By Trey Williams
The David Crockett football team had more of a repeating rifle than a musket when it won the first of 50 annual clashes with Daniel Boone in 1971.
Speedy senior Sandy Johnson shot through the Trailblazers defense time after time, scoring touchdowns on eight of his 15 rushing attempts while the Pioneers rolled to a 74-0 victory in the debut of what would become the Musket Bowl.
Johnson was thrilled to play at East Tennessee State’s Memorial Stadium, where Johnson City-Langston’s Johnny Russaw had broken the color barrier for the Buccaneers program when Johnson was 12.
“Johnny was sort of one of my idols growing up, you might say,” Johnson said. “You couldn’t find a better person.”
Another ETSU icon, trainer Jerry Robertson, also made a positive impression on Johnson. Robertson taped his ankles and wrists and fitted him with a helmet that had an air-filled bladder.
“He taped my wrist for me and braced it for a game,” Johnson said. “We worked in conjunction with them quite often up there. He’s a super guy. … He fixed a special helmet for me one time. I have sort of a small head. I wear a 6 7/8s hat, but I had an afro that was like 10 inches and would stick out the earholes and out the back. He showed me how to inflate an air-filled helmet.”
Johnson played sandlot ball growing up in front of Jonesborough’s Booker T. Washington School (now the McKinney Center), which he attended until going to Jonesborough in the sixth grade when integration began there. He regularly visited Johnson City, where he might swim at Carver Rec or watch Russaw play for ETSU or Langston. Now, Johnson was taking the field at ETSU.
“ETSU’s stadium was packed” Johnson said. “That was the first year of the Musket Bowl between Crockett and Boone. That’s why so many people remember it – they were there. Memorial Stadium was standing room only. They were standing on the banks.”
Many of ‘em were leaping for joy about every other time Johnson touched the ball.
The vast majority of Crockett’s starters, including Johnson, had played at Jonesborough High School, and the Pioneers possessed a continuity advantage, including the fact that Crockett coach Don Upton had coached at Jonesborough.
“We had played together since about the fifth and sixth grade,” Johnson said. “We had certain plays and stuff that we had run for years. It was just a well-oiled team. …
“The (offensive linemen) gave me holes you could drive trucks through. They made my job real easy. My theory was I don’t want to make contact with anybody unless absolutely necessary.”
Johnson often avoided contact, rushing 155 times for 1,073 yards and 28 touchdowns in ’71. Upton’s Pioneers concluded an 8-2-1 season with a 34-14 loss at Sevier County in the Smokey Bowl and Upton returned to his alma mater, Soddy Daisy, shortly before the following season.
Johnson made the Associated Press and UPI All-State teams and, obviously, was All-Watauga Conference.
The Pioneers outscored opponents 367-103 and Johnson City Press-Chronicle sports writer Bill Toohey referred to Johnson as “The Crockett Comet”. Gale Sayers (The Kansas Comet), one of the NFL’s most popular players in that era, concluded his career in 1971.
“Sandy scored 196 points and led the state in scoring,” said Jerry Lonon, the Crockett offensive coordinator in ‘71. “I think the team also led the state in scoring. He was All-State and honorable mention All-American. He was also an excellent pass receiver.”
Johnson played defensive back too – beginning in seventh grade for Jonesborough High School’s varsity.
“Our safety got hurt,” he said. “I told my coach, which was the seventh- and eighth-grade coach, ‘I can play that position,’ and they sort of laughed, you know, and said, ‘Yeah, okay.’ But they gave me a shot at it that week … and I took the job and had it the rest of the time.
“A lot of times I’d go on the field and never come off until the end of the game. I started out at safety and eventually played free safety.”
Johnson’s speed and flashy numbers generated a high-profile recruitment process that came to mind when Crockett star Prince Kollie (Notre Dame) was a senior last season – except Kollie was cooped up in a pandemic and Johnson was able to fly all over the country taking recruiting visits.
