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Floyd Johnson: Heart of Y. athletics in equipment room

200 athletes will gather Thursday to honor Johnson

OREM — For more than half of his 80 years, Floyd Johnson has been the heart and soul of the BYU athletic department, which is remarkable for a man who never threw a touchdown pass, never coached a minute, never made headlines. But he did wash dirty socks. His official title is Equipment Manager, but that never quite covered his job description.

Johnson works quietly in a small back room, where the washing and sewing machines whir and the door is purposely left open so that athletes must enter the room to get their equipment, the better to visit with them, get to know them, help them.

His way of doing the job wasn't always welcomed. Shortly after Johnson was hired in 1957, an assistant football coach overheard him giving religious counsel to a player. The coach confronted Johnson a few minutes later.

"I'm going to give you a piece of advice," the coach said. "You keep your mouth shut when it comes to the church. You were not hired to be a missionary. You're nothing but a jock washer."

Oh, but he turned out to be so much more. Johnson lay awake all that night and decided the coach was wrong; it was his duty to do more than wash jocks at BYU. Johnson decided his job was to protect his players physically and spiritually and to take care of the equipment, in about that order. Ever since then, he has taken hundreds of athletes under his wing. He has prayed with them, cried with them, sent them on missions, put his arm around them, listened to their problems, advised them on matters of schooling, girls and marriage, set them up with their future wives.

Even the toughest, meanest athletes have been drawn in by his warmth and sincerity. Nobody could resist the tall gangly man with the large ears, big heart and gentle, warm countenance. The deep lines in his face were grooved not by the years so much as by the wide smile that made a permanent home there.

"Everybody loves him," says Jason Buck, the former Outland Trophy winner. "He's as nice a man as you'll ever meet."

"He has been like a second father to hundreds of athletes," LaVell Edwards once observed.

If you want an idea of the depth of feeling that Johnson engenders, talk to Gary Pullins, a former BYU player and coach who is now assistant athletic director.

"This is one of most unforgettable characters in BYU history," he gushes. "He affected the lives of every athlete who wore a pair of socks. You talk about your experience with coaches and the thrill of winning and the agony of losing and all that, but then someone says, 'Do you remember Floyd Johnson?' Then it's, 'Do I remember? He gave me this advice, he helped me with such and such.' In my own case, he is the first person I spoke to very close to me. I talked to Floyd. When you say, 'Do you remember Floyd Johnson?' it chokes you up. He loved us whether we won or lost. Everybody talked to him and asked for his advice. Should I go on a mission? When do I get married? He's there from the time you're 18 until you're 25 and a returned missionary with a family. Every athlete in every sport knew Floyd."

On Thursday afternoon, a few hours before the football season opener, some 200 former athletes will gather in Provo to honor Johnson.

Their numbers will include Marc Wilson (flying in for the occasion from Seattle), Gifford Nielsen (all the way from Houston), Jason Buck, Mike Reid and Devin Durrant, among many others. Not bad for an equipment manager.

"I'm glad I'm not doing the tribute because I would be very emotional," says Pullins.

Johnson actually retired in 1984, but he couldn't stay away and nobody wanted him to. His boss, concerned that Johnson had been underpaid for years, devised a way to pay him more. If he retired at 65, the boss explained, he could give him a $7,000 bonus. Johnson had never had that much money in his life. "But," his boss said, "we don't want to lose you. We'll hire you right back."

So Johnson was retired and rehired. For the next 13 years, he received part-time pay and did a full-time job until some official busybody informed his supervisors they were in violation of school policy, even if Johnson had only followed his boss's recommendation. Lawyers advised him to sue, but there was no way he would do that to BYU. He wrote a letter to the school saying he would retire, but could he still serve without pay? For the last two years he has worked six hours a day for nothing "because I love to be around those kids." Johnson works a morning shift, drives back to his small Orem apartment to help his wife Hannah, who has been crippled by arthritis for years, then returns to BYU in the afternoon.

"I have had the best of all lives," he says.

Most of his working days consisted of 12-hour stints in the equipment room, followed by hours of service as a Mormon Church bishop. Somehow he and Hannah found time to raise three daughters, one son and seven Native American foster children, not to mention all those BYU athletes. He remembers almost every athlete to pass through the school. He can still name the lineup for the 1957 football team. They remember him, too. He'll tell Hannah he's going to the Marriott Center for an hour, and three or four hours later, after running into old acquaintances, he still hasn't returned.

