Larry Johnson was arguably best Panther football player ever
By Jim Turner

Posted on May 16, 2020 6:24 PM

In my 1976 publication Football City about the first 41 years of Russellville High School football, I wrote, “There was never another Russellville player who so singly dominated the action as did Larry Johnson.” Forty-five seasons later, which have included three state championships and three other state finalist berths filled with star players, nothing has changed my mind about Larry’s perch at the top point of the RHS golden star floating metaphorically over Rhea Stadium.

Twenty years or so ago, I was doing a Feedback on WRUS about Russellville football history when host Don Neagle asked me who was the best football player ever at RHS. I told him that Larry Johnson was tops in my mind. I would say the same thing again in 2020. Larry called into the show a few minutes after I said it with emotion in his voice. I’m glad he heard me say it.

Larry Johnson died this week. He had not been in great health for a few years, but the abdominal/ intestinal illness which claimed his life wreaked its havoc during a two-week span, says his daughter, Veronica Johnson, who was at his bedside as was one of his granddaughters, Ashley Bland.

I never got to watch Panther great runners like Homer Chapman, Owen Chapman, Jimmy Sanford and Sonny Duncan play. I did see Garry Todd, Jonathan Cage, Darwin Washington and Dustin Sydnor in later years. They all had great seasons and careers, but Larry Johnson is still my guy.

Here’s what I wrote about Johnson in Football City:

1960: Dicky Bagby overshadowed junior captain Larry Johnson, but area coaches realized the potential that Johnson possessed by naming him all-WKC and all-SKY quarterback ahead of BGH’s talented Joe Bill Campbell.

1961- Larry Johnson! No matter what else happened in this year, Larry Johnson will be what is remembered. Johnson created excitement that was unparalled. Former great Panther runners had been in the backfield with other capable backs. Now, it seems difficult to remember anyone else being in the backfield with Johnson. The shifty speedster could do it all.

When the season ended, Johnson had scored a fantastic 174 points, doing it on every kind of run imaginable. He could fill the stadium by himself with uncanny moves that almost always led to scores.

“Johnson was a natural,” his coach, Waymond Morris told me in 1976. “He read defenses perfectly and he had the moves. Besides that, he played defense as well. He loved to hit.”

Only in a 34-6 loss to Murray was Johnson held below 100 yards in rushing. His best game was against Crittenden County when he ran for 328 yards in 12 carries (27.3 yards per carry), scored five touchdowns, which included kickoff returns of 98 and 95 yards to bring his total yardage to over 600 in the game.

He followed that with 260 yards and touchdowns of 76 and 50 yards in a 27-13 loss to Franklin-Simpson. Wildcat coach Bob Brown said Johnson was “probably the best back to ever set foot on our field.”

Johnson broke the WKC rushing record with 1,796 yards (180 per game) on 190 carries for an average of 9.5 yards per carry. He averaged 37 yards per carry on his 28 touchdowns, only four of which were less than 10 yards.

BGH edged the Panthers 20-19, but legendary coach Jim Pickens said, “He’s the best football player we faced all season. He’s bound to be the best runner in Kentucky. I’ve only coached against two boys who sent cold shivers over me every time they had the ball—Johnson and Calvin Bird of Corbin (who starred at Kentucky). And this boy could do more than Bird could.”

Franklin’s Brown said, “If Johnson isn’t All-State, their ain’t no such animal.”

Daily News Sports Editor Bert Borrone commented, “Any all-state team which omits this young fellow will be laughed out of the state by the thousands who saw him play.”

He not only was named All-State but also All-American. He was All-WKC again and SKY League Player of the Year.

The LoJo

Some of my memories of Larry Johnson in high school:

1)     He ran a 99-yard quarterback sneak, going straight up the middle from his own 1-yard line. I still see it in my mind.

2)     He earned a starting spot on Coach Jim Young’s 1961 regional finalist basketball team, the first Panther squad to reach that level. He is one of four starters on that team who have been inducted into the Russellville Alumni Association’s Athletic Hall of Fame, along with Dicky Bagby, George Hill and Wayne Mullen. It was 31 more years before the Panthers reached the regional finals again. He was also a talented baseball player.

