“Around The Five Leagues in 15 Years” could be the title of a book about Johnnie Walton’s rollercoaster journey in professional football.
In 1969, a starting black quarterback in the National Football League was less common than a man on the moon. While James Harris was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the eighth round in 1969, Walton was signed as a free agent with the Rams. Growing up in Elizabeth City, N.C., a small port town on the Atlantic Ocean, football and farming were staples for the Waltons. Family roots were planted firmly when his great grandfather, John Walton, settled on that land in the 1890s. A dirt patch in the midst of a cornfield and other spots on their 19 acres served as playing fields. Engaging in scrimmages were brothers William, Nathan, Lonnie Walton and a few others in the neighborhood. Torn clothes, tattered in blood were how games concluded.
Watching brother Nathan, four years older, excel on the field, Walton observed his moves and the position. When Nathan earned a scholarship to Shaw University, Johnnie considered that was a route to pursue.
Sharing in chores was part of the daily diet. Uncle Bertrand Barclift owned 250 acres, outside the city limits, since the late 1940s, where he grew corn, cotton, peas and other produce along with two dozen pigs. Throughout the year, the Walton brothers and extended families members all assisted Barclift in a variety of tasks. The farm is still owned and run by his heirs. When chicken was on the menu, Walton or a sibling would go out in the back yard, grab one from the dozen, chop the head off, pluck feathers then boil or bake it for dinner.
During recess as a freshman at PW Moore High School, coach Walter Hunter observed Walton throwing the ball. Seeing a potential prospect, Hunter pulled him aside and issued an order, ‘Next year, you’re coming out for football!’ An enrollment of 400 students and a varsity team with 45 kids, PW Moore held their own against schools often double or triple their size in Winston-Salem, Raleigh and southern Virginia.
Hunter’s strategy opened Walton’s mind and generated a potent aerial attack. “We used a lot of trapping and play-action,” he said. “There weren’t many teams doing what we did. We were a very disciplined team. Coach could always adjust the offense to give us an advantage; everything he did made sense. Learning his offensive philosophy, at that age, gave me a great foundation as I progressed in the game.”
Junior year, they lost in the state semifinal. Leading a long drive for the go-ahead touchdown in the closing moments, Walton made an impression in Fayetteville, N.C. against E.E. Smith High School and star quarterback Jimmy Raye II, who went to Michigan State. A backup quarterback on their 1966 Rose Bowl team, Raye II started for the Spartans in 1967. Drafted in the 16th round by the Rams in 1968, he was moved to defensive back, traded to the Eagles in 1969 and ended up as an assistant in the NFL for 36 years.
“When we got the lead I was sure we were going to win,” said Raye. “I remember how poised Walton was in the last drive. There weren’t too many teams that beat me. Walton operated a two-minute offense you just didn’t see at that time. I remember watching him throw a deep out and outside breaking ball. He had a classic delivery; you could see there was a lot of talent there.”
After an impressive prep career, Walton committed to Norfolk State, but when his sister, Phyllis, passed away he opted to stay home and attend Elizabeth City State University. Starting midway through his freshman season, the Vikings finished 3-5. Coach Thomas Caldwell’s affection for the forward pass suited the angular 6-2, 160 pounder. Utilizing a pro-style offense, the Vikings were putting it in the air over 30 times a game. As Walton developed, he elevated the Vikings, who improved to 5-3, 8-2 and 9-1 in the Central Intercollegiate Association Conference.
Starting linebacker Willie Stewart knew Walton tipped the balance. “We had a couple of good running backs, Grover Armstead and Grady Sessome, and Eugene Snipes at wide receiver,” he said. “Johnnie always had a great arm. With the other guys coming in, they all complemented each other and our passing took off the last two years. I don’t remember us being behind in too many games. I think the guys on the team thought Johnnie had a shot at the NFL.”
Throwing for 1,400 yards and 16 touchdowns, the Vikings came up a few percentage points short of qualifying for the playoffs Walton’s senior year. After the season, Caldwell received a call from a scout in Canada expressing an interest in Walton, but nothing materialized. Invited to an all star game for the best players in North Carolina, Walton pitched two touchdowns including a 50-yarder to Pete Davis. The next day, newspaper headlines called him the man with the million dollar arm.
While Southwestern Athletic Conference powers like Grambling State University, Jackson State and Texas Southern had been sending players to the NFL since the late 1950s, the Central Intercollegiate Association Conference consisted of lower level Division II schools and barely registered for professional scouts.
Opening the door to the NFL was made possible because of Caldwell’s friendship with Rams’ renowned scout Tank Younger. No other team expressed any interest.
