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White Shoes Johnson, Feeling Pinch of NFL, Has to Stop His Dance

September 26, 1985|CHRIS DUFRESNE | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — s not as though things were all that peachy around here to begin with, what with box scores of the Braves and the summaries of the Falcons becoming as digestible as greasy fried chicken.

But for the true and few Falcon followers, who have long suffered the insufferable, the lowest blow may have been struck last Sunday when the NFL took away their rite of dance.

It wasn't enough that their team has lost 12 of its last 13 games and is off to its worst start since 1974.

It wasn't enough that injuries have so ravaged Atlanta's secondary that Coach Dan Henning has been forced to go shopping, door to door, around the NFL for handouts.

Sunday, Falcon fans were literally stripped of their Shoes.

Through all the indignity suffered in Atlanta, there always remained receiver Billy (White Shoes) Johnson, who could make a dark day seem a little brighter with a dance that punctuated each of his touchdowns.

But now that, too, has gone.

The NFL's most enduring and celebrated end-zone dance, the White Shoes Wiggle, was abruptly banished Sunday and ordered to the corner of the NFL's romper room, right next to the Redskins' Fun Bunch Jump.

It was the latest in a series of blows to future NFL highlight films, and it gave Atlanta fans yet another reason to stay home.

Johnson, the Falcons' wide receiver and the NFL's leading all-time punt returner, has been doing his jelly-legged, post-touchdown rumba since he broke into the league in 1974.

Shoes, as he's known around here, seemingly wasn't affected by the NFL rule invoked last season that penalized players for "excessive and premeditated celebration."

In the third quarter of last Sunday's 44-28 loss to the Denver Broncos, Johnson, after catching a 62-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Steve Bartkowski, celebrated as usual. He went to the corner of the end zone, raised his hands to the home crowd, and made his legs all rubbery, like Gumby's.

Line judge Dan Wilford threw a flag. Shoes couldn't believe it.

Johnson scored again later and danced again.

Wilford flagged him again.

Why?

"He did a premeditated celebration, wriggling his knees in a fashion of a premeditated celebration," referee Red Cashion said later, speaking on behalf of the officials.

But why call it now?

Johnson scored three times last season and wasn't penalized. He scored in the opener this year and danced, drawing nary a flag.

"We don't have any idea what he has done before, but as far as we are concerned it was more than just a spontaneous act," Cashion added.

And, just like that, the last waltz. "It's going to be tough," Johnson said. "It really is. But I won't do it anymore."

Henning, as if he doesn't have enough to worry about with a 0-3 record, a devastated secondary, dwindling home attendance figures and the 3-0 Rams coming up Sunday in Anaheim, somehow found another thing to fret over.

He's angered by the ambiguity of the rule, which was invoked to prevent riots on the field, like the one nearly caused two years ago when Ram tackle Jackie Slater pushed sack-dancer Mark Gastineau of the Jets from behind after Gastineau had disposed of a Ram quarterback.

Why, Henning asked, wasn't Bronco receiver Butch Johnson penalized after he scored Sunday? Butch gestured toward the crowd and did his simulated pistol-shoot routine.

"The spirit of the rule is to stop taunting," Henning said Monday. "I was there when it was put in, and the reason it was written was because of the situation with Washington's (Fun Bunch) group when Dallas got penalized for trying to break it up (in the end zone). The other reason was because of Mark Gastineau."

The league office verified Tuesday that Billy Johnson was indeed guilty as charged.

"Sometimes, players do it so quickly that the officials don't see it," Jim Heffernan, an NFL spokesman, said in explaining why other calls haven't been made. "Sometimes, they're distracted. But the rule has been a penalty. It just hasn't been called on him."

The penalty is only five yards, assessed on the kickoff after a touchdown, but both times Sunday, the Broncos turned White Shoes' penalties into long returns.

Considering the circumstances, White Shoes seems to be holding up bravely, but he views the situation as a loss for all of football.

"I don't try to embarrass, taunt or belittle anyone," Johnson said. "It's just automatic. It's part of what football's all about, as long as you're not discrediting any individual. It's not done to be obnoxious. I think this (rule) hurts fan participation, especially when you're playing at home. It's trivial, but it also gets fans involved."

And so marks the end of an era.

Johnson first started dancing during his sophomore season at tiny Widener College in Pennsylvania.

The story goes that one week an opponent was making light of mighty Widener in the papers. Johnson, who had been known as White Shoes since high school--he was a quarterback who admired Joe Namath--decided he was going to do something different if he scored on Saturday.

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