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NFL legend/engineering professor to retire in May

Chemical engineering professor. NFL quarterback. Entrepreneur. Football coach. Those titles are just some of the careers that New Mexico State University Professor Charley Johnson has tried his hand at in the past five decades.


NMSU chemical engineering professor and former NFL star quarterback Charley Johnson holds a football under his left arm. Johnson will retire in May.
NMSU chemical engineering professor and former NFL star quarterback Charley Johnson plans to retire in May. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

And now, he plans to dedicate more time to his family after his retirement in May.

"I have a daughter living in South Dakota and granddaughters in the deep valley of Texas," he said. "My wife and I plan to stay right here in the middle, in Las Cruces."

He described his decision to pursue engineering while digging ditches one summer.

"A man pulled up in a pickup truck and he got out and wrote a few things down," Johnson recalled. "When he left I asked my friend 'what was that?' and he told me that was an engineer. I said, 'that's what I want to be.'"

Johnson, a native of Big Spring, Texas, indeed accomplished that goal when he graduated from NMSU with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering in 1961. That same year, the St. Louis Cardinals drafted him. Within a span of 15 years, he also played for the Houston Oilers and the Denver Broncos.

Rather than just focusing his efforts on the NFL, Johnson also found time to pursue his master's and doctoral degrees at Washington University in St. Louis.

"In the morning I went to class and studied," he said. "Then I would practice football. The university held classes in the late afternoon/evening, so [after practice] I would go back to class. It worked out pretty well."

Asked what motivated him to do both things simultaneously, Johnson said it partially had to do with delaying his ROTC commission, which he was able to do while he attended graduate school.

"I was called into active duty in 1967," he said. "I was not physically capable of going to combat, so I was stationed to work with NASA. That was a tremendous opportunity to further my education in chemical engineering."

Aside from his teaching position, Johnson also served as department head of chemical engineering from 2000 to 2004.

His fondest NMSU memory is the undefeated 1960 football season, which included a win against University of Texas at El Paso. As an Aggies quarterback, Johnson led his team to the Sun Bowl in '59 and '60.

He plans to continue being a loyal Aggie supporter.

"Last year I was tied up with problems, but I'll get back to going regularly ... Go Aggies!"

Despite his football persona, Johnson said few of his students are aware of his NFL background.

"I don't bring it up," he said. "There are a lot of Bronco fans around, and I'll talk to them, but I don't want to distract them from engineering. I also apologize to students if they're Cowboy fans," he joked.

Johnson offered some advice for students who are focusing on their education, but have other aspirations, such as an NFL career.

"Be ready because you don't know when you're going to have a chance," he said. "Stay in school and get your degree. An education will come in handy."

Johnson's students and colleagues expressed dismay that NMSU will be losing a treasured professor after he retires this semester.

"Charley Johnson has given so much to New Mexico State University and the College of Engineering," said Ricardo B. Jacquez, engineering dean. "It's always a thrill to be in the presence of a real football legend, but his most outstanding accomplishments and contributions have been to the numerous students who have had the privilege of coming into contact with him in his roles as a professor, coach and adviser. I appreciate that he always has a positive attitude and greets everyone with a smile. His unique set of talents just can't be replaced."

John Schutte, graduate chemical engineering student, echoed the dean's sentiments.

"Dr. Johnson always had an open-door policy and was always willing to take the time to address any questions or concerns that his students had," he said. "He kept his lectures brief and to-the-point, and kept his teaching directed to what he believed were the most important pieces of information within a subject. We will miss him and hope his retirement is fruitful and enjoyable."

Johnson's retirement party will be held at the Klipsch Museum in the Ed and Harold Foreman Engineering Complex at 3 p.m. on May 8. For more information, contact Carol Dyer at 575-646-1214 or cdyer@nmsu.edu.