Attending an award dinner for black colleges in Washington, D.C., Walton met Younger and signed a free agent contract for $200 in January, 1969. “He [Younger] talked about how tough the situation was and what I’d have to go through to make it,” said Walton. “I thought it’s funny, I am the guy with the million dollar arm, who’s signing for $200. But I welcomed the challenge and was grateful for the opportunity. My mindset was I wanted to see what I could do against the best. The Rams community accepted me; I felt I was in a great position.”
Coming out of Grambling in 1949, Younger was signed as a free agent and became the first player from a historically black college to join the NFL. A 6-3, 225, bruising fullback, he was a four-time pro bowler, who helped the Rams to a 24-17 win over Otto Graham and the Cleveland Browns in 1951. The Rams were runner up in 1949, 1950 and 1955. After a ten-year career [1958 with the Steelers] he became a scout working for general manager Elroy Hirsch [the Rams Hall of Fame receiver from 1949-57]. Younger’s astute eye kept the roster well stocked with talented finds from traditional black and white college powers and remote outposts. He became the first black assistant general manager in league history with the San Diego Chargers in 1975.
Innate confidence in his powerful right arm, Walton wasn’t awed taking the field against Deacon Jones and the Rams vaunted Fearsome Foursome. “I always had the mentality of, ‘Why not me,’” he said.
Getting acclimated to the speed and hitting, he received a welcome to the NFL. “Deacon Jones came in and put me in the ground real good,” said Walton. “[Hall of Fame lineman] Bob Brown told me, ‘I got you Rook.’”
Brown punched Jones in the sternum knocking the wind out of him. Jones responded with, ‘I am going to save it for Sunday.’
Since stepping on the gridiron as a teenager, Walton had the fortune of learning from innovative, offensive minds. This time, he was paired with a master of the craft in offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda, whose meticulous instruction was instrumental in Walton’s digesting the nuances of defensive formations.
“I was a raw talent,” said Walton, who was behind pro bowler Roman Gabriel and veteran Carl Sweeten. “I was accurate and knew where to go with the ball, but I wasn’t familiar with the defensive schemes. Coach Marchibroda was one of the best. He taught me what to do with pre-snap reads and decision making. He wanted you to identify what the defense was doing at the line; was it press coverage or man-to-man. Recognize where you were going with the ball in your third step, then confirm and get rid of it in your fifth step.
“You could tell by the way the cornerbacks left or right foot was positioned. After you got the concepts down it takes care of itself. I was very fortunate Marchibroda was teaching then, it turned out to be a very positive experience.” Finding a comfort zone with the right coaching staff is often the difference in a successful career. At quarterback, it’s imperative.
Drafted with the second pick overall out of N.C. State in 1962 [he was the first pick of the Raiders in the AFL], Roman Gabriel spent time at linebacker, wide receiver and tight end during his first four years with the Rams. Getting his start in professional football with the Los Angeles Rams in 1957 under Sid Gillman, George Allen moved to the Chicago Bears joining head coach George Halas the next season. Architect of the Bears stifling 1963 championship defense, Allen became head coach of Rams in 1966 with Marchibroda as the offensive coordinator. Signing with the Raiders , Allen made a visit to his house and persuaded him to stay with the Rams. [Gabriel’s option year required him to play for the Rams].
Taking Gabriel under his wing, he and Marchibroda put in long hours in the film room which translated to pro bowls in 1967, 68, 69 [with the Rams] and 1973 for the Eagles. Prepping at New Hanover High School in Wilmington, N.C., he was four years behind Sonny Jurgensen. The field is named Gabriel-Jurgensen in their honor. As a native North Carolinian, Gabriel felt a connection with Walton. “I thought John was ahead of the game [when he came to the Rams],” said Gabriel, who was the league MVP in 1969. “I was impressed with his arm and he had a good feeling of where to go with the ball. Ted taught him how to throw when his back foot hit the fifth step. John’s smart; he picked things up quickly. I think it was a case where coach Allen liked experience. I felt John had talent and you could see him progress. He was able to see the field better his second and third year.”
Farmed out to the Continental Football League with the Indianapolis Capitals that fall, Walton took over midway through the season and was named offensive MVP of the league throwing for 1,700 yards, which included 15 touchdowns in his last six games. They beat the defending champion Orlando Panthers 27-7 in the semifinal.
In the championship game, the Capitals were ahead 38-28 with a minute left, but the San Antonio Toros scored a touchdown, recovered an onside kick and converted a field to force overtime. The Capitals came back and got a rushing touchdown in overtime for a 44-38 decision, with Walton adding two touchdowns during the game. At that time, he was the only black to quarterback a team to a professional football title.
“The Continental League was a great experience,” said Walton, who made $4,900 for the season. “There wasn’t an opening in Los Angeles and no one was going to trade for me. We had some good wide receivers [at Indianapolis] and I was able to put up some numbers. I applied what I learned with coach Marchibroda and it gave me confidence.”
“You learn a lot of the [NFL] business is about who you know, and who knows you,” said Walton.
