The other Johnson: could Chad follow the path set by Billy “White Shoes” Johnson in Montreal?

Former NFL star Chad Johnson's signing with the Montreal Alouettes Thursday sparked discussion of how unusual it is for veteran NFL players (and receivers in particular) to head to Canada. There are plenty of CFL players with one or two years of minimal NFL experience, and there are plenty who go on from the CFL to NFL success, but it's rare to see guys who were once established NFLers trying to catch on up north; guys who have been NFL stars don't often want to continue in football at the CFL's much-lower salaries, and CFL teams often prefer to bring in younger unknowns. That's especially true at the receiver positions, which is what makes Johnson's move so unusual. However, there is precedent, and one of the best previous examples comes from a (non-related) guy with the same last name who went to the same CFL city: Billy "White Shoes" Johnson.

Billy Johnson fit the typical model of guys overlooked by the NCAA and NFL, as his 5'9'', 170-pound stature caused many to overlook him. He wound up playing Division III football at Pennsylvania's Widener College, and although he starred there (eventually earning a spot in the College Football Hall of Fame), he was only taken in the 15th round of the 1974 NFL draft by the Houston Oilers. That didn't stop him from becoming a NFL star, though. From the CFL Scrapbook:

One of only two Oilers to make the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time Team (Ken Houston, the other), Billy Johnson knew how to draw attention. How did a tiny man (5' 9") from a tiny school (Division III Widener College), a lowly 15th-round draft choice to boot, achieve such a tall honor? Excitement.

It helped to have a nickname and a gimmick. That's where "White Shoes" comes in. "I wore the shoes just to be different in high school," says Billy. "But our coach was a real no-frills guy. He saw the shoes, called me over and asked me what was up. I told him the shoes made me run faster. So I got to keep them."

Running fast is what Johnson did best but the big colleges weren't interested in some little guy who wore glasses, even if he did have white shoes. At Widener, Billy was better than the competition, averaging over 250 all-purpose yards per game. He was eventually voted to the College Football Hall Of Fame.

With the Oilers, Johnson dazzled with his speed on kickoff and punt returns, and eventually worked his way into the offence as well, earning All-Pro nods in 1975 and 1977. A 1978 knee injury caused him to miss most of that season and the 1979 one, and 1980 saw him used only as a backup wide receiver, suggesting his NFL career might be ending. Canada beckoned for his second act, though.

Johnson went up to Montreal in 1981 along with several other former NFLers, including Vince Ferragamo, James Scott and David Overstreet. That was part of a rather desperate move to keep the struggling team alive. It didn't really work, as the Alouettes went 3-13 despite the influx of former NFL talent and folded after the season, being replaced by a new franchise called the Concordes, but Johnson still showed off his talents, catching 65 passes for 1060 yards and 5 TDs and taking back 59 punts for 597 yards.

That performance proved enough for the NFL to regain interest in Johnson, and he signed with the Atlanta Falcons in 1982. He'd play five more seasons with them, earning another All-Pro nod in 1983 (where he led the team in receptions as well as starring on returns), and then retire in 1988 following one game with Washington. Thus, for him, the CFL proved an exceptionally useful detour, and a way to show NFL teams he could still perform at a high level. Here's a clip of some of Johnson's best NFL highlights, part of a NFL Films series on the top 10 returners (he was ranked third):

Chad Johnson's situation is much different, of course. First off, he's not a returner, but a receiver, and he was never overlooked; he was a second-round pick out of Oregon State in the 2001 NFL Draft, and while his size (6'1'', 188 pounds) isn't exceptional, it didn't count against him the same way Billy's did. He's had an outstanding NFL career, leading the league in receiving yards in 2006, earning six Pro Bowl nods and three All-Pro nods and recording over 10,000 career yards, and he's coming to Canada at age 36, much closer to the end of his career. By comparison, Billy Johnson was only 29. The chances of Johnson working his way back to the NFL are slim at this point, and Montreal GM Jim Popp has said that isn't his intention, so this might be much closer to Andre Rison finishing his career in the CFL than Billy Johnson's NFL-CFL-NFL path. However, Billy was another receiver the NFL was done with, and he went on to CFL stardom. We'll see if Chad can do the same.