John “Curley” Johnson
by John Delach
Curley Johnson passed away on June 12, 2016 at his home in Granbury, Texas. He was 80. This Lone Star state native is best known as being the punter on the world champion Jets who upset the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III despite being 18-point underdogs.
Curley was born in Anna, TX, attended Woodrow Wilson high school and the University of Houston before being taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers as the 77th selection in the 1957 NFL draft. In addition to punting, he was also an offensive end and a kick returner but he never caught on with the Steelers or any other NFL team.
Curley’s delayed pro football career began three years later when he signed on with the 1960 Dallas Texans of the newly formed American Football League. He was traded to New York the following year playing for Harry Wismer’s rag-tag Titans. Poorly financed, ridiculously mismanaged, Wismer didn’t have much to compete with the rival New York Football Giants who played before sell-out crowds across the river in Yankee Stadium. The Titans enjoyed far less fan participation at their dilapidated quarters in the Polo Grounds. Wismer fantasized the Titans attendance once noting a game day crowd that numbered 10,000 fans. This prompted New York Daily News scribe, Dick Young to note: “Ten Thousand, huh? If there were 10,000 fans at the game yesterday, 5,000 were disguised as empty seats.”
By the 1962 season the Titans were on verge of collapse unable to make payrolls, pay travel expenses or even laundry bills. The AFL stepped in to save the team and their league and the following year, entertainment impresario, David “Sonny” Werblin led a well financed syndicate who purchased the wreck re-naming them the New York Jets.
Only four Titans survived long enough to be part of that 1968 team; end, Don Maynard, line backer, Larry Graham, running back, Bill Mathis and Curley Johnson. Along the way, Curley established himself as a big-time punter still considered today the best the Jets ever had.
Still, time marches on and the summer after the championship run, the Jets cut Curley Johnson in favor of a new punter, Steve O’Neal.
Meanwhile, the now down-on-their-luck Giants had fired their long-time coach Allie Sherman prior to the start of the 1969 season. Their new coach, Alex Webster, some how managed a 3 and 3 record despite persistent problems with the kicking game. The owner and defacto general manager, Wellington Mara, offered the Giants job to Curley.
Curley début came on Sunday, November 2 against the Eagles at Yankee Stadium. Here is how I described what next happened in my 2009 book, 17 Lost Seasons:
“Mara signed Johnson. This may have seemed to Curley like a good way to have a few more paydays, but the old punter didn’t appreciate that he wasn’t playing for the Jets any longer and those ragged lineman ‘protecting’ him were not his old front line. On his very first punt attempt, he received the snap a bit off line, so patiently he corrected his line and proceeded to move his leg to kick the ball. Meanwhile a sea of green came roaring over, around and through his blockers allowing the Eagles Ike Kelly to block the punt.
“Curley either didn’t learn or couldn’t learn because the next time he tried to punt, the Eagles buried him into the grass before he could even get his foot on the ball.”
Final score, Eagles 23 – Giants 20.
RIP John Curley Johnson