A proper diet and ample use of the weight room added a well needed 30 pounds to his frame. 1970 he was on the taxi squad impersonating the opposing team’s quarterback while gaining valuable experience.
Under new coach Tommy Prothro , Walton was having a strong preseason going into the last exhibition game. Dropping back to pass, Raiders 6-8, 275 pound defensive end Ben Davidson wheeled around from the blindside and tackle Tom Keating barreled through the middle making a sandwich out of Walton. The full force of 500 pounds-plus landed on top, cracking his sternum and separating his clavicle.
“I woke up on the sideline counting fingers,” said Walton. “They sedated me, took me to the hospital and put me in a body cast [for eight weeks].” Coming off injured reserve, Walton played on the taxi squad the rest of the season.
Growing up in Watts, Kermit Alexander spent Sunday afternoons watching the Rams offense slice through NFL defenses. Attending Mount Carmel High School and earning a scholarship to UCLA, he became an All-American running back. Alexander was San Francisco 49ers eighth pick in the first round of the 1963 draft. A six-year starter and kick-punt returner with the 49ers, he was traded to the Rams and became a starter at right corner back  and free and strong safety [‘71]. Traded to the Eagles, Alexander was relegated to special teams [’72, 73] because of his involvement as a union representative. The next two seasons he was placed on the taxi squad. In 1976, he was released before the season started. “Johnnie had a tremendous arm, but was just short on experience, he was a great talent and teammate,” said Alexander.
Near flawless execution by Walton elevated a premier defense. Frequently staying after practice, he’d throw balls helping Alexander cover the post corner route. “He became an all pro taxi squad player, who made our defense better,” said Alexander. “Once he learned to read defenses and hit the alternate receiver, he performed at a high level. He was going against an all pro defense. The veterans loved him because he made us work our asses off. He was better than half the quarterbacks in the league; we told him to persevere until he got a chance. Johnnie had a great attitude; his perseverance is a tribute to his character. He was always upbeat and guys pulled for him. We called him Johnnie Cool, because he’d stand tall in the pocket and never get rattled. He kept our moral up which is another reason [coach] Allen kept him. Allen recognized the defense needed guys prepared to play; he wanted to win and didn’t have to teach. Johnnie was very adaptable; he had to be to imitate all the opposing quarterbacks. I think his [over-the-top] delivery-motion was a lot like [Johnny] Unitas. He had a very strong arm with tremendous touch, long and short. He could make every throw.”
Released after the preseason in 1972, a team from the Canadian League called and asked Walton to come up and tryout. “My mindset was, if I can’t play against the best, I don’t want to play,” he said. It was a long three day drive back to Elizabeth City in his new Toronado. He spent the season working as a volunteer with his former high school and college team. Oddly enough, Harris, who sat out the 1972 season after being let go from the Buffalo Bills, was signed by Younger and ended up playing an integral role bringing the Rams close to a Super Bowl  as they lost 14-10 to the host Minnesota Vikings, in the championship game. Named All-Pro, Harris posted a 21-6 record as a starter; he was with Rams four of his 10 years in the league.
“I first heard about John Walton when I visited Michigan State [in 1965] and Jimmy Raye was my host,” said Harris. “He told me there was a great quarterback at Elizabeth City. I saw John in an exhibition game. He had a good delivery, was accurate, poised in the pocket with a big-time NFL arm, all the things you look for in a quarterback. I thought he was a cut above the rest.”
During the fall of 1973, Walton moved to Columbus, Ohio and got a job with the Ohio Youth Commission. In the afternoons he practiced with the Columbus Barrons of the Midwest Football League and coach Perry Moss. Starting with 45 guys, the number quickly dropped under 30. Games were played in high school stadiums with less than a couple thousand fans. One player was cut after getting lost and ending up at the wrong school.
While much of the action surrounding the team was dysfunctional, Walton took over the offense, putting up quality numbers and gaining valuable reps. Trying out for the Chicago Fire [of the World Football League] in the spring of 1974, he was released and out of football as former Bear Virgil Carter was named the starter. When the Florida Blazers moved from Orlando, Fla. and became the San Antonio Wings [spring 1975], they hired Moss as their coach. Bringing in Walton, he issued a message that was music to his ears. “The position belongs to you. It’s yours until someone takes it away,” he said. “That was a great feeling, it was encouraging; I’d never been told that before.”
“Moss was an offensive genius,” said Walton. “He had a great temperament and was real easy to work with.”
Implementing three-four wide receiver sets, Walton lifted the Wings’ aerial attack with 2,405 yards, 19 touchdowns and a 96.3 passer rating, leading the league in passing, he received All-Pro nomination. At 7-6 and undefeated at home, the Wings were anxiously awaiting a trip to Hawaii when the league folded [Oct. 22, 1975].
