Former Buff Charles E. Johnson Passes Away
BOULDER — Charles E. Johnson, one of the most prolific wide receivers in University of Colorado history, passed away over the weekend in Raleigh, N.C. He was 50. The cause of death has yet to be determined.
A three-time letterman, he had three position coaches at CU, one of whom was current head coach Karl Dorrell, who coached him as a junior and senior in 1992-93.
"I was shocked and very distraught hearing the news about C.J.," Dorrell said. "He was a great person, teammate, and had an infectious personality. He wore the pride and tradition of the Buffaloes on his sleeve. He was one of the best competitors I've ever coached at the wide receiver position. Rest in peace, C.J."
Johnson caught 127 passes for 2,447 yards and 15 touchdowns in 35 regular season games, and accounted for 3,007 all-purpose yards overall. He was voted the team's most valuable player as a senior in 1993, when he earned second-team All-American honors and was the Big Eight's Offensive Player of the year. He led the league and was sixth in the NCAA in receiving with 57 catches for 1,082 yards and nine scores.
Those career numbers still rank high all-time at Colorado: sixth in receiving yards (2,447), 13th in receptions (127), and ninth in receiving touchdowns (15). In three bowl games, he added eight receptions for 111 yards and two scores to his regular season totals.
He set over a dozen records, including the most 100-yard receiving games -- 12, a mark that still stands – the previous record was four and there were only 35 in the school's history before his arrival. Six of those games were 150 yards or more. As a junior, he also had 57 catches for a then-record 1,149 yards, which held for 21 years. But perhaps his most impressive marks are two that may never be broken: the highest average gain per touchdown season – 57.0 yards (5 for 285) – in 1992, and for a career -- 46.5 yards (15 for 697), the latter setting an NCAA record for a minimum 10 TDs.
Johnson was involved in what was the national play of the year for 1993. In CU's 27-10 win at Oklahoma on Oct. 16, he caught a 34-yard pass for a touchdown from Lamont Warren on a halfback option play. But what made it special? Warren slipped on the slick artificial surface as he threw the ball, and some 40 yards later in the end zone, Johnson made the catch on the ground after he was interfered with. The play simply defied imagination (see it here at the 50:40 mark: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZqzyfnBXUoo).
He also lettered in track (sprints, hurdles and relays), and the distance relay medley team he was on still owns the school record they set his senior year (9:50.92 in the spring of 1994).
He was a member of Bill McCartney's 1990 recruiting class which was a consensus top five class nationally and included eight future NFL performers: in addition to Johnson, Tony Berti, Christian Fauria, Chris Hudson, Vance Joseph, Rico Smith, Derek West and Michael Westbrook. CU won the 1990 national championship, two Big Eight Conference titles and were 36-9-4 during Johnson's career.
In 1992, he and Westbrook became just the fourth set of teammates in college football history at the time to record 1,000-yard seasons. Westbrook hauled in 76 catches for 1,060 yards. Considerate of the media's needs in being the liaison to the fans, after a home game that season where both had outstanding numbers, they had left the locker room early and missed the postgame interviews. It wasn't on purpose and when reached afterward, both quickly came back to campus and up to the press box to visit with the press.
"C.J. was an amazing athlete and an equally amazing friend in college," Westbrook said. "He always used to light the field up with his smile and his ability to catch the ball was second to nobody. His highlight reel is legendary, just like our college shenanigans. It's rough – he's gone way too soon."
Another interesting tale is told by Neill Woelk, who covered the Buffs for the Boulder Camera at the time. He referred to it as, "catching a shadow." On the stat sheet it was a 41-yard reception from Kordell Stewart to C.E. Johnson against Kansas State in 1992, but that's not the entire story.
"I remember Johnson catching a long pass down the east sideline in Folsom, running north," Woelk recalled. "The peculiar thing about the play was that he did not look back at the quarterback or the ball. Instead, it appeared as if he were looking into the stands or down to the ground as he ran. Only at the very last split second did he turn his head back toward the ball and make the catch.
"I asked him about it after the game and he told me, 'I caught the shadow,' Woelk continued. "After some prodding, he explained that during halftime warmups, the sun was directly in his eyes when running down that sideline and looking back at the quarterback. Then he noticed there was a perfect shadow of the ball on the ground that he could literally run with. Thus, when Kordell threw the pass, he looked at the ground, found the shadow -- and caught the shadow when it came within his reach. I have to admit I was a little skeptical, but I went home, watched the tape of the game – and that's exactly what happened. To this day, it is one of the most amazing catches I have ever witnessed."
And a year before the "Miracle in Michigan," Johnson caught a "Hail Mary" pass as the end of the first half, also thrown by Stewart but this time tipped by Westbrook, giving CU a 35-0 lead over Baylor at Folsom Field.
Johnson was a first round selection – the 17th overall pick – in the 1994 National Football League Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He would play five seasons with the club, with 247 receptions for 3,400 yards and 15 touchdowns. His best year there was in 1996, when he was reunited with Stewart, his CU teammate for three seasons, and caught 60 balls for a career-high 1,008 yards and three scores.
