It is a "Who's who?" list of BYU football icons. LaVell Edwards, Tom Holmoe, Steve Young, Ty Detmer, Gifford Nielsen, Chad Lewis, Marc Wilson, Bryan Kehl, Jason Buck, Gordon Hudson, Robbie Bosco, Vai Sikahema, Bronco Mendenhall, Eldon Fortie, and Kalani Sitake. The list goes on and on. It also includes prominent figures like President Thomas S. Monson, U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, and long-time Voice of the Cougars Greg Wrubell. All of these men, as well as many women, have shared their stories in a new book about a man who forever changed college athletics, but especially BYU Cougars sports.
That man is Floyd Johnson.
If you have visited Blue Cougar Football in the last few months, you may have noticed the picture of a book entitled Brother J: Soul of a Champion by J. Bartley Whiting. It is the culmination of a labor of love by Whiting to ensure Johnson's legacy lives on. A legacy that every member of Cougar Nation should know and embrace.
When the word revolutionize is used in connection with BYU athletics, it is almost always used in reference to LaVell Edwards changing college football with his success and advancement of the forward pass. Long before that, Johnson had brought universal changes to football.
"Floyd was a tremendous innovator in early era of sports equipment. He started back in the 'horse and buggy' days. In the mid 1950s, they had just gone from leather helmets to metal. They were designed with a leather chinstrap, a rope suspension inside, and the facemask was bolted right to the helmet. A lot of Floyd's innovations happened before I started, such as the cage loop. That is the plastic bracket that holds the facemask on the helmet. He would see players getting head injuries, and out of necessity, he punched holes in a strap of leather. This was looped around the facemask in an attempt to absorb some of the force. More companies picked up on it, and now they have very specific strengths and sizes of heavy-duty plastic. Every football helmet from Pop Warner to the NFL uses the cage loop design today. Floyd had a lot of credibility in the industry due to that innovation, and I would still hear about him for years.
"Padding for hips and tailbones didn't exist as part of the uniform back then. Anything they were trying would ride up, not staying in place. He began to cut slots, to wind a belt through, fastening the pads underneath the pants. Nothing like that existed at the time. The sports equipment company Adams, picked up on the idea and came to him. He was happy to consult and share his idea. The only thing Floyd asked was that they catalog it as a 'BYU' pad. For years, you ordered a hip and tail combo pack as the BYUHP (BYU hip pad). If he had asked for a patent, or even a very small percent for these innovations he would have made millions. He was never about those material things, but was looking for a way to protect his athletes better."
(Mick Hill, BYU's Director of Equipment Operations, 1982-Present)
Not all of Johnson's innovations had as far reaching effect as the cage loops or hip pads. In fact, they may have just been a temporary customization, but one directly impacted who won the 1962 WAC football championship.
"Floyd was a master of improvising the equipment. At the end of my senior year, I injured my throwing shoulder with a partial clavicle dislocation. This was before the last game of the year, against Wyoming. If they beat us, the Cowboys would be conference champs in the first year of the WAC (Western Athletic Conference). Floyd adjusted the shoulder pad so that I could wear it and still play in the game. It was a great innovation, to even be able to lift my shoulder and receive the snap from center. If it wasn't for him I would not have been able to play in that important game. My upper arm was taped to my side so I couldn't pass but I could move my elbow up and down and still run and pitch. It was one of the most memorable games of my career--all thanks to Floyd. At BYU we had the great opportunity to go on to bigger things. Floyd was a big part of that for me."
(Eldon "The Phantom" Fortie, 1959-62, BYU Hall of Fame)
BYU beat Wyoming that year 14-7, and New Mexico won the championship.
Johnson was just as great of an innovator off the field. The notorious firesides that head coach Bronco Mendenhall regularly held were just extensions of the Speaker's Bureau that Johnson organized and managed for many years. He didn't set out, however, to make motivational and devotional speaking an extension of BYU sports.
Johnson was assigned to give a talk in his local congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"'I wanted to give a talk that would impress young people,' he recalled. Using athletic shoes, he explained about the different parts of shoes comparing them to traits he had seen in such men as Kresimir Cosic, a former BYU basketball player from Yugoslavia, and Paul Devine, the first black football player to play at BYU. 'I gave the talk and ran out of time but the bishop wouldn't let me stop,' Johnson recalled.
