In This Issue
Summer Issue of The Bridge on Energy, the Environment, and Climate Change
July 3, 2015 Volume 45 Issue 2

An Interview with Charley Johnson

Monday, July 6, 2015

Author: Charley Johnson

An Interview with . . .

Charley Johnson

Ron Latanision (RML): Good morning, Charley. We’re so glad to talk with you. How are you? We understand you had some health issues.

Charley Johnson (CJ): I’m fine. I’ve been accepted to a stem cell treatment for my hip and my knees.

Cameron Fletcher (CHF): Fascinating—stem cell treatments for joints.

RML: That must be pioneering.

CJ: Pretty close. They started doing some experimental treatments two years ago. Several of my Bronco teammates were involved in it; they were telling me about how super it was so I looked into it and applied and I get to do it. I’m scheduled for June 10th.

RML: That will make an interesting follow-up; we ought to keep in touch with you as this progresses. Actually, in the Bridge we focus on subjects like the introduction of engineering in medical research. What you are talking about is a great example—the fact that engineers’ impact on medical research is really changing the face of medicine.

CJ: And with all the advances in physics and high tech, they can do so much more so much faster.

RML: Absolutely. We also include issues on fracking and nuclear waste management, things that are typical of engineering. A few months ago it occurred to us that engineers also impact the culture of the country in lots of ways far beyond building and managing engineering systems. So we introduced an interview column in which we talk with people who have both an engineering background and some major impact in terms of the culture of the country. I was delighted to learn that you’re a chemical engineer and available and willing to talk with us.

CHF: Yes, thank you very much. This is exciting.

CJ: It is for me too.

RML: I’ve got to ask, Charley, how you pulled all this off? I have been reading up on your background. You got a BS in chemical engineering in 1961, you played professional football for the next 15 years, and while you were playing you were also on active duty in the Army. You played quarterback on Sundays and found time during all of this to earn a doctorate in chemical engineering from the Washington University in St. Louis. How did you manage this?

CJ: Well, I started out in a military junior college in Kerrville, Texas. When I came here to New Mexico State University, it was also a military school, like Texas A&M. I was going to be a career Army officer. But my football career took off and the Army allowed me a delay for graduate school before I had to go on active duty. So not only did I graduate but I also got commissioned and, since the Cardinals had drafted and signed me, I applied to Washington University in St. Louis for grad school. I got in and the way the workouts and the classes were scheduled I was able to go to class early in the morning and late in the evening, which left me all day to go to football practice.

I played, I got my master’s in two years, and started on my doctoral program. Then I had some problems with injuries and started flunking my annual Army physical, so I did not do my required 12 hours as a full-time graduate student. Boy, they snapped me in right away when it was at the height of Vietnam. Fortunately I did not have to go but I had to go on active duty.

CHF: It is very fortunate that you did not have to go. Was that because of your injuries?

CJ: Right. I never passed a physical—I was too beat up for combat.

CHF: But not too beat up to play professional football!

CJ: No. In football I could fall down and hurt myself, but in combat that would have gotten a lot of guys killed, that was the reasoning. So they assigned me to NASA, the Langley Research Center, in Newport News, Virginia. I spent two years there doing research, which was accepted for my doctoral research.

RML: Much of this happened while you were playing with the Cardinals, is that right?

CJ: Yes, all of it. When I got traded in 1970 to Houston, I was following my St. Louis coach, who had been fired from the Cardinals and went to the Houston Oilers, so I asked to be traded down there. I finished writing my dissertation in Houston.

RML: That was about as convoluted and difficult an approach to getting a doctorate as I have ever heard!

CJ: I was very fortunate. I lost my first advisor on my first research program at Washington University, but the guy that came in and took his place was fantastic. I really did not lose a lot of ground by changing advisors. Normally you just start over, but I did not have to because I had the NASA research.

RML: What was your research focused on?

CJ: At NASA they had discovered a high-temperature polymer that basically would not melt, but they did not know how to process it to make useful things out of it. That was my project. I figured out a way to do it.

CHF: What were some of the useful things made out of it?

CJ: A lot of the parts that went into space capsules and rockets.

RML: Actually, I spent part of my career in academia and had a student from NASA Langley whose name was Ron Outlaw. Does that name ring a bell?

CJ: Yes, I don’t know why but it does.

RML: He was a doctoral student of mine at MIT many years ago. I don’t know where he is now but I know he was at NASA Langley.

CJ: I was there ’67, ’68, ’69.

RML: He would have been there then.

CJ: I was in the chemistry and physics branch of applied materials.

RML: He was focused on materials. My guess is that somewhere along the line you may have crossed paths.

CJ: We could have been in adjoining labs and never saw each other.

