Johnson hasn't lost any of his cockiness, either.
"Who's your ideal fullback?" he's asked.
"Me," Johnson says.
Johnson was born Willie James Hammock in Fort Valley, Ga. Depending on whom he's talking to, he says that he got the name Johnson from his father, his grandfather, L.B.J, or the Band-Aid company. His mother says she nicknamed him Pete when he was two days old, but he has a different story. "My Uncle James started calling me that when I was five," he says. "On hot summer days I'd chase the Peter Pan ice cream truck. My favorite flavor was butter pecan."
Johnson was raised by great-grandparents on a farm. He hardly remembers his father; his mother, who was only 13 when he was born, moved to Long Beach, N.Y. to live with her mother. Johnson recalls the farm as a generally happy place. He adored his younger brother, Jerry, who lived with the boys' grandmother in Long Beach and would visit the farm once or twice a year. Pete called him Pretty Brother. One summer, when Pete was about nine, he had a fight with Pretty Brother and told him, "I hope I never see you again." A couple of months later, Pete heard that Pretty Brother had slipped off a rope under a bridge and drowned in Long Island Sound. "It set me to thinking," he says. "Life is a lot shorter than people realize. They work so hard they never have time to enjoy life. All they have to look forward to is dying. When I go, I don't want anyone to say I haven't lived."
Johnson played six years of high school football. His career got its start in the seventh grade when, as a 5'5", 155-pound drummer for the school band, he caught the eye of the Hunt High football coach. Soon afterward he was moved up to the varsity. It was about then that he began using the name Pete Johnson. "The school frowned on 12-year-olds' playing on the varsity," he explains. When Johnson was in the 10th grade Auburn reps tried to recruit him. He says they thought he was a senior.
High school football was pretty tough in Peach County. Johnson's coach made his players block an idling pickup truck with tires strapped on the grill. Occasionally he popped the clutch and let it block back. "Coach just wanted to see if we were paying attention," says Johnson. Before his senior year, Johnson moved to Long Island to be with his mother, and that year he signed a letter of intent with West Virginia. Then Hayes showed up. True to form, Johnson kept the Ohio State coach waiting half an hour while he set up props for Brigadoon.
Johnson says he chose Ohio State because his mother liked Hayes. Archie Griffin, then a Buckeye freshman and now a Bengal halfback, says the real reason was a girl Johnson met at a party when he visited Columbus to look the campus over. He thought she'd be there the following semester. She wasn't.
Johnson and Griffin formed a terrific tandem for the Buckeyes. Griffin got the yardage, two Heismans and a lot of press. Johnson scored the touchdowns, a Big Ten record 58.
Johnson's two names caused some confusion at Ohio State. He played football as Pete Johnson and enrolled in classes as Willie Hammock. Hayes started wondering what was going on when he never got any grade reports for Johnson. Johnson at the same time was compounding the confusion by signing his classwork "Pete Johnson." Hardly anybody knew who he was, including maybe himself. "Woody told me I had to make up my mind what I wanted to be called," he says. Goodby Willie Hammock.