As starting middle linebacker for the Vikings [1965-70, including the Super Bowl IV loss to the Chiefs], Lonnie Warwick had seen his share of great quarterbacks. Taking the field, the hard-nosed, grizzled veteran was in for a surprise. “The first day of practice coach Moss said to me, ‘Lonnie, we got a guy who can really throw the ball.’ Man was he right,” said Warwick. “I was so amazed how good Johnnie was. I didn’t think anybody could throw like him; he was the best quarterback in the league by far. I said, ‘We got us a QB; we’re going to win some games! I played against [Johnny] Unitas many a time; he was so accurate it was unreal. Johnnie Walton reminded me of Unitas with his high, overhand release that was hard for defensive linemen to block. He could throw the deep ball with such a tight spiral and was very accurate. Coach Moss was an offensive genius. He said, ‘I like your attitude,’ and let me take over and call the defense. ‘All you have to do is hold them to a fewer points than we score.’ Johnnie and I would eat lunch together and he’d pick my brain about what teams were doing defensively. When the ball was snapped, he knew what to do and how to beat them. Our offense was almost impossible to stop. We had a good core of linebackers, if we had a few more linemen, we wouldn’t have lost a game. Our first 22 players were very good. I thought we could’ve beaten some of the bottom teams in the NFL.”
Emphatic about Walton’s ability, Warwick laments a career that could’ve been. “I would’ve loved to see Moss get an NFL job and bring Walton with; that would’ve been ideal,” he said. “He had an offensive mind like [49ers coach Bill] Walsh; he loved scoring points.” The margin for entry into the NFL was minute in the 1960s and’70s; becoming a starter hinged on an odd set of variables.
Tired of being broke in college, Warwick departed Tennessee Tech during winter break of his junior year and went to Douglas, Az. Laying track with a crew for the Southern Pacific Railroad, he was making $9.10 an hour on the night shift. Vikings director of player personnel Joe Thomas had stopped at Cookeville, Tn. and the film on Warwick caught his eye. The coach told him where to look. One day, a man rode over 30 miles down a dirt road on a scooter carrying a telegram from Western Union. “I thought someone had died,” said Warwick, who has lived in Mount Hope, West Virginia where he was born and raised since the early 1980s. The contract said, if you’re interested in playing for the Vikings, call back by 5 p.m. I hopped on the back of the scooter with this little Mexican guy, went back and called Thomas. I asked for a $10,000 signing bonus. He said no, so I signed for $9,500. I took a cut in pay and went straight to training camp.”
After a year on the taxi squad, Warwick started and called the defensive signals, while leading the team in tackles four of the next five years. Epitomizing the Black-and-Blue Division middle linebacker, Warwick was a key component as the Vikings defense took shape and became dominant in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
Starting nine games while battling injuries in 1971 and ’72, he was traded to the Atlanta Falcons and played two years behind Tommy Nobis. Warwick assisted Washington Redskins coach George Allen in 1976 and 77. Calling friends after the WFL folded, Warwick made a point of detailing Walton’s abilities. “I talked with Jim Finks [general manager for the Vikings 1964-73, Chicago Bears ’74-82, Saints ’86-92], the Rams and Redskins,” he said. “They all said to send film. I really don’t know if they followed up or not. Could Johnnie have started in the NFL and been successful? Oh gosh yes! It was hard to break into the NFL, especially if a coach didn’t know you. You had to really know the system and teams usually went with the guy they had. I saw a lot of guys that I thought could play in the league come and go. With the roster limit [of 40 and five on the taxi squad] they just didn’t get picked up. If Johnnie was coming out [of college] today, he’d have a 15-year career in the league. I played against Unitas, Bart Starr and Joe Namath; Johnnie could do the same thing. He was a rhythm passer who could absolutely thread the needle. He threw a beautiful spiral that was easy to catch. If we’d had Johnnie on those Vikings teams in the late 1960s and early 70s, I don’t know how many Super Bowls we’d have won. After seeing what he did in the WFL, I could never understand why someone did not take him right from there. He was already a polished player. How come he didn’t catch on and become a star in the NFL I don’t know? Maybe it’s me and that I liked him too much.”
Wings defensive coordinator Larry Grantham, who was a five-time pro bowler and signal caller as a linebacker for the New York Jets [1963-72, New York Titans 1960-62], was equally impressed with Walton.
“[Perry] Moss was a master with play-action passing, he spread people all over the field and Johnnie did a great job executing the offense,” said Grantham. “He was very accurate and could put the ball wherever it needed to be thrown.”
Extenuating circumstances that resembled a Three Stoogies episode came into play, following the 1975 season.
“I really thought Johnnie could go to an NFL team and start; I thought he had a great future,” said Grantham. “He’d gone through the learning process and was ready to play.
