Vance Johnson Can Go Deep on Canvas, Too : Broncos’ Artistic Receiver

Times Staff Writer

The feelings of an artist often are reflected in his work, and that may explain why most of Vance Johnson’s recent drawings have had bold strokes in harsh colors and brooding women as the subjects.

Johnson, the wide receiver for the Denver Broncos who moonlights as a starving artist, said that since he didn’t feel at all happy for the last few weeks, he certainly didn’t want anything smiling back at him from the canvas.

Paint it black, as Mick Jagger sings.

What plunged Johnson into such a funk was an early-season knee injury that resulted in surgery and five weeks of rehabilitation. Even after Johnson returned, he didn’t play as he had as a rookie in 1985, when he cracked the starting lineup and became quarterback John Elway’s favorite deep target.


If all serious artists go through a dark period, though, Johnson’s ended abruptly last Sunday.

Johnson, just 5 feet 11 inches tall but one of the fastest players in the National Football League, scored on a 48-yard pass play from Elway that turned out to be the winning touchdown in a 22-17 victory over New England that moved the Broncos into Sunday’s AFC championship game against Cleveland.

Late that night, alone in his condominium--no, not a studio apartment--inspiration came to Johnson. By 4 a.m., he had finished “Victoree,” a painting, in soft colors, of a woman with bright green eyes and a slight smile.

“That was the first time in any of my portraits that the woman was smiling,” Johnson said. “It reflects the way I was feeling. Before that, I was in a down mood all the time.

“I wasn’t doing anything to contribute to our victories. I dropped passes, didn’t run the routes right and lacked a lot of confidence. I didn’t feel good about myself. You can tell that by looking at my other drawings.”

Now, though, the smile is back on Johnson’s face, too.

He says he has fully recovered from late September surgery to repair torn cartilage and a partly torn ligament in his right knee. And he says his confidence has returned to such an extent that he will draw a woman with a grin as wide as Magic Johnson’s if the Broncos beat the Browns Sunday and advance to the Super Bowl.


The acrylics and canvas, he says, are waiting for him in the hall closet. Why not have a showing in Pasadena?

It isn’t known yet whether Johnson’s second NFL season will have a happy ending. Either way, this hasn’t exactly been a paint-by-numbers year for him. Nothing turned out the way he had planned.

As a rookie in 1985, Vance Johnson replaced Butch Johnson in the starting lineup in the 10th week and finished the season with 51 catches for 721 yards, both records for Bronco rookies.

More was expected from him this season, especially considering that he had been a running back in college at Arizona and was still a novice as a wide receiver. When Johnson caught 11 passes for 195 yards against the Rams in the final exhibition game in September, Bronco coaches were predicting great things for him.

“Vance has All-Pro potential,” Mike Shanahan, Denver’s offensive coordinator, said. “I said that before the season. He might have made it this year if. . . . “

Then, in the season opener against the Raiders, Johnson ran up against cornerbacks Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes, whose destructive capabilities can make the secondary look as disjointed to a receiver as a Dali painting would look.


Early on, Johnson knew it was to be a bad day. Hayes welcomed the new season by allegedly rubbing Johnson’s face in the turf and then gouging his eyes. Hayes later claimed he was only cleaning a dust particle out of his opponent’s eye, but Johnson needed to have a nasty cut closed.

A more serious injury was to come. After Johnson had caught 4 passes for 53 yards, Haynes landed on him awkwardly in a pileup and Johnson hobbled off with a sore and swollen right knee. He returned a couple of plays later but, after another hit, the knee locked.

Arthroscopic surgery showed only a partial tear of the ligament, but Johnson’s torn cartilage had to be removed.

Johnson must have a true artist’s temperament, because the injury drove him into a deep depression.

Said Johnson: “Before they put me under, the doctors told me, ‘Be prepared when you get out of surgery that you might never be able to run fast again. And be prepared that you may never play football again.’

“I was prepared for the worst, and I handled it pretty badly at first. I was thinking more about life after football than football. I was thinking about my getting my art career going more.


“I had quite a few nightmares. It scared me back into coming out and working hard to get back, back into believing in myself. I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t run fast.”

