Thirty-two-year-old William Arthur Johnson, best known by his nom de grid, Billy White Shoes, feigns mild indignation when asked if he's 32.
"Do I look 32?" A compactly muscled 5'9", 172 pounds, he really doesn't.
"Good," says Johnson, " 'cause I'm only 27."
But what of the Atlanta Falcons' media guide, Mr. Johnson, which lists the year of your birth as 1952?
"I know, I know," he says irritably. "They get that wrong every year."
Having spent much of the preceding five seasons injured, benched or playing in the Canadian Football League, Johnson was named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year last season after leading the NFC in punt-return yardage with 489 and the Falcons in pass receptions with 64 and finishing third in the NFC in punt returns with an average of 10.6 yards. And his resurgence is unabated. So far this year Johnson has caught 18 passes for the 2-2 Falcons, three for touchdowns. Moreover, through Sunday he led the NFC in punt returns (13.6 yards per return), and he needs just 85 yards to surpass Rick Up-church's 3,008 and become the NFL's alltime punt-return leader. Upchurch retired last year—at 32.
"You'd be surprised what you can ask of your body," Johnson says, driving from the Falcons' training complex in Suwanee north of Atlanta to his home in Duluth, Ga. On the way he points to a golf course that can be seen from the road. Johnson isn't so much enticed by the prospect of playing 18 holes on his off-days—"I like something a little more strenuous"—but by the rolling hills on the course. "I run a lot of hills," he says.
He has had to, to return to pro form after undergoing surgery on his left knee in 1978 and on the right one in '79. At the time of the first operation Johnson was 26, officially anyway. It was an unfitting epilogue to four outstanding seasons as a return specialist and receiver for Houston, during which time he set five team records. After seeing only limited action with the Oilers in '80, and labeled damaged goods, he asked for a release and signed with Montreal; he was the second-leading receiver for the Alouettes that season with 65 catches.
Johnson was picked up by the Falcons in '82, and his knees have held up. Atlanta- Fulton County Stadium has natural turf and the practice fields at the Suwanee Complex could pass as fairways, and so Johnson has seen little of the training room. "I was putting in five, six hours a day rehabbing the knees in Houston," he says. "I've had enough of that."
Thanks to his footwear and distinctive post-touchdown routine—which he is keeping a lid on this year because of the "Gastineau Rule"—Shoes was preceded in Atlanta by a reputation for showmanship. He was warily received. But as one Falcon now says, "That's not Billy, that's surface stuff." The real Johnson writes down passages of Scripture along with his autograph. He's a substitute English teacher at local high schools and is active in charities. When he says, "I try to return something to the community for what it gives me," he means it.