"They're all my friends," says Johnson.

When Johnson was hired 43 years ago, he knew nothing about being an equipment manager, and neither did anybody else in Provo. He was stocking shelves in a grocery store at the time to support his young family. A friend set him up to interview for the newly created equipment manager's position at BYU, his alma mater.

The interview with athletic director Eddie Kimball went something like this:

"Do you know anything about equipment?"

"Yeah, I played high school football."

"How many cleats are on a football shoe?"

"Well, I know there are two on the heel."

"You're hired."

His first day on the job, Johnson sat in the equipment room all day with a football helmet on his head — "To get the feel of what it was like" — and studied the equipment, trying to decide how it was to be used. There were still a few leather helmets on the shelves, and the shoulder pads were made of pressed cardboard. At the end of the off-season, the pads were mashed flat from being stacked during the off-season. Think of the changes he has seen. When he began, he was stocking short shorts and black leather high-top football shoes with steel shanks; now he stocks Spandex, long shorts and sports bras.

Johnson's job was anything but glamorous. He spent hours at a sewing machine, more hours repairing equipment, and still more hours scrubbing football uniforms with nothing but his hands and Ivory soap. He performed his job with great earnestness. He consulted a chemist for several months to devise a formula to remove grass stains from football pants. It took him 90 minutes to glue the lettering for BRIGHAM YOUNG UNIVERSITY on each track uniform.

"I wasn't smart enough to shorten it to B-Y-U," he says.

But he was smart enough to dream up several equipment innovations. In Johnson's early years, football players belted pads around their hips and then wore pants over them. The problem was, the pants slid down and the hip pads rode up, especially when wet. Johnson found a better way. He cut slits in the hip pads and threaded the belt through the pants and pads together. Soon everybody in the country was doing it.

The shoulder pads of the day did not fit low enough to cover the sternum, which became a frequent source of injuries. Johnson created a sternum pad. Chin straps tended to slide off chins; Johnson was among the first to create the four-point chin strap that everybody uses today.

Johnson could have made millions off his innvovations, but "I didn't have sense enough to patent those things," he says.

There was one more innovation. For years, Johnson and his wife and kids drove to the fieldhouse every night to sort laundered socks. It took hours to match them to a player (each pair was marked with a jersey number). One day Johnson saw some net material and got an idea. He fashioned bags out of net, put a player's laundry in it, tied it shut with a shoestring, idenitified the bag with a jersey number, and stuck it in the laundry. Just like that, no more sorting. Every athletic department in the country uses that system today.

Johnson was ahead of his time in more serious matters, as well. For decades it was believed that returned missionaries couldn't play football. It didn't help that the Cougars had a string of non-LDS coaches who promulgated that belief. Johnson repeatedly argued with head coach Tommy Hudspeth about the issue.

"You lost your scholarship if you went on a mission," recalls Johnson.

What the coaches didn't realize was that while they were telling players they couldn't serve a mission, Johnson was working behind the scenes telling them they could and should serve missions.

"The first returned missionary I had at BYU was LeGrand Young," recalls Johnson. "He walked-on to show them a missionary could play. He was as bullheaded as his son (49er quarterback Steve)."

Years later, after BYU became a national football powerhouse despite, or because of, returned missionaries, their rivals claimed missionaries had given them an advantage. The 1984 national championship team had 52 returned missionaries on the roster.

Through the years, Johnson became a favorite speaker around the state, particularly for youth groups. A natural storyteller with a gift for dialogue and detail, he entertained and inspired audiences with stories of BYU athletes, always with a message. He collected so many stories that eventually he compiled them for two books (Touchdowns, Tip-offs and Testimonies, I and II). Johnson also organized and managed a speaker's bureau for BYU athletes, which provides some 300 speakers a year for various organizations.

Johnson, the guy was supposed to merely wash jocks, has quietly made his mark on everyone remotely associated with BYU sports, and he's still going strong. With his 81st birthday just three months away, he says he will continue "as long as I can do some good."

When Johnson finally stops coming to the equipment room, he won't ever really be replaced. Somebody will hand out equipment, but who will hand out all those other things?