RML: After your football career ended you began teaching at New Mexico State.

CJ: I spent basically 25 years in Houston working in the gas business. I designed, built, and operated compressor stations for pipeline companies. I got into that because one of my neighbors in Houston had a company that did that; I worked for him for three or four years. Then I went with a guy out of Oklahoma, helped him start a company. Then I started my own. I caught a really, really good year in 1990. But by ’98, it was back on the bottom again and I got an inquiry from New Mexico State about applying—one of my old friends was on the search committee and asked me to apply. I said, “Come on, I have applied out there for a head coaching job, I applied to be on the faculty, I never even got a response.” He said, “Well, I can’t promise you a job this time either, but I know you will get an interview.” So I applied and went through the interview process and they offered me the job and I just had to take it.

RML: What year was that?

CJ: That was 2000. I applied in ’99 and got the job as head of the Department of Chemical Engineering in 2000. I was head of the department for 4½ years, then I got into just teaching and had a ball for 25 semesters.

RML: This just adds emphasis to the comment that I made at the beginning. You have had a truly remarkable career.

CJ: Very fortunate, even though I need stem cell treatment now.

RML: Well, as we age, whether we have been on the gridiron or not, we tend to need all sorts of medical attention—although you probably have a few bumps and bruises that are a little more unusual.

CJ: I have only had surgery 17 times. I may have brain problems but I don’t remember.

(Laughter)

CHF: You have done teaching and you have been in the gas industry and the space industry and professional football. Do you have any personal favorites in your varied career?

CJ: Not really. It was all fun.

RML: I would imagine there must be some really great and memorable occasions from football. If you were to identify what were among the most memorable of your experiences given this broad range from sports to academia to industry, what would turn out to be the most memorable of those experiences?

CJ: Probably having my mom there when I graduated with a doctorate. The hood was pretty fantastic.

RML: They are pretty colorful, aren’t they?

CJ: Yes, Washington U really was and I’ve worn it many times since.

RML: When you were teaching, did the grad students or undergraduates ask you for football stories?

CJ: Not really. Seemed like I indoctrinated freshmen every year and they did not know who I was. The graduate students knew and would ask occasional questions but I kept them pretty busy in my classes. We did not have any time to talk football.

RML: When you were department head, were you also teaching?

CJ: No, but I had the freshmen for a couple of classes a couple of times just to try to get them ready for how hard the program is.

CHF: Was there any cross-pollination in your approaches or thinking about your teaching, for example based on your experiences on the field in football or at NASA?

CJ: I liked the discipline part. It is hard to get across to freshmen in college engineering—even as sharp as they are to be able to get in, they have no idea how hard it is going to be. For me there was some crossover from the difficulty with Army courses, Army learning, in addition to the NASA research learning. I enjoyed that.

CHF: How did you specifically draw on those experiences to help you reach these young students?

CJ: I got after them on their grammar first. So many of them had the “you know” habit and the “where you at” habit. I just nailed them. Any time their phone went off they had to get up and get out of the room. All those things that interrupt the learning process—I could not stand it. It drives me crazy for professional broadcasters to use those terms, and for some high-powered politicians to say you know, you know, you know. I keep saying no I don’t, no I don’t, no I don’t.

RML: I really like the concept that you just expressed about discipline with students. I think the one thing that young people often don’t appreciate is how much effort it takes to be good at whatever you do. Even if you are born with some native talent in an area, you still have to practice, you have to work at it.

CJ: The smartest guys or women that I had still had to learn the discipline part. As smart and sharp as they were, if they were not disciplined to be ready for an exam or to finish an assignment, they got in trouble. They embarrassed themselves, they embarrassed their family. I tried to embarrass the hell out of them. They could do as well as they wanted to. Sometimes they just got caught up in other stuff, like we all do.

RML: Tell us a little bit about the compressor corporate involvement. You were involved with compressors for the oil and gas industry?

CJ: Natural gas compressors, yes.

RML: How did you launch into that?

CJ: When I got traded to Houston, we built a house there and the guy down the street was just starting up a compressor company. I got to know him and learned about what they were and how they worked and all that good stuff. Then I travelled around with him getting this company started and established. I was basically a token jock salesman. But we got it going pretty good and got up to about $5 million, I guess, in three or four years. I really enjoyed it, I enjoyed the people. I worked with top-notch engineers in the different companies.

When I finally started my own company it was marvelous. It was tough to start with. I was down to my last credit card when I went to California to sell a project to California Energy. I got the contract—it was a $4 million contract, and I got a down payment of several hundred thousand. I flew back home to Houston with a big check in my pocket.

RML: Must have been a really good feeling!

CJ: Oh, yes.

CHF: Did you ever find that your renown on the football field helped open doors in your business?