3)     His level of fatigue seemed connected to his shoulder. Usually in the second half of games in which he had piled up triple-figure yards along with multiple touchdowns and tackles without sitting out a play, he would suddenly be lying on what is now known as Ken Barrett Field, grasping his shoulder, which had “gone out.” When the pain subsided (and as I always told him when he had caught his breath), he was at it again, amassing more statistics.

4)     One afternoon he and I were standing beneath the east basket of what was then the RHS basketball gym. He had a football in his hand. “You think I’m just a runner, not a passer, don’t you?” he said. I think I answered, “You’re such a good runner you don’t have to pass.”

“Look out that door down there. See that wastebasket? Watch this,” he growled.

A single door was in the far right corner of the gym under the steps going up to the visitors’ dressing room. The door led to Chuck Lynch’s industrial arts shop, only a few feet away from the Rhea Stadium rock wall. A small wastebasket was just outside the door, about 30 yards from where we were standing.

Larry only threw the football once, and he did it flatfooted. Not only did he throw it hard enough to travel the distance, not only did he throw it through that small door, and not only did he drop it in the wastebasket, but—consider this—the basket stayed upright because he had such a soft touch.

Fifty-nine years later, it’s still the most amazing athletic feat I’ve ever seen in person.

In Facebook posts this week, countless people have commented on his contributions to Russellville as a player, a volunteer, a supporter, a businessman, a friend, and a frequent commentator on Facebook.

Former County Attorney Tom Noe, who was the sixth man on that 1961 regional finalist basketball team, and Joe Hicks—one of Russellville’s greatest offensive linemen—both wrote about being an honor to block for Larry Johnson. Both talked about his not really needing blockers, but it should be noted that his primary blocker in that record-breaking season was former magistrate Dickie Carter, who was moved from the line to fullback by Coach Morris to protect his team’s greatest asset.

One of the greatest highlights of Larry’s parenting was watching his son, “Little Larry,” quarterback the 1990 state championship. He also got to see his daughter Veronica coach RHS softball, granddaughter Katy Johnson Whitford play softball very well for the Lady Panthers, and granddaughter Ashley Bland become an accomplished sports photographer for The Logan Journal.

Larry remained a great supporter of Russellville athletics all his life, and he volunteered to help get ready for football and baseball games. Several former baseball players and parents have recalled his grilling skills for the concession stands.

He was born in Russellville on July 9, 1944 to the late Marion ‘Dealer’ Johnson and Iona Mae (Nash) Johnson. Dealer was Logan County Clerk for 13 years until his death and instilled a love of Democratic politics in his descendants. Larry was a member of the Muddy River Baptist Church, formerly owned and operated the Village Barn, worked for the State Road Department and was a United States Navy Veteran.

Larry is survived by his wife of 52 years, Faye Johnson; his sons, Chris Johnson (Kaitlyn) and Larry Johnson II (Brooke), all of Russellville; his daughter, Veronica Johnson of Bowling Green; his brother Gerry Johnson (Sammie) of Auburn; his sisters, Marian Ann Westfall of Bowling Green and Becky Johnson of Russellville; his grandchildren, Ashley Bland, Katy Whitford, Brianna Johnson and Easton Johnson; and his great-grandchild, Rylen Martin.

Vernoica says: “Daddy did not want a funeral service and, instead, requested to be cremated. However, after talking it over with Mom, we knew exactly what Daddy would have wanted if anyone wanted to honor him.

“Football, especially his beloved Panthers, was extremely important to him! I remember him taking me to football games at Rhea Stadium when I was as young as 3 years old. He may not have been able to go watch them play much in the last couple of years, but you can bet he was sitting in his recliner at home listening to them on WRUS!

“With that being said, we have decided that any monetary donations in Daddy's name should be made to The R Club to help take care of our Panther football team. We all know that is what he would want and how we would like to honor his memory.”

Greg Owens says: “If you wish to make a contribution in Larry's name to The R Club, which solely supports our brick memorial at Rhea Stadium and Panther Football, you can do so by sending it to The R Club, Russellville City Schools, 355 South Summer Street, Russellville Ky 42276 

Central Office staffer Mark Coursey adds, “Anyone making a donation to The R Club should write “R Club” in the check memo so I will know how to credit it.

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