“The NFL looked down on the WFL. We tried to help a number of our players get placed with NFL teams. Everyone said, ‘Send film.’ We couldn’t get film from opposing teams and nobody could find the film from our own games. I called the Jets, but they were set at quarterback [Joe Namath was in his last year and Richard Todd was their first round pick].
“In pro football, when you’re on the outside looking in as a quarterback, it’s hard to get in unless you have a great college history behind you.
“I think the stigma of a black quarterback in the NFL was gone then, but for some of the southern teams it was still a no-no. We had a contact with our line coach Del Williams [Saints offensive lineman 1967-73]. Williams tried to get Walton there [with New Orleans], but couldn’t do it. We gave the Saints information on Walton, but when they found out he was black the conversation got real cold. They didn’t say it, but they whispered it.”
The Saints starting quarterbacks in the 1976 season were Bobby Douglas [six games] and Bobby Scott [eight games]. Archie Manning was sidelined after corrective surgery on his right shoulder.
Dick Vermeil, who was the special teams coach with the Rams in 1969 and offensive assistant in 1971-73, was making a national name as an offensive mind. In his second year at UCLA, he took the Bruins to the Rose Bowl [1976, for the first time in a decade] where they beat top-rated and undefeated Ohio State 23-10.
Moving into the NFL, he understood Walton’s professional makeup.
“Coach Vermeil called and said, ‘I am the head coach and he’d love for me to come to camp and tryout as a backup,” said Walton.
A strong showing in training camp  put him behind Gabriel [traded to the Eagles in 1973 and retired after 77] and Mike Boryla when the season started.
“I understood the terminology, knew what defenses to look for and became good at it,” he said. “I developed a good relationship with the coaches.”
Alexander said the difference in Walton’s game was considerable.
“Johnnie read defenses well, was able to adjust and make the right calls,” he said. “He was capable of leading a team. He could’ve started for a few teams [at that point].
On the field, Walton’s mettle was palpable.
“Johnnie’s big change was his confidence in himself,” said Vermeil. “When you are confident, the spin off is you are also more accurate. I think it took awhile for him to really believe he belonged in the NFL. He gradually developed an attitude, ‘I can play’ and demonstrated it every day he came to practice.”
Placed on the inactive list after four games in 1977, Walton had a strong camp in ‘78, but the Eagles had traded for Ron Jaworski in 1977 [the Rams drafted Jaworski in 1973 in the second round] and considered him the future.
“I competed well in seven-on-seven drills and felt I was right with Jaworski [in 1978 and ‘79],” he said.
Since 1966, the Cowboys had been the dominant team in the NFC East winning the conference 11 times. The Eagles were 2-19 against Dallas and hadn’t won there since 1965. By 1979, the Eagles were anxious to prove they belonged at the top of the ladder. Coming in with a three-game losing streak, they prepared for a mid-November Monday night tilt. Vermeil was 0-6 versus the Cowboys and there wasn’t much money bet on his squad. Meeting with the team Sunday night, he woke the 6-4 Eagles up stating they’d beat the Cowboys in another 24 hours.
With 1:35 left in the half, Jaworski received a hard hit by Cowboys defensive end Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones. Walton was summoned from the bench. A fumbled punt gave the Eagles great field position and Walton followed up connecting with Charlie Smith in the corner of the end zone, for a 29-yard touchdown. After an Eagles interception, Tony Franklin converted a 59-yard field goal as they went on to a 31-21 victory.
Vermeil didn’t hesitate with Walton.
“I was the offensive coordinator and called the plays,” said Vermeil. “I was asked after
the game about having Walton go in and putting the ball in the air.
“I believed he’d be successful; I knew he’d perform well because he’d done it in practice all season. I stayed with the game-plan to throw this specific pattern when he
went in. He fired a difficult corner pattern for a touchdown that was right on the money.”
As the Eagles sideline erupted, the shift in energy was evident as the teams filed into
the locker room.
“The stadium was quiet as a city morgue,” said Vermeil. “That was the first time we’d beaten them and it gave us momentum for the rest of the season.”
Going 5-1 the rest of the way, the Eagles had a 24-17 loss to the Cowboys. Tying for the NFC East title, they beat the Chicago Bears 27-17 in the wild card game, but lost to Tampa Bay 24-17 the next week. The following season, they lost to the Raiders in the Super Bowl.
Walton’s steadfast approach made an impression on Herman Edwards.
“Johnnie taught me about professionalism,” said Edwards, who was the Eagles’ starting right cornerback from 1977-85 and head coach with the New York Jets [2001-05] and Kansas City Chiefs [2006-08]. “As the scout team quarterback, he was always prepared and didn’t make mental mistakes. If anything happened he was able to enter the game cold and show up big for us. I think everyone knew we were in good hands [against Dallas] and it was fun watching him play. The game was never too big for him.