"Following his talk, invitations to speak began pouring in. He started to take athletes with him. As requests to speak mounted, he delegated more and more assignments to the athletes. Now Johnson serves as the 'unofficial director' of the BYU athletics department 'official speakers' bureau' said BYU's assistant athletic director Alan 'Pete' Witbeck."
(Excerpts from a Church News article by Kevin Stoker, He Serves by Teaching Young BYU Athletes Habits of Service, February 23, 1986.)
"The firesides are essential to the completion of the athletic programs at BYU. The service component and sharing to the world is a compelling reason to even have athletic programs. To have a chance to share a meaningful message lends a very powerful example. The reach of the Church and BYU is huge. Once we were in the backcountry of Peru preparing for a long hike and we stopped in a pottery store. As we were looking through the items, a guy in the back spinning a pot comes out. He had an apron on, with a BYU football shirt underneath. He recognized me and pointed to the shirt. Of course I didn't speak the language but we both understood. It was a reminder of how broad the reach is of not only the BYU football program, but the church as well."
(Bronco Mendenhall, BYU football head coach, 2005-15)
Johnson didn't exclude athletes who were not members of BYU's sponsoring religion from participating in the Speakers' Bureau.
"When [Floyd] sent me out on my first speaking assignment ever I was so nervous! It was a small town and I enter this small auditorium packed with people. I was not LDS at the time and had never really been in front of people in that capacity. They made me feel so at home. This was somewhat of a breakthrough for me because I was not an outgoing person when it came to speaking."
(Jamal Willis, Running Back, 1991-94)
Through his sincere interest in knowing and caring about the student-athletes, Johnson was able to manipulate the Speakers' Bureau to play matchmaker. He played a role in Steve and Michelle Kaufusi's relationship, as well as Craig and Sheri Denney, just to name a few. Not only did both Steve and Craig play on the football team, but they have both had several sons come through and have an even greater impact on the football program.
Besides pairing up male and female athletes, Johnson worked one-on-one with athletes behind the scenes sharing his testimony and caring about their spiritual well being.
"Floyd was an outstanding person. Floyd said the following after talking with me for the first time in the BYU equipment room: 'Brother Sheide, we're glad to have you at BYU, and I know some day you will become a member of this church.' I replied, 'Why would you say such a thing?' His response was, 'I can tell that you are an honest and hard working young man, and your heart will be open to the truth some day.' He always kept asking me if I'd joined yet until the day that I answered I had, and thanked him for his encouragement. Floyd was such a good man."
(Gary Sheide, Quarterback, 1973-74)
When Johnson first began working at BYU in the late 1950s, such openness about religion wasn't received very well by the football coaches who were there. At one point, an assistant coach threatened Johnson that he would lose his job if he continued to talk religion with the athletes. Johnson didn't take the threat lightly. It worried him all night, but by the morning, he came to the conclusion he would not change. That assistant coach wasn't the one who gave him his job, so he wouldn't take orders of that nature from him.
Everything Johnson did, whether it was sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ or attending to the needs of athletes through his duties as an equipment manager, was done in the spirit of service. Therefore, in 1999, BYU instituted the Floyd Johnson Service Award. From 1999 to 2003, one male and one female student athlete was given the award. Since 2004, the award has gone to just one student-athlete.
When Johnson passed away in February 2002, the gathering of former athletes and others who had their lives touched by him was not unlike what recently happened for LaVell Edwards.
Many newspaper and magazine articles were written over the years praising Johnson, but his story is one that is worthy of repeating. Brother J does just that, and much much more. It is a book that any BYU fan of any sport is sure to enjoy. Anyone who has been influenced for good by BYU sports, and wants their family and friends to receive that same influence, would be wise to purchase a copy of this book. It is available in print for $18.75 and electronically for $5.99. Click here for more information.
Editor's note: Blue Cougar Football was not involved in the publishing of this book and is not receiving any monetary benefit by publishing this story or otherwise promoting the book.
The Editor appreciates all feedback. He can be reached via email at email@example.com