If it were not for the National Football League players strike of 1982, there is no telling how much agony the Howard University defensive secondary would have undergone this season.
While players tried to fill the time during the strike, Dallas Cowboys safety Dextor Clinkscale decided to return home to Greenville, S.C. He went to the games of his former high school, J.L. Mann, and noticed a sophomore safety named Willie (Spanky) Johnson.
When Clinkscale found out Johnson, who had 27 high school interceptions, did not have a college scholarship last spring, he called his former South Carolina State coach, Willie Jeffries, now coach at Howard. Jeffries did not have a scholarship available, but offered the 6-foot-1, 175-pound Johnson a chance to make the Bison as a walk-on.
Starting with the January semester, Johnson will become a scholarship player at Howard.
Johnson earned a starting berth at free safety by the second game of the season. He leads the 1-5 Bison, who will travel to North Carolina A&T Saturday for a 1:30 p.m. Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference game, with six interceptions.
Two of the interceptions came last week as the Bison defeated Virginia State, 17-7. Perhaps the biggest play of that game, however, came with Howard leading, 10-0, in the third quarter. Johnson was beaten long down the middle by Anthony Hamilton, but he chased the open receiver and as the pass arrived, he deflected it with his outstretched hand to prevent what could have been a 76-yard touchdown.
It was a play Jeffries did not think Johnson had the potential to make when he first saw him work out.
"When we timed him in the 40 (-yard dash), we had him in 4.8 (seconds)," said Jeffries. "Then he did it twice more in 4.8 and 4.9. I had never seen him play and went strictly on Dextor's recommendation. Now I know Dextor would not send me anyone who could not play football, but after we timed him, we were getting a little bit sick.
"But from the moment we put the pads on him, we never had any doubts about Spanky's ability to play. He misses a few tackles now and then, but he is the type of player who improves every week."
Johnson's performance against Virginia State was rewarded with MEAC rookie of the week honors, the second time this season he has earned the distinction.
"I did not know what to expect when I came here because some schools don't give walk-ons a real chance," said Johnson. "Then I saw guys who could do things I couldn't do, or things I didn't know just because I didn't know the system. I may not be as fast as some of them, but what counts is that if you know how to read keys, it can put you in the right place at the right time."
Johnson's steady play, plus a much-improved pass rush from Curtis Stokes (10 sacks) and Reggie Miles, are the chief reasons the Bison have given up a total of only three touchdowns the past two games. They were outscored a combined 81-12 in the first two games.
"Defensively, we still have a ways to go," said Johnson. "We had a cancer on the team back then because we had a few players who were always negative. It was like they had given up, but no one else had. We had a few meetings without the coaches and changed their attitudes. Our defensive line has improved tremendously, and if they keep that up, we'll get more interceptions and we will win more football games."