“Practice for him was like a game. He’d come out and try and wheel-and-deal; he was constantly pressuring our defense and we had a very good defense. He challenged us all the time and it helped me become a pro football player.
“Johnnie threw one of the prettiest balls I’ve seen. We called him Smooth because he was never in a panic and always kept his composure. He was a classic pocket quarterback; he read the defense and got rid of it.
“At that time, some teams had reservations about a black quarterback and some didn’t. There was a mindset and perception about the position. There were other positions that were tough [for blacks] to play in the league. There was still an Old Guard in the league. The NFL has evolved and it’s a different league now. It’s a level playing field as well as college football. The best players are put on the field to have it play out. We’ve come a long way.”
When the year ended, Walton was offered the head coaching position at his alma mater. He accepted, opting to retire.
“Coach Vermeil tried to talk me out of it and said the door was open if I changed my mind, but it was a decision I made,” said Walton, who taught at ElizabethCity Middle School through most of the 1970s in the offseason. In 1978 and ’79, he assisted with his alma mater’s football team in the spring semester. “It’s nice to have options. It was a great opportunity to go back home and I never was a money person.
“I knew the Eagles were headed to the Super Bowl, I was not sure how long it would take. Looking back, it’s a decision I regret, but that’s what decisions are about.”
Walton’s second year, the Vikings qualified for the DII playoffs. Flying into Marquette, Mich., at the end of November, the snow, cold and opposition were overwhelming as they lost 55-6.
“When we landed, all you could see was snow,” he said. “We had the wrong shoes, the wrong everything; it didn’t go well.”
Dr. Jimmy Jenkins, current president of Livingstone College in Salisbury, N.C. was chancellor at Elizabeth City State University [1977-95] and responsible for hiring Walton.
“Johnnie was a great role model and example for our players,” said Dr. Jenkins. “He proved what determination, tenacity and hard work can do and what happens when you take advantage of your opportunities and never giving up. That resonated with our athletes. They knew Johnnie was someone who did it on a big stage.
“He has a great name in Elizabeth City. He’s the boy who made good, but didn’t forget his roots. He came back and passed it forward.
“Johnnie and his siblings were overachievers. They were dedicated and ambitious. We hit if off well. The thing I stressed and he understood was that we wanted to have student-athletes, not people training for the NFL. My views about the classroom were consistent with his.”
Stewart, who went on to become a coaching icon at Anacostia High School in Washington, D.C. retiring in 2009, kept up their friendship. Coming down periodically in the offseason, he soaked up all Walton’s offensive acumen.
“Our coaches drilled and drilled John to make the right reads and understand where the primary and secondary receivers were,” said Stewart. “The defenses weren’t that sophisticated. Johnnie had all the tools he just didn’t have the fine points until he got to the pros. You could see how he developed [in professional football] after he refined his game.
“When I saw him play in the USFL [against Federals in Washington, D.C.], I said, ‘That’s the guy I remember from college.
“Johnnie’s a real country boy. I always went down there [to Elizabeth City] in the offseason to pick his brain. He was very helpful showing me what they did [offensively] with the Rams and Eagles’ passing game. I was able to use the three and five step drops and avoid the blitzes. It was beautiful. It worked perfect for us because we had a smaller line.
“I think the reason John made it was he loved to play that much. I don’t think it mattered that he was out of the NFL. His knowledge of the game always grew from his experiences.”
When the USFL got going in the spring of 1983, former Eagles receivers coach Dick Coury was hired by the Boston Breakers as head coach and general manager.
A three-sport athlete at Athens High School in Ohio, Coury, at 5-9, 150 pounds, had dreams of playing for Notre Dame. A week into preseason practice, coach Frank Leahy sent a message through Coury’s roommate, running back Jack Landry.
“Leahy said he was afraid I’d get hurt; it was the nicest thing I’d heard,” said Coury, who graduated with a physical education degree  and went into coaching. Earning his way through the ranks, he first served as head coach of Mater Dei High School [in Santa Ana, Calif., going 85-9-5] where he tutored John Huarte, who went on to win the Heisman trophy at Notre Dame  and a eight-year career in the NFL.
There was no question who he wanted as his starting quarterback.
“Johnnie was the first guy I called. I knew he was the guy we needed to lead the team; I
had no interest in anybody else,” said Coury. “As soon as you watched him work out you could see how talented he was. At the time, you couldn’t find many guys that threw like him. Johnnie was phenomenal with the go route, he could hit a receiver in full stride as good as anyone. Once you met Johnnie, you knew right away he’s the guy you want to build a team around. His attitude, the way he worked in practice and understanding of the offense, were what you wanted in your quarterback. We gave him the option to audible because we trusted him that much.”
It was a special time for Coury who had his sons, Steve and Tim, on the staff. Steve coached the wide receivers and Tim, who handled public relations, was on the field for the games.