“I flew out and looked at UCLA, Ohio State and Purdue, Tennessee,” he said. “I looked at Navy. There wasn’t any limit on it. I’d fly to Clemson one weekend and go out and look at UCLA the next weekend, or Ohio State. I jumped all over the place. I went to Southwestern Louisiana. I liked it down there, too, because of the hunting and the fishing. Grambling. Tennessee Tech. Marshall. … South Carolina. I went out to Nebraska. It was the year they were in the national championship. I liked it out there too, but it was a little bit flat.”
NCAA recruiting rules were far more lax in that era and a couple of college assistants probably were mistaken at times for Crockett faculty members that year.
“I remember UT having Jerry Elliott and Virginia Tech having Carl – do not remember his last name – at school every day,” Lonon said. “One night they got in a scuffle at Sandy’s home. I think a major untold reason Sandy signed with Tech was that they signed another one of our players, Mike Callison.”
Johnson and Callison were part of an exciting class that included Castlewood’s Paul Adams, the uncle of Science Hill greats Shorty Adams (Montreal Expos organization) and his son Jaylan, now the quarterback at The Citadel.
“Me and Paul went in as freshmen together,” Johnson said. “Paul Adams and Flash Davis (Appalachia), Tom Turner (Appalachia). Me and Tom were the best of friends. It was a hell of a class at Tech that year.
“(Charles) Coffey had just come in and taken over at Tech at that time. Don Strock was a senior the year that I was a freshman.”
Johnson played a lot on special teams as a true freshman and traveled to play No. 2 Alabama, which rolled to a 52-13 victory.
“That was the year they had big John Hannah,” Johnson said. “They played like 66 players against us. Alabama had a killer team that year.”
Johnson had two carries for 11 yards in a 45-20 win against South Carolina.
“That was the first year they made freshmen eligible again in ’72,” Johnson said. “So I got to play on the varsity, too. I would play two and three games a week sometimes. I’d play with the freshman team at VMI on a (weekday) and then go to Alabama on Saturday and play with the varsity.
“I played quite a few (snaps). I traveled to Alabama, South Carolina, West Virginia. I returned punts and kickoffs mainly, because they had good senior running backs – James Barber and some of those guys.”
An injury put the clamps on Johnson’s career.
“He started a few games as a freshman at Tech,” Lonon said. “One of those was against Alabama. He was injured in spring practice and I do not think he ever played again.
“He was a good person that anyone would love to have him as a son. It is a shame an injury took away a possible professional career.”
Johnson, the class president his senior year at Crockett, rolled with the punches, saying “knocking heads” on the weekends wasn’t as enjoyable as hunting and fishing anyway.
“I enjoyed playing football with my friends in high school,” said Johnson, noting teammates such as Callison, quarterback Frankie Haws, Jep Parnell, Ricky Lowe, Buttons McKinney, Phil Webb, Wayne Dulaney and Doug Fox, who returned a fumble 40 yards for a score in the 74-0 rout. “It was basically the biggest reason I played. I wasn’t just gung-ho football all the time.”
Indeed, Johnson said Minnesota was a finalist in his college choice due to his love of the outdoors.
“I narrowed it down pretty quick to Minnesota and Virginia Tech,” Johnson said. “I was into the hunting and fishing; that’s why I wanted to get to Minnesota. But there were some family things going on where I didn’t really need to be that far away.”
Johnson also ran track and played basketball at Crockett.
“I played basketball the whole time I was at Crockett for Coach (Hobart) Powell,” Johnson said. “I’ve known Hobart ever since I was in the sixth grade. I think the world of him.”
Of course, thanks to his eight-touchdown eruption, Johnson will be forever illuminated best by Friday night lights.
“I’ll run into people all the time, or somebody will introduce me to somebody and they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, I remember you: Crockett, 74 to nothing,’” Johnson said. “Sometimes playing sandlot with the boys you might score 10 or 12 touchdowns. So it didn’t really sink in that … people would remember it (eight touchdowns) 50 years later.”