at that position. Even in spring practice, you could tell he was going to be something special.”

Johnson was impressive in his first varsity season at South Carolina but never played again. A few months after his 20th birthday and back home in Church Hill, Johnson died after a battle with testicular cancer. He passed in his father’s arms while watching an elementary school football game involving his 11-year-old brother Bill.

A DIFFERENT PROGNOSIS

Johnson was born a few years too early for the type of disease that conquered his body. According to the Journal of Clinical Oncology, a diagnosis of metastatic testicular cancer in the early 1960s resulted in a 90% mortality rate within one year.

The year Johnson died, the discovery of cis-diamminedichloroplatinum was a landmark event as the single most important step in the treatment of metastatic testicular cancer. Within 10 years, the five-year survival rate grew to 64%.

Standing 6-foot-4 and weighing 228 pounds, the young man nicknamed “Big Bear” was no match for the disease. But the disease was no match for Johnson’s impact on his teammates.

GAMECOCKS IN 1965

In the 1965 season opener, South Carolina defeated The Citadel 13-3. Athletic director Marvin Bass and three players flew in a university plane to Church Hill to present Johnson with a game ball the following day.

The team dedicated the season to Johnson. The Gamecocks had their first non-losing season since 1959 and earned a share of the Atlantic Coast Conference title.

On Oct. 8, 1965, South Carolina retired Johnson’s No. 56. He is one of only four players to receive such an honor, preceded by Steve Wadiak’s No. 37 and followed by George Rogers (No. 38, 1980) and Sterling Sharpe (No. 2, 1987). The university now retires jerseys, not numbers.

In 1966, the local folks found a way to honor Johnson. The place he played in high school was renamed Mike Johnson Memorial Stadium.

FAMOUS FOOTSTEPS

Johnson’s first brush with fame came when he was a kid. He was in the same grade as Carr, and they attended First Baptist Church.

“I’ve got a picture of them in the second grade,” Gilliam said. “Lloyd left Church Hill when he was 10.”

Carr went on to become Michigan’s football coach, leading the Wolverines to a 12-0 season and The Associated Press national championship in 1997.

As Johnson moved into his teen years, he started growing.

“He was always bigger than his classmates, and when he hit the growth spurt he got kind of awkward,” Gilliam said. “So he started jumping rope and doing things to help him lose the awkwardness and play football.”

In a lot of ways, Johnson was a typical boy.

“Guys like to look in the mirror and see how mean they can look,” Gilliam said. “I remember him doing that when he was young.”

Johnson’s size was a nice fit for the football field. He capped his high school career by helping Church Hill earn a berth in the Exchange Bowl. The game was played in the middle of November at J. Fred Johnson Stadium in Kingsport, and the opponent was Science Hill and Spurrier, its future Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.

Church Hill jumped ahead early, but the Hilltoppers stormed back for a 28-21 victory.

A HERO

There isn’t a long list of heroes for Gilliam. There doesn’t need to be. She had a sibling who took care of it.

“Mike is my hero,” Gilliam said. “I always thought there was no limit for him. He got the sportsmanship award for Church Hill football. My dad always pushed sportsmanship. If my other brothers, Bill and Bob, didn’t act nice, even when they lost they heard from dad.”

The family was so inspired by Mike’s journey into college football, they once made a road trip just to listen on the radio.

“Back then it wasn’t televised,” Gilliam said. “When they played Florida and Steve Spurrier, we drove to North Carolina to pick up a station on the radio to listen to the game.”

Gilliam said Johnson had plenty of determination to go with his ability. When he arrived at South Carolina, he saw quite a challenge. Many of the players were from bigger schools and owned impressive awards and honors.

“Mike said, ‘I tell you what, they may beat me out, but they will have to work their rear ends off to do it,’ ” Gilliam said. “He was determined to do his best.”

MORE HEARTACHE?

Fifteen years after Johnson died, Gilliam was scheduled to have a bone-marrow test.

“Mom and Dad were thinking, ‘Not again,’ ” Gilliam said. “A week before the test, we got a plaque from Mike’s teammates. It uplifted my mom and dad that he still had influence on those guys. Through the years, they got letters and calls that were just wonderful. Those were just a few of the things that happened.

“It has been 55 years, and people are still thinking about him. I think that is wonderful.”