Someone who knows quite a bit about quarterback play was Breakers co-owner Randy Vataha. Grabbing 89 passes and 12 touchdowns from Heisman trophy winner, Jim Plunkett, at Stanford over two years, the duo were instrumental in leading the Cardinals (9-3) to a 27-17 Rose Bowl victory over Ohio State. His 10-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter helped seal the win, which denied the Buckeyes (9-1) a national title.
A 17th round pick by the Rams, he was released after preseason. An encouraging word from Plunkett got Vataha a tryout with the New England Patriots. Making an immediate impact, he was fifth in receptions with 51 catches and 17 yard average. [The Raiders Fred Bilentnikoff was the NFL leader with 61. Bilentnikoff and Vataha tied for second with nine touchdowns. Miami’s Paul Warfield led the league with 11]. From 1971-76, Vataha caught 178 passes, he also led the team with 46 receptions in ‘75.
Oddly enough, in the 1971 Hall of Fame game, Walton threw two touchdowns passes against the Houston Oilers. The first one was to Vataha on a post pattern.
“When Dick [Coury] told me who they were bringing in at quarterback, I liked the idea of a guy who spent time at the pro level,” said Vataha, who is president of Game Plan LLC in Boston, Ma. “Being away from the game that long, you wonder if his instincts and reaction time were up to speed.
“Once I saw him throw the ball and how he reacted in the offense, it quickly dispelled any concerns I had. The adjustments Walton made were immediate. You have to give Dick a lot of credit for taking the steps to get him here. We were very fortunate to have Johnnie, he was a great leader.
“We had some great quarterbacks in our league [Jim Kelly, Steve Young], Walton showed he could compete with any of them.
“Could he have that type of success at the NFL level? From my observation, I think Walton had all the pieces to succeed as a NFL starter. But if I had the answer I’d be making a lot of money as a personnel director. It’s a strange animal at the highest level; you really need the right opportunity.”
Throwing the ball in practice at Elizabeth City State kept Walton’s arm well tuned. He didn’t miss a beat. Passing for 3,772 yards with 20 touchdowns and completing 56 percent Walton was second in the USFL in yards and touchdowns. The Breakers went 11-7 finishing second in the Atlantic Division behind Philadelphia, who lost in the championship to the Michigan Panthers, 24-22.
A midseason classic at Nickerson Field on the campus of Boston University against the Panthers, the Breakers drove 76-yards to the two-yard line before time expired in a 28-24 loss. Providing plenty of excitement, Walton was 37-of-48 for 423 yards and three touchdowns [a record at the time].
Picked to finish last, the Breakers dropped three games by a total of 14 points, but rallied going 6-2 missing the playoffs by one game. They had the third best offense in the league.
One of the highlights was beating Jim Mora’s Philadelphia Stars 19-17 in Boston snapping their eight-game win streak. Driving the field, they were in position on the 14-yard line. Dropping back, Walton uncoiled a fastball that ricocheted off Charlie Smith’s left hand and into the arms of Frank Lockett for the game-winner. A month earlier at Philadelphia, they lost 23-16 with Walton just missing a potential game-tying pass, also on the final play.
Carl Peterson, tight end and special teams coach with the Eagles [1976-82], general manager of the Philadelphia Stars and general manager for the Kansas City Chiefs [1989-2008], was well versed with Walton and how the USFL opened the field for dozens of players to showcase their talents.
“John had one of the strongest arms and was a person of great character,” said Peterson. “He threw a beautiful tight spiral, the same type of ball Warren Moon threw. He had a stronger arm than Gabriel [at that time] and Boryla. His arm was similar to Jaworski’s, but with a tighter spiral.
“Dick [Coury] wanted veteran guys he was comfortable with and John ended up doing a great job; I was happy for John.
“I remember the loss distinctly [at Boston]; it was very disappointing. We thought we won, but John brought them back and throws a great pass and they win. He was the difference in the last drive.
While fans poured onto the field and the Breakers celebrated in the end zone, “We ran for the locker rooms,” said Peterson.
Guys were taking their pads off and there was a knock on the door. It was the referees insisting the team come back out for the extra point. “I said listen, I am not going to take the team back out I don’t care what the league does,” said Peterson, who was fined $10,000 for his comments. “Jim Mora felt the same way.
“The USFL was a great league that accomplished a great deal. It allowed guys to resurrect or continue careers for a lot of young aspiring players. There were many guys who went onto the NFL to have great and even Hall of Fame careers.”
Moving to New Orleans for their second season, Walton put up 3,500 yards [second most total yards in the league] and 17 touchdowns. He posted 93.3 and 95.4 passer ratings for his two years in the USFL. Walton’s numbers from the WFL, Eagles and USFL were 10,069 yards, 59 touchdowns and 62 interceptions.
