A few months after the New England Patriots picked Andy Johnson in the fifth round of the 1974 NFL draft, the Baltimore Orioles sought his talents in the Major League Baseball draft, offering the multitalented Georgia athlete a fallback of sorts.
“The Orioles drafted me in the fifth round,” Mr. Johnson told the Globe that fall, during his rookie season with the Patriots. “They knew I was going to play football because I already had signed with the Patriots, but they drafted me anyway figuring I might not make it in football.”
He never needed baseball as a Plan B. Mr. Johnson played his entire NFL career with the Patriots, from 1974 to 1982, including a stellar season in 1976 when he amassed 1,042 combined yards rushing and receiving as the team went on to finish second in the AFC East. That year he rushed for a career-high 699 yards with six touchdowns.
The University of Georgia announced that Mr. Johnson died Wednesday in Athens, Ga. He was 65 and the university did not disclose a cause, except to say that he died after a long illness.
A former starting quarterback at the university, he was inducted into State of Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 1996.
Although the Patriots drafted Mr. Johnson as a running back, he proved to be a multiple threat on the field.
Playing in Schaefer Stadium in 1981 on his 29th birthday, Mr. Johnson threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to Stanley Morgan and then caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from Steve Grogan to give the Patriots a 24-10 lead over the Houston Oilers.
“He’s so intelligent about this game,” Patriots’ defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur told the Globe afterward, adding that Mr. Johnson “has great skills and he knows just how to get the most out of them.”
Mr. Johnson “has the ability and the intelligence, but I think his greatest asset is his eyes,” Patriots guard John Hannah told the Globe.
“He sees everything. Outside of our quarterbacks, I think he is the only guy on the team that knows what everyone is supposed to do on every play,” Hannah added. “When he’s in the game he just looks a lot at the defense and reads it. He knows what they are going to do and then he immediately knows what the soft spot is in that particular defense and he exploits it.”
Mr. Johnson’s savvy even drew plaudits from opposing coaches. “The guy I love on that Patriots’ ball club is Andy Johnson,” Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula once said. “The guy is one of the smartest ballplayers in the league.”
Born in Athens, Ga., on Oct. 18, 1952, Anderson Sidney Johnson was an All-American quarterback for what was then Athens High School, helping lead his team to a state championship. He also was all-region for the baseball and basketball teams and ran on the track team as a sprinter.
In 1970, the Atlanta Braves drafted Mr. Johnson as a shortstop, but he opted instead to attend the University of Georgia.
The Gwinnett Daily Post of Lawrenceville, Ga., reported that he set a total offense record as the starting quarterback in 1970 for the Bulldogs’ freshman team. The following year, as the starting varsity quarterback, he led the team to an 11-1 season and a 7-3 Gator Bowl victory over North Carolina. He also set a sophomore rushing record in the Southeastern Conference, finishing the season second in the league with 870 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Though injuries hobbled him his junior year, as a senior he brought Georgia to the Peach Bowl, where the Bulldogs defeated Maryland 17-16. As a quarterback that year, he still managed to finish second on the team in rushing. Mr. Johnson ended his Georgia career with 1,799 rushing yards, which at the time was the most by a quarterback.
He also batted a career .281 during three seasons with Georgia’s baseball team.
Mr. Johnson played 94 games for New England and finished his professional career with the US Football League’s Boston Breakers. With the Patriots, he rushed for 2,017 yards and 13 touchdowns, and added 1,807 yards and nine more touchdowns as a receiver.
The Patriots drafted Mr. Johnson as running back, but a few games into his rookie season he was readied for a role as a receiver. “I only caught one ball in my four years in college,” he told the Globe in November 1974, but that didn’t worry New England head coach Chuck Fairbanks.
“He’s got a great pair of hands and he’s a fine athlete,” Fairbanks told the Globe.
Still, Mr. Johnson knew it would be a challenge to fill a position in the NFL for which he had little background. “It will be different for me,” he said. “In high school I caught some footballs. I used to play wingback once in a while. But it’s not the same.”
According to the Gwinnett Daily Post, Mr. Johnson leaves his wife, Charlotte, and their children, Kristy, Brent, and Brooke.
A graveside service will be held at 3:30 p.m. Sunday in the Oconee Hill Cemetery in Athens, Ga.
Though he was never officially an NFL quarterback, Mr. Johnson did well whenever he was asked to pass. In 1981, he finished with a 77.8 percent completion average (7 for 9) and 194 yards. That included a play in October against Kansas City when he kept on the golf gloves he used as a receiver in order to throw off any suspicions.
“I didn’t have time to take off the gloves,” he told the Globe with a smile afterward. “Besides, I think it’d be pretty obvious if I’m coming out of the huddle taking off my gloves . . . they might think pass, don’t you think?”
Kansas City didn’t think pass, but after taking a handoff from Patriots quarterback Matt Cavanaugh, Mr. Johnson faked a reverse handoff to wide receiver Harold Jackson and instead passed to Morgan on the right sideline. Morgan caught the pass on the 31-yard-line and made it into the end zone for a 66-yard touchdown reception to give the Patriots a 30-17 lead. It was the second of what would be four touchdown passes Mr. Johnson threw that season.
“I think the most TD passes I had in college was six,” Mr. Johnson told the Globe after the game. “And the longest was maybe 50 yards. Not bad, huh?”Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.