"Words simply can't explain or identify who C.J. was to many," Stewart said. "I'm not sure how to process this properly – we've been friends for over 30 years – but just know C.J. will be missed. My heart goes out to Tanisha (his wife), their kids and family. May God bless them and keep them during these trying times."
When the Steelers drafted Stewart in the second round of the '95 Draft, it meant the world to him to be reunited with Johnson.
"It was like being at home," he said. "He was a friend and someone I could trust. It made the transition from college to pro much easier for sure. We had seven memorable seasons together between the two, ones I will always cherish."
Another teammate at CU and Pittsburgh, Chad Brown recalled his friendship with Johnson.
"C.J. was a guy who never had a bad day," he said. "I think, obviously, when people pass, we always tend to over-eulogize. But C.J. was always a happy dude with an infectious smile, quick to laugh, just a fun guy to be around. He was always a quieter guy, kind of a homebody. Very into his wife, his family, not on the autograph circuit or the group texts."
Chris Hudson, CU's 1994 Thorpe Award-winning cornerback, recalled going up against Johnson every day in practice for three years.
"C.J. was a good guy, a good athlete who always knew what he wanted," Hudson said. "He was a hard worker, and going against him in practice made me as a defensive back understand that the play was never over. Even if it was a poorly thrown ball, he could adjust like no other when you were convinced the ball was going to be yours. He definitely helped make me a better defender. My prayers go out to his family, and may God be with them."
In all, Johnson played nine seasons in the NFL, moving on to Philadelphia (1999-2000), New England (2001) and Buffalo (2002). He won a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots when they defeated St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI, and had career totals of 354 receptions for 4,606 yards and 24 touchdowns in 133 professional games.
Eric Bieniemy, currently the offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, was a teammate of Johnson's in 1990 and then again when both were with the Eagles in 1999.
"Charles was a hard-working teammate who did not take any opportunity for granted," Bieniemy said. "He was a great friend that always had a smile on his face and if you were down, he would find a way to lift your spirits. Due to the adversity he faced and overcame early in life, Charles became a moral compass for many of his peers because he always did things the right way. He was a very beautiful soul and he will be missed."
Darian Hagan was a teammate with Johnson for the 1990 and 1991 seasons and is currently CU's running backs coach. He echoed much of what Bieniemy said.
"C.J. was a great teammate, a great person, a guy who never had a bad day," Hagan recalled. "He always had a million dollar smile on his face, and a kind word for everybody. If you were having bad day, he could sense it, seek you out and figure out a way to make you feel better in that moment, be it with a joke, something comical or just words of encouragement. That's a quality few people have – he not only had God-given talent on the football field but also had it in dealing with people.
"It's unfortunate that he died so young," Hagan said. "I wish I could reach out to him and hug him one last time and let him know that I love him. He's a guy who will forever be near and dear to my heart. I know the struggles and ups and downs he had growing up, we had similar experiences. I never had a bad moment around him — and I think every teammate he ever had feels the same way. A great person to be around, just infectious. He will be missed by all those he left an indelible impression on."
At the time of his death, he was the assistant athletic director at Heritage High School in Wake Forest, N.C. He helped start the Huskies' program with athletic director Pat Kennedy, as both came over from nearby Wakefield High School.
"We hired Charles to be our assistant athletic director in 2010 when Heritage High first opened," Kennedy said. "He worked in that position from 2010 to the fall of 2021. He was also an assistant football coach while his son, Charles Jr., was on the team. Being the assistant AD also allowed him to watch his daughter Cydney's games – she played basketball and softball for us. He was so proud both went on to play collegiately. C.J. was such an asset to our athletic department and school community – he could handle any situation and do it with class. His personality and smile made athletes, parents and opposing teams feel welcomed and appreciated. We often told our coaching staff that we knew who the real AD was for the school, and that I was just a figure head.
"As for our friendship, it is irreplaceable," Kennedy added. "We had the same philosophy about scholastic-athletics and how to treat people. He had a strong sense of loyalty to people that were loyal to him. He spoke highly of his days at Colorado and in the NFL, but he was very modest and would not talk about himself. He would talk about his coaches and his teammates. You could see the pride that he had about his days at the University of Colorado, and how he chose Colorado over other schools. The only conflict C.J. and I ever had was he was a big L.A. Lakers fan and I'm a die-hard Celtics fan. You could only imagine the trash talking that went back and forth over the years."
Kennedy said that Johnson, who was also a track and field star as a prep, was an avid golfer and the two often played together.
Johnson was born January 3, 1972 in San Bernardino, Calif., and graduated from its Cajon High School. Heavily recruited out of high school, he chose Colorado over Nebraska, Arizona, UCLA and Washington. He was a good student (over a 3.0 grade point average) despite a rough upbringing that included being homeless for a time, and would graduate from CU in just three years with a degree in Marketing.
He is survived by his wife, the former Tanisha Johns who was track letterwinner at CU, son Charles III, who played football at Western Carolina and daughter Cydney, currently a junior on the High Point (N.C.) University women's basketball team. The family is honoring Charles' requests for no public funeral or memorial.