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Legend and Legacy: Charley Johnson, the quarterbacking chemist

The Broncos' Ring of Fame honors those who have most impacted the franchise. Here are photos of all 34 members, arranged in order of their selection from when the Ring of Fame was created in 1984.

As we head into the 2015 NFL season, the Denver Broncos are viewed by all observers as an outstanding team with legitimate championship aspirations.

Of course, it was not always that way, particularly in the team's first 13 seasons.

Denver did not have a winning season in that time, reaching that benchmark in 1973, and the quarterback for that first-ever winning campaign was future Ring of Famer Charley Johnson, one of the great Renaissance men in pro football history.

The Broncos acquired Johnson in 1972 for a third round draft choice the following year, and he shared playing time in the losing 1972 campaign. But he was a veteran who knew how to win, and in 1973 he took over the starting job and gradually changed the entire culture of the locker room, the huddle, and the line of scrimmage itself.

Indeed, Ring of Fame wide receiver Haven Moses, who starred on the Super Bowl team of 1977, has been quoted as saying, "Charley Johnson taught us how to win."

The team started the 1973 season 1-3-1, and certainly there was nothing in Denver history to suggest a winning season.

"The talent was there," Charley told me just a few days ago, "They just did not know how to prepare to win and play to win. I told the linemen that I did not care if they blocked for me or not, no way was I going to get sacked. I would get rid of the ball and complete the passes."

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As the season went along they blocked better and better, really responding to his style and leadership by example, and the Broncos finished 7-5-2, a landmark moment in the first 14 years of club annals.

He made the All-AFC team picked by UPI and Pro Football Weekly after the 1973 season while being chosen by his teammates as the Broncos' most valuable offensive player.

Considering the woeful history of the franchise before Johnson's arrival, his career win-loss record with Denver of 20-18-3 was the first winning mark of any Bronco quarterback to that point. He helped turn this team around, but before ever arriving in Denver he had marked himself as one of the most diversely accomplished quarterbacks in NFL history.

A draft choice of the St. Louis Cardinals (not the baseball team, but the team now known as the Arizona Cardinals before it moved), he played his first pro season in 1961 and not only became the Cardinals' starting quarterback but began studying for his master's and eventually for his doctorate degrees in chemical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis while an active player, including night classes during the NFL season.

Just ponder that: an accomplished NFL Pro Bowl quarterback studying at night for a Ph.D. — pretty amazing.

But wait.

Charley was also in the United States Army Reserve and was called up to active duty at the same time.

So he continued his doctoral studies and continued as the Cardinals' starting quarterback while an active duty Lieutenant in the United States Army at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

In fact, as a teenage football fan I remember reading stories about Charley Johnson being away from the team as an Army officer during the week, then flying to join the Cardinals on the weekend, starting at quarterback, throwing touchdown passes, then leaving the team Sunday night to return to his Army post.

It might be unfathomable today, but this actually happened.

He was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice as a member of the Cardinals, once each in 1964 and 1965.

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Johnson did graduate with his doctorate and actually downplayed the accomplishment to me, noting that "Frank Ryan [also a quarterback] of the Cleveland Browns got one too."

He did, but he was not also on active duty as an Army officer, a doctoral student, and a starting NFL quarterback all at the same time.

If you think you can top this, please proceed. I have never heard of anything as diversely remarkable before or since.

He played with the Houston Oilers before being traded to Denver, where Johnson found that one of his starting guards, Tommy Lyons, was in medical school studying to be a physician. So that team marked the only time in Denver history in which two offensive starters were a future physician (Lyons did graduate from medical school) and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering.

Considering all that he accomplished before arriving in Denver, turning the Broncos into a winning team actually pales in the overall legend of Charley Johnson.

He is still very active, having recently retired from his position as head of the chemical engineering school at New Mexico State, his alma mater, where he led the Aggies to two Sun Bowl titles back in his playing days.

Not too many chemical engineering department heads can say they ever quarterbacked their university to bowl game victories!

Asked if any of his students have been aware of his football prowess as a member of the Broncos' Ring of Fame, which capped his 15-year NFL career, he just chuckles and says, "Not usually, but the older kids wind up telling the younger kids, and they all seem pretty amazed."

So are we, Charley.

Charley Johnson has been one of a kind in NFL history, and it is very likely that we shall never see this rarest combination of accomplishment again.

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