“Our offense was similar to the one we had with the Eagles,” said Coury, who was named Coach of the Year in 1983. Now 84, he’s retired and living in San Diego, Ca. “We used a lot of spread formation, pack rolls, drop back and play action. John’s leadership was outstanding. He had a strong arm, was very accurate with the short passing game and read defenses well. We had tremendous faith in him. He dominated the league and was great from day one for two years.
“John played very well with the Eagles, but Jaws [Jaworski] was a hell of a quarterback. He should’ve played in the NFL longer than he did.”
Making it a habit to drive the length of the field when the game was on the line, Walton earned the respect of everyone in the league. Breakers’ offensive coordinator Gabriel was effusive about Walton’s command of the position.
“John was a great leader,” he said. “Our offensive line wasn’t the greatest, but he stood in the pocket like a pro; he had no fear.
“Nobody expected us to be in the playoff hunt. John was amazing, without him we never would have been close. I trusted his judgment as much as mine. We put the game plan in together.”
Raised in the Baptist church and a man of faith, Walton never complained about his musical chairs positions across the country and felt God always had an assignment. “You never know how life takes its course,” said Walton. “It was in the back of my mind to prove I could play at that level. This was the last opportunity, against great competition and I decided to give it a shot. I felt I was at my peak and I had a chance to be a starter.” The Breakers’ offense was an ideal fit.
“We used the run-and-shoot which I was familiar with,” said Walton. “It was passer friendly which was perfect for me. We had Smith and Lockett as receivers and [former Cincinnati Bengal] Dan Ross at tight end. Not everybody gets a chance to do something they love. The only thing you can ask is a chance to prove what you can do.”
Never short on last second heroics during his two-years, Walton came up big against the Chicago Blitz in the Superdome in 1984 before 43,692 fans. Engineering the Blitz was former Bears quarterback Vince Evans, who played eight years with the Oakland Raiders [1987-95 after seven with the Chicago Bears, 1978-83]. Tied at 35 in overtime, wide receiver coach Steve Coury called a pump-and-go route. Dropping back to the 50-yard line, Walton rifled a rope over Lockett’s right shoulder, just inside the 10-yard line for the game-winner, 41-35. He finished 29-of-43 for 440 yards and four touchdowns.
Packing the proper punch, Walton’s easy touch carried weight.
Buford Jordan, who led the team in rushing [1,276 yards] and was third in receiving , knew his instruction was invaluable.
“I caught 12 passes my entire career in college [at McNeese State],” said Jordan. “Johnnie knew where everybody on the offense was supposed to be. He took me aside and threw the ball with me after practice every day, running routes and drills until I was comfortable. If anyone had a question, Johnnie would have the answer. The way he explained each situation made it real easy to understand.
“A lot of times during the games there were really tight spots, on a seam route or swing pass, but Johnnie would put it in where you didn’t lose stride. When he got hurt, everything went down hill. [A knee injury against the Birmingham Stallions knocked Walton out for a couple games]. The Breakers, who were 5-0 at that time, finished the year 8-10.
“He was a very humble person. I patterned myself after him. There were a lot of guys in the NFL who were better than me, but didn’t have it mentally and didn’t want to study the mental side. That was the difference in my career.”
Switching to fullback with the Saints [1986-92], Jordan carved out a nice career paving the way for Rueben Mays, Dalton Hilliard and a few others. A native of Iota, La., he now lives in Kenner, La., and owns Rock Hard Performance Training. In 2011, Jordan was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
Rehabbing an injured knee, Coury asked Walton to assist the Breakers as quarterback coach, when the team moved to Portland for their third season.
Walton got back into coaching for one year when the World League of American Football put together the Raleigh-Durham Skyhawks . Gabriel was hired as the head coach and brought Walton in as offensive coordinator.
Unlike most of his former teammates, Walton says he’s in great shape and never had a major surgery over the course of his career.
“I’ve been quite fortunate,” he said. “When you walk behind Roman Gabriel [seven knee surgeries and one reconstruction], you hear a constant clickety-clack.”
Retiring last January after teaching health and physical education at an alternative school, Walton is enjoying the gentle southern pace with his lovely wife, Earline, who was a year behind him in high school. His father, Booker Walton, celebrated his 95th birthday Jan. 28.
Walton served on the Elizabeth City council the last 10 years. He ran for mayor in 2013 the last election and lost by 300 votes [1,600-1,300]. His five children are in Tampa, Atlanta, Charlotte and Baltimore and visit frequently.
“I don’t want to spend time in traffic,” said Walton, who always returned to Elizabeth City in the offseason. “I never liked the hustle and bustle of the big city.”
Family ties have always carried weight. The annual summer family reunion has over 250 relatives, who come in for the festival the third week in July.
Seth Schwartz is a freelance writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org