Dick Harmon: BYU Cougars going to Houston, home of the legendary Thunderfoot
HOUSTON — This city gave BYU one of its most talented kickers, the honorable Lee Johnson.
The Cougars didn’t even recruit him.
Johnson didn’t get recruited by anyone, let alone BYU.
He is living proof that athletes who have talent, when given the chance, can step up and deliver big time.
Johnson would like to fly into Houston to see his alma mater play the Cougars from the Bayou City on Saturday, but unless flights fall into line, he’ll likely stay home in Utah because commitments would make it too quick of a trip.
A punter and kicker out of McCullough High School in the golf community of The Woodlands in north Houston, Johnson applied to BYU out of high school and was denied. He credits Floyd Taylor, the longtime business manager in the athletic department, for getting him in the school. “Somehow, he pulled some strings and got me in,” remembers Lee.
Once enrolled, he walked on the football team, just hoping for a chance.
If you break down how Johnson got into BYU, you find a human chain of relationships and ties. Taylor’s father-in-law’s brother was Sanky Dixon, a legendary high school coach in Utah County and a man who influenced LaVell Edwards when he was a teen. The Dixons had ties to Texas and, thus, learned of Lee Johnson. After he enrolled at BYU, Lee ended up marrying Sanky Dixon’s granddaughter, Shelley, whom he met at University Mall when she was dressed up in a hat and costume selling muffins, according to Colleen Densley, the current principal at Wasatch Elementary School in Provo and Floyd Taylor’s daughter.
Before his Cougar football career was over, Lee not only made the squad but became the most famous punter/kicker in school history. He was inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame with the entire 1984 team and is one of the more tenured NFL players the Cougars ever produced. He spent 18 years in the NFL.
Once a Texan, always a Texan. And of course Johnson believes BYU should recruit the great Lone Star State. “The competition is very intense for recruits in Texas and if you get a good one you might have them for only a few years," Johnson says. "Yes, they can recruit Texas, but if they don’t come, BYU will just go on without them.”
Today Johnson lives in Alpine and runs a small water delivery company that has contracts in the busy oil fields of North Dakota. He and his wife have seven children and he’s a grandfather. His parents and three siblings still live in Houston.
Johnson became famous for his barefoot kicking technique. “I didn’t start that until I was in training camp for BYU,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday.
Over the course of his Cougar career, Johnson averaged 46.9 yards per punt, a career of 3,847 yards punting. His longest was 80 yards.
His 18 NFL seasons included making the rosters of the Oilers (fifth-round pick, 1985), the Browns, Bengals, Patriots, Vikings and Eagles. He retired from the NFL in 2003 but not before playing in Super Bowl XXIII with the Bengals, where his 63-yard punt set the record for the longest punt in Super Bowl history. He left the Bengals as the most successful punter in franchise history with 32,196 yards.
Johnson’s athletic career didn’t end after football. He has become an elite mountain biker, having participated in the Leadville (Colo.) 100 six times with a best time of 9 hours and 27 minutes.
Johnson praises BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall and the current Cougars. As a guy who played on the 1984 national championship team that defeated Michigan with Robbie Bosco, Robert Anae, Mark Bellini and others, he is in Bronco's camp.
“I love what’s going on with Bronco Mendenhall and the program,” said Johnson.
“I am amazed — totally amazed — at what he’s been able to accomplish. It is incredible what he is doing with what he has to recruit to with the honor code. I love it.”
From Houston, Johnson became “Thunderfoot” in Provo.
There will never be another one like him.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at email@example.com.
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