The need for speed is essential to Johnson. He says he does everything fast, drawing included. Even his Grace Jones haircut--short on the sides with a tuft of an Afro on top--seems styled for aerodynamic efficiency.

A lot of players claim to be fast, but Johnson is a certifiable speedster. A sprinter and world-class long jumper at Arizona, he was timed at 4.28 seconds in the 40-yard dash by the NFL scouting service two summers ago.

Since a time of 4.4 in the 40 is considered very fast, reporters brought stopwatches the day Johnson was to be timed again in rookie camp. He did it in 4.36 seconds.

The way Johnson tells it, he just doesn’t turn on the speed when he’s on the field. It’s a way of life.

“Everything I do is connected with speed,” Johnson says in his typical rapid-fire delivery. “I cook fast, eat fast, work out fast. I used to sketch real quick--four to five minutes and then it’s over--but now I take longer because I want to improve the quality. I have a fast car, a fast motorcycle, a speed boat.


“It’s weird because I want all these things, yet I think I’d be happy with just a fishing rod and peace and quiet. That’s the kind of guy I am.”

Indeed, Johnson is an enigma--in a goofy sort of way.

How many other NFL wide receivers list as their idols Gale Sayers, the former great Bear running back, and the late Patrick Nagel, an artist best known for his exotic drawings of sultry women in Playboy?

How many NFL players have gone through three Porsche sports cars in two years and pulled out the back seats to accommodate an elaborate stereo system that would normally be found only at rock concerts?

And how many players have the confidence, or nerve, to say what Johnson says--that he should have been named AFC rookie of year last season and also that he plans to participate in the long jump in the 1988 Olympics?

Johnson is different, all right. But he is more endearing than obnoxious, and he has led an interesting life compared to most 23-year-olds.

A native of Tucson, Johnson finished his college career fourth in all-purpose yardage with 3,442 and fifth in scoring with 168 points at Arizona. He made the All-Pacific 10 team in 1982, but he was far more successful in the long jump.


Johnson won the 1982 NCAA long jump championship and missed qualifying for the 1984 Olympics by two inches at the trials.

“I should have made it in ‘84, but some old guy (Mike McRae) beat me out for third,” said Johnson, who says he will try again in 1988 now that the International Olympic Committee has enabled professionals in one sport to compete in another.

“I figure if (hurdler and former football player) Renaldo Nehemiah can do it, I certainly should be able to do it. I still have speed and I won’t be too old, only 25.”

Perhaps Johnson’s problem, if he has one, is that he doesn’t yet know what he wants. In one breath, he enjoys being a wide receiver. But in the next, he says he wanted to be a running back like Sayers.

Even if he had mixed feelings, Johnson’s transition from college running back to pro wide receiver was surprisingly smooth.

“It was a big transition,” he said. “I didn’t think they’d play me for three years. But watching guys like Butch Johnson and Steve Watson, you pick up things. I didn’t come in with any bad habits because I never played the position before.


“I’ve always been able to catch the ball, and I’ve always had speed. Once I learned the routes to run, I liked it.”

But . . .

“I’d rather be a running back, because of Gale Sayers,” Johnson said. “It seems strange for a wide receiver to have Gale Sayers as an idol. Now, maybe I’ll idolize all the great wide receivers.”

Johnson, however, says he can see the day when he chucks all this football business and makes a living selling his paintings. Until recently, he says, he has kept his work “in the closet.” But a few weeks ago, he had a showing at an art exhibit, and on Thursday, USA Today reprinted his drawing of “Victoree,” the smiling woman, along with a feature story.

“I started very young, maybe 4 or 5,” Johnson said. “They used to have these things, draw the sailor man or something and win $5,000 in prizes. I never won, but I kept on drawing.”

Much of the nation will be observing Johnson’s other work at Cleveland Stadium Sunday. Win or lose, he’ll set up the easel afterward and express his feelings on the canvas.

“I can’t even guess what I’ll draw if we don’t win the game, probably a very sad woman,” he said. “I’d like to see another smiling woman.”