2008 Chattahoochee Valley Sports Hall of Fame: Charlie Johnson thanks football for millions earned in shipping

January 17, 2014 

During his college days, Charlie Johnson and his roommate, Wade Houston, didn't have much money.

In fact, on hot summer days before the two Louisville athletes would leave for summer school, they placed a can of Spam on top of the air conditioner for a cold dinner.

Money, and cold Spam, isn't an issue for Johnson and Houston any more.

Johnson, a Columbus native, thanks football for the millions of dollars in his name.

Yet it's not the six-year NFL career that contributed to Johnson's finances. Rather, it's the connections the former Spencer High School football star made during his playing days that have led him to a prosperous life.

Life in Columbus

Charlie Johnson grew up the fifth of six children in the projects until the age of 12.

The next year, Johnson's father, George Johnson, died, leaving Charlie with responsibilities beyond his age.

When Charlie Johnson reached high school, he found football a natural fit.

Johnson wasn't simply a success at the high school level, either. Several colleges, such as UCLA and Big Ten schools such as Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan came calling for the offensive and defensive lineman's services.

While Johnson was excited by the prospect of playing for one of the Big Ten schools, he ultimately chose Louisville on the advice of high school coach Otis Spencer.

Spencer had sent two players to colleges recently --- John Jackson to Indiana and Ernie Green to Louisville.

Jackson left school early and joined the Canadian Football League, while Green was successful on the football field while also receiving his degree from Louisville.

That, Johnson said, was why Spencer was so intent on talking him into going to Louisville.

"Back then you did what your coach told you to do," Johnson said. "Basically coach told me I would be more successful at Louisville. I wanted Michigan and Ohio State --- they had better facilities and prettier cheerleaders and stuff --- but I did what coach told me to do."

Johnson graduated from Spencer High School and received ten scholarships to attend school and play football at Louisville.

Loving Louisville

When Charlie Johnson arrived at Louisville, he was one of five black football players on scholarship at the time.

With two players per dorm room, that left Johnson as an odd man out. Coincidentally, he was assigned to room with Wade Houston, a fellow freshman who was part of Louisville's first black recruiting class in basketball. Houston was one of three black players in the class, giving basketball an odd number of black players as well.

Quickly, the two became close friends.

"Wade and I bonded to be like brothers really," Johnson said. "We ate together, studied together, got our haircuts together and even dated together. We were both P.E. and history majors."

At the time, freshmen weren't allowed to play at Louisville.

That first season, 1963, was a disaster. The Cardinals, then part of the Missouri Valley Conference, finished 3-7 and failed to win a conference game.

The following year, Johnson's first as a player, was worse. Louisville finished 1-9 with a pair of losses to non-Division I-A teams and the university considered dropping football.

Johnson was one of the few bright spots for the team. He was a star from his first day on the field and was the first 300-pound player to run a 40-yard dash in under 5 seconds.

The next two years were critical for the Cardinals and Johnson, an All-Missouri Valley Conference player. Louisville went 6-4 in both seasons.

"That was a turning point for the program. I take a lot of pride because I'm still involved in the school," said Johnson, who later became the second black member on the board of trustees and still serves on the university hospital board.

"After we had winning seasons the next two years, they brought Lee Corso in (in 1968) and he changed the fact that it was just a basketball school."

Shot in the pros

The National and American football leagues started paying close attention to Johnson during his senior year. The NFL even sent what Johnson called a babysitter to make sure he didn't get in trouble.

Johnson recalled several weekends when the NFL would fly him to Baltimore and back to watch the Baltimore Colts play, so it was no surprise when he was drafted in 1965.

He was selected by the San Francisco 49ers. Johnson had never been to the West Coast before, but that summer he made the drive from Columbus to the Bay Area, where he lived with an aunt just outside Oakland.

Johnson played for the 49ers for four years before getting traded to Baltimore.

Two years later, when Johnson was on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain, the Colts won Super Bowl V and Johnson received a Super Bowl ring.

During the offseason, he was traded to the New York Giants. When the Giants cut Johnson, he decided to quit playing football and find a regular job back in Louisville, working for Ford.

Reuniting with friends

After a brief stint playing professional basketball in Europe, Wade Houston was also back in Louisville.

Johnson and Houston renewed their close friendship.

Johnson spent several years working for Ford until he and Houston decided to buy an inner city grocery store from Muhammad Ali's uncle. They tried to turn one store into a chain, but several robberies derailed their plans.

Houston said the biggest problem was they were still counting pennies instead of dollars.

Then Johnson and Houston decided to start a business hauling parts to local plants in Louisville. The tandem borrowed money to get the trucks and hired two employees to work for Johnson Houston Corp.

He and Houston's wife, Alice Houston, ran the business while Wade Houston had a major career opportunity. Houston became the head coach of Tennessee's men's basketball program from 1990-94.

When Houston stopped coaching basketball after the 1993-94 season, he and Johnson watched their business boom.

"Ford wanted to have a minority hauling company to haul cars and they contacted us to come back with a plan," Johnson said.

Johnson contacted Jupiter Transportation Company, which had lost its business when Chrysler bought American Motors.

"Ford told Jupiter they didn't have anything for them to do, but if they had a minority partnership, they would look favorably upon that," Johnson said. "We partnered with them and got business from Ford and GM and Chrysler."

In 1994, Johnson said he and Houston bought the company for $60 million and climaxed at a value of approximately $350 million.

Johnson Houston Corp. was Ford's first minority contractor to ship cars from the assembly lines to dealers.

The new business, Active Transportation Co., was listed in Black Enterprise magazine among the top 100 black-owned firms in the United States.

"We were in the right place at the right time," Johnson said. "It was divine prominence."

Today, Johnson owns C.W. Johnson Xpress, which he still operates.

His family, wife Bettie, son David, 32, and daughter Charlan, 37, remain close with the Houston family.

Counting pennies is no longer a problem either.

In 2006, Charlie Johnson won $200,000 in the Powerball lottery. He donated the entire winning to Benedict College, a Historically Black College in South Carolina.

Thanking football

Charlie Johnson made millions of dollars, but virtually none of his riches came from playing professional football --- not directly anyway.

Still, Johnson believes football altered his life's course and introduced him to the people who ultimately helped him become so successful.

"It introduced me to lifelong friends," Johnson said. "Football got me started. I probably would have never left Columbus (if it weren't for football)."

CHARLIE JOHNSON

Age: 62

Sport: Football

High school: Spencer High School

College: University of Louisville

Ties to Columbus: Born and raised in Columbus.

Family: Married to Bettie Johnson. Has two children: son David Johnson, 37, and daughter Charlan Johnson, 32.

Accomplishments: Named all-America and all-state in high school. . . . Played in the GIA All-Star Game. . . . Received 10 scholarships to Louisville. . . . Played three years of football at Louisville. . . . Made All-Missouri Valley Conference team. . . . Drafted by the National Football League's San Francisco 49ers in 1965. . . . Played for the 49ers from 1966-68. . . . Played for the NFL's Baltimore Colts from 1969-70. . . . Played for the Colts when they defeated the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl V.

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