CJ: In just about every case, yes. Most engineers are pretty much aware of athletics.

CHF: Were people surprised or maybe even skeptical that a big name jock like you would be so capable in engineering?

CJ: Those that kind of knew what it took to do both things, yes. It was impressive to the younger guys for sure. The old hats, they had a tendency to kind of disregard until they had to call me CJ—attitudes changed all of a sudden.

RML: Did your chemical engineering experience ever play any role in a football game or in your football career?

CJ: No, just the discipline part.

RML: Let me ask you about “Deflategate”—that involves some chemical engineering.

CJ: Boy, they messed that up badly, didn’t they? Oh, gosh. In practical terms, it was a matter of feel. It did not have anything to do with the pressure in the ball—that could vary from 10 to 13 psi—but that really did not have that much to do with it. The passer can’t tell what the pressure is, he can just tell how it feels.

RML: There has been so much controversy and I am especially sensitive to it given that I live in Boston. Tom Brady said he never measured, and Bill Belichick—neither of them claimed to have any idea what the pressure in the balls was or should be. They just, as you said, made their judgments based on how the ball felt. There has been some interesting follow-up in the press. Some of the local academics, given the Boston academic community, generated theories based on the ideal gas law and other things that make a certain amount of sense.

CJ: It is going to change significantly, but maybe not feel-wise, when you take a ball from a 75° locker room out to a 10° field. They can figure out how much it is going to change, but nobody ever did because it was a matter of feel.

RML: There have been some estimates in some of the newspapers in which they project something like maybe a pressure change on the order of a psi. When you are talking about a ball inflated close to the minimum, if you go out of the locker room onto the field, just as you say, as the temperature decreases the ball pressure is going to decrease. So it has become an interesting question of chemical engineering and chemistry and physics. What do you think the NFL is going to do? Do you have any thoughts on that?

CJ: They will have an official check them and make sure they are all within the boundaries.

RML: While we are on the subject of the Patriots, I thought I would look into the record book and find out what kind of history you had against them.

CJ: Almost zero.

RML: During your Cardinal years they were in the AFC and I guess there wasn’t any play between leagues except in the championship games and the Super Bowl. I found that you played the Patriots one time. It was in December of 1972, and you beat the crap out of them, frankly—three touchdowns, about 400 yards, something like that. You had a good game. What was your most memorable football game?

CJ: Probably throwing six touchdown passes at Cleveland in ’65 when they were the defending champions. Second game of the year, we just shocked them.

RML: Which year was that? Were you a Bronco?

CJ: ’65. No, I was at St. Louis.

RML: That would be memorable.

CJ: In ’64 they won the Eastern Division and shut out Johnny Unitas and the Colts in the Western Division for the championship. That was the first year the league started having kind of a play-off system. So the Cardinals played Green Bay in a “runner-up game,” they called it, and we beat Green Bay. We were right there with Cleveland. I think they beat us out by half a game that year. It was really big for us to go into Cleveland while they were defending champions, and we wiped them out.

RML: I know that a lot of people have given you a great deal of credit for turning around the Broncos when you joined them in 1972. My reading suggested that that is an accurate statement. Before you joined them they did not have many winning seasons. That turned around pretty quickly.

CJ: In ’73 and ’74 we had their first two winning seasons ever. So yes, they like me for that.

RML: Do you have contact with the Broncos today?

CJ: As a matter of fact, I am going up for a Bronco reunion June 7 and 8. The stem cell institute is in Fort Collins, 60 miles north of Denver, so that is going to work out beautifully.

RML: Good timing all the way around. Today is also a good day in terms of the draft. Do you have any thoughts on the NFL draft today?

CJ: I kind of enjoy the controversies involved. Nobody knows who is going to turn out to be the best number one choice or the best tenth choice. It is really a gamble. The Cardinals had number one draft choice several times when I was with them and I don’t remember one of them really working out great.

RML: In New England there has always been a lot of fascination with the draft. If you look at Tom Brady, for example, he was not a high draft choice, yet he has had a truly remarkable NFL career.

CJ: One of a kind, nearly.

RML: I just don’t know how people gauge the talent they are looking at. I am sure having something like a Heisman Trophy in your possession is a pretty good credential.

CJ: But not always.

RML: Not always, no. I was trying to think of a Heisman Trophy winner who has gone on to have a remarkable NFL career. I can’t think of very many.

CJ: John David Crow comes to mind because he was a teammate at St. Louis. But you are right.

RML: It often turns out to be a different world when people leave college and go on to the NFL.

CJ: As big a change as going from high school to Division 1 college football.

RML: Now that you’re fully retired, what keeps you busy? What kinds of things are on your radar screