Gary Johnson, 2007 Breitbard Hall of Fame

Gary “Big Hands” Johnson, a four-time Pro Bowler, is the 11th member of the Air Coryell Chargers to be inducted into the Breitbard Hall of Fame.
By Tom Shanahan, San Diego Hall of Champions

Chargers defensive tackle Gary “Big Hands” Johnson is the 11th member of the Air Coryell Chargers to be inducted in the Breitbard Hall of Fame. He may not be the last, either.

But it doesn’t matter to Johnson when or where he falls among that group of players that played under head coach Don Coryell while winning three straight AFC West titles from 1979 to 1981 and advanced to a fourth playoff trip as a Wild-Card team in 1982.

“Anytime you get inducted into a Hall of Fame, it’s the right time,” Johnson said. “It’s special to be named to any Hall of Fame, and I’m honored.”

Johnson, a four-time Pro Bowler who played for the Chargers from 1975-84 and still holds the franchise record with 17.5 sacks set in 1980, has plenty of experience at being inducted into a Hall of Fame.

In addition to being named to the Chargers Hall of Fame in 1999, he has previously entered Halls of Fame for the State of Louisiana, Grambling State University, the Southwest Athletic Conference and his hometown region of Shreveport and Bossier City in Louisiana.

The other Air Coryell era Breitbard Hall-of-Famers he joins tonight are wide receiver Charlie Joiner (1986), head coach Don Coryell (1987), quarterback Dan Fouts (1989), offensive lineman Ed White (1991), cornerback Willie Buchanon (1994), tight end Kellen Winslow (1995), kicker Rolf Benirschke (1999), offensive tackle Russ Washington (2002), offensive guard Doug Wilkerson (2005) and defensive tackle Louie Kelcher (2006).

“Coach Coryell knew how to get your blood flowing,” Johnson said. “We went from being a turtle to a hare when he took over our team (in 1978). You had so much energy when you were coming out of the locker room, you were exploding. Coach Coryell could get that out of you.”

Johnson returned from San Diego to his Louisiana roots in 1995 and now works at the Horseshoe Casino and Hotel in Bossier City.

If you love reminiscing about the Air Coryell Chargers and some day you’re traveling through northern Louisiana, be sure to stop in at the Horseshoe and ask for “Big Hands.” Johnson’s job as an executive host at the Horseshoe is greeting people and talking sports.

“This year, all people wanted to talk about down here are the Chargers and LaDainian Tomlinson,” Johnson said. “They love LaDainian Tomlinson. He’s Superman.”

In fact, Johnson talks so much Chargers football — and football in general — he jokes that his wife declared a ban on talking and watching football when he’s home from work.

“All those years of playing football, and now I talk football with fans,” Johnson said. “I love it. We talk about the Chargers, the NFL, college — anything.”

Johnson ran a business in San Diego in his early retirement years before he returned home. That was two decades after he arrived in San Diego as a first-round draft pick in 1975 out of Grambling State.

The Chargers’ 1975 draft class turned around the franchise similar to how the 2004 class turned the Bolts into champions of multiple AFC West titles.

After Johnson was drafted with the eighth pick of the first round out, others that followed were cornerback Mike Williams (first round, 22nd pick), defensive tackle Louie Kelcher (second round, 30th), defensive end Fred Dean (second round, 33rd), safety Mike Fuller (third round, 73rd), offensive tackle Billy Shields (sixth round, 136th), running back Rickey Young (seventh round, 164th) and offensive lineman Ralph Perretta (eighth round, 206th).

“What was special about my time with the Chargers is so many of us came in at the same time, and we started from scratch,” Johnson said. “When I first got there, we were the pits. We were 2-12 in 1975. But all of those guys grew and matured together. We matured into a dominant force. I loved lining up in the defensive line next to Louie, Fred, Leroy (Jones), Wilber Young and DJ (Charles DeJurnett).”

Of the Air Coryell Chargers, Johnson agrees with many of teammates when he says the 1979 team was the best of the four playoff teams.

“That should have been our first Super Bowl,” he said.

The 1979 season was the year the Chargers romped in the regular season over the Los Angeles Rams, 40-16, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, 35-7. The Steelers later beat the Rams in the Super Bowl at the Rose Bowl. But the Chargers were upset in the first round of the playoffs at home by the Houston Oilers, 17-14.

“That’s the biggest regret of my career,” Johnson said. “We had the talent, but we never had that edge to go all the way. I don’t know why. You might only get one good chance to get to the Super Bowl, and you’ve got to take advantage of it.”

Johnson was later traded to the San Francisco 49ers when he didn’t fit the team’s shift to a 3-4 scheme, and as fate would have it, he won a Super Bowl with the 49ers that season in the twilight of his career.

“Where’s my ring, is the question I get asked the most,” Johnson said. “I don’t wear it often. I save it for special occasions. That’s something I cherish.”