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.
“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.
“My guys really egged me on,” Johnson recalled. “They made sure I did it. They just thought I was crazy anyway. They reminded me before the game that if I scored I had to dance. I did. And then they said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to do it again.’ ”
And he has ever since.
Johnson said he’s not going to make a big deal out of the latest mandate.
It’s probably more of a blow to the Atlanta fans, who haven’t had much to cheer about lately.
The Falcons were 4-12 last season and haven’t managed a win yet in 1985.
Attendance is down. The Falcons drew just 37,785 for their home opener against Detroit and only 37,903 last Sunday.
Jeff Van Note, 17-year Falcon center, went on a local radio show last week to field questions from listeners.
The switchboard was humming before Van Note hit the studio.
But when it came to talking about the Falcons? Van Note got one call in 20 minutes--no, it wasn’t his wife--and they had to pull him off the air early.
So while the banning of the White Shoes Wiggle might seem trivial, it was one of the best acts this team had to offer.
The fact is, Johnson has become one of the team’s most popular players since the Falcons acquired him in 1982, when his career was seemingly washed up.
He was one of the league’s main attractions with the Oilers during the ‘70s, when White Shoes was running wild.
But after a squabble with Oiler management in 1980, Johnson fled to the Canadian Football League, spending a season with the Montreal Alouettes.
When he returned to the NFL, he was about as welcome as yesterday’s newspaper.
Everyone wanted to know if he was the same Billy What’s-his-Shoes who used to play in Houston.
“Getting back into the league was tough,” he said. “A lot of teams were writing me off. They were saying my wheels were gone.”
The Falcons took a chance and haven’t regretted it.
In 1983, Johnson had his biggest year in the pros, catching a career-high 64 passes. And he was still a great punt returner.
In a game that year against the Jets, Johnson almost personally led the Falcons to a dramatic, 27-21 comeback win. White Shoes once again, he scored two touchdowns, one on a 71-yard punt return, set up another touchdown with a 41-yard punt return, and set up two field goals with a 23-yard reception and a 36-yard run on a reverse.
Some people think heart and soul were stripped from the Falcons when Johnson went down with a knee injury last year in the sixth game of the season against the Rams.
Atlanta was 3-3 at the time of Johnson’s injury.
Johnson returned this season and, in the first game against Detroit, broke Rick Upchurch’s NFL record of 3,008 yards for punt return yardage.
He’s making points elsewhere, too.
An 11-year NFL veteran, Johnson is one Falcon player everyone looks to for guidance, the lifeboat on a sinking ship.
It’s probably because Johnson has been down before and knows how to come back. He has bounced back from three career-threatening knee injures to become the Falcons’ leading receiver this season.
He remains optimistic, even about the Falcons.
“People may think (the situation) is bleak, dismal, disenchanting, disheartening,” Johnson said. “But I don’t think that. I think we’re coming along. I know this team can win. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I really think we’re going to make the playoffs.”
BILLY (WHITE SHOES) JOHNSON’S CAREER STATISTICS
PUNT RETURNS RECEIVING YEAR TEAM PR YDS AVG. LG TD REC. YDS. AVG. LG TD 1974 Oilers 30 409 13.6 49 0 29 388 13.4 44 2 1975 Oilers 40 612 15.3 83t 3 37 393 10.6 30 1 1976 Oilers 38 403 10.6 46 0 47 495 10.5 40 4 1977 Oilers 35 539 15.4 87t 2 20 412 20.6 71t 3 1978 Oilers 8 60 7.5 20 0 1 10 10.0 10 0 1979 Oilers 4 17 4.3 16 0 6 108 18.0 25 1 1980 Oilers 0 0 0.0 0 0 31 343 11.1 57t 2 1982 Falcons 24 273 11.4 71 0 2 11 5.5 6 0 1983 Falcons 46 489 10.6 71t 1 64 709 11.1 47t 4 1984 Falcons 15 152 10.1 37 0 24 371 15.5 45 3 1985 Falcons 9 76 8.4 18 0 12 168 14.0 62 3 TOTALS 249 3,030 12.2 87t 6 273 3,408 12.5 71t 23