Petition pushes for recognition of Grambling’s ‘Big Hands’ Johnson

Gary “Big Hands” Johnson, who helped Grambling to a 41-6 record over the 1971-74 seasons before a standout 11-year NFL career, passed without being recognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A petition from friends and family aims to right that wrong.

Lifelong buddy Melvin Lars, CEO of the Brighter Futures educational consulting firm, is hosting the petition on his Web site — and has already garnered the support of hall of famer Jim Brown. The petition can be found at YourBrighterFuture.org. Grambling fans have also started forwarding around Facebook links back to the petition, as well.

Johnson played his NFL career in the shadow of Pro Football Hall of Famer Fred Dean, with both the Chargers and then the Niners. Yet, Johnson surpassed Dean while at San Diego in quarterback sacks — the signature stat that punched Dean’s own ticket to Canton.

“Big Hands” started that journey to greatness over four standout seasons at Grambling, a stint that included a league championship-winning senior campaign under the late Eddie G. Robinson that saw Johnson collect 134 tackles, 89 of them unassisted, and team defensive MVP honors. Johnson was a three-time All-Southwestern Athletic Conference honoree, All-America as a senior in 1974 and an invitee to both the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl, where the Shreveport, La., native and longtime Bossier City resident was named outstanding lineman.

[Gary “Big Hands” Johnson talks about playing for Robinson at Grambling.]

Johnson then became the Chargers’ first pick in the 1975 draft. A quartet of Pro Bowl nods followed in the NFL, though in truth it took a couple of seasons for Johnson to get acclimated to the NFL. In fact, in 1976, he started all 14 games for the Chargers, but accumulated just one-and-a-half sacks.

By 1978, however, “Big Hands” had 13-and-a-half quarterback takedowns.

Together with Dean (a native of nearby Ruston, La.), Lou Kelcher and Leroy Jones, San Diego’s “Bruise Brothers” then combined for a league-leading 60 sacks in 1980. That charge was led by Johnson, who collected 17-and-a-half quarterback tackles, tops in the AFC — and still a San Diego record. In a single game against the Denver Broncos that season, “Big Hands” collected four sacks. That helped Johnson to defensive lineman of the year honors in a poll voted on by his peers.

In 1981, he again led the Chargers in sacks with 10, while piling up 106 tackles. Johnson would eventually set a franchise record with 60-and-a-half quarterback stops before joining Dean in San Francisco.

Johnson, Dean and the Niners ran all the way to Super Bowl XIX in 1984, where opposing quarterback Dan Marino was sacked four times in an eventual 38-16 win for San Francisco. (The Dolphins starter had entered the title match having been taken down just 13 times over the previous 18 games in ’84.) Johnson was named MVP of the game by Sports Illustrated.

That capped a pro career that included first-team All-Pro recognition at San Diego in 1980 and ’81, and Pro Bowls in 1980-83. He was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 1991, the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997, the Chargers Hall of Fame in 1999 and the city of San Diego’s Breitbard Hall of Fame in 2007.

Yet, he retired to relative obscurity back in his hometown, working as a greeter at a local casino. “Big Hands” died in August at age 51, having never recovered from a July stroke.

Letters in support of Johnson’s Pro Football Hall of Fame candidacy can also be mailed to:
Brighter Futures, Inc. – Entertainment
Gary “Big Hands” Johnson H-O-F Supporters
800 Ellis Road, Suite 203
Norton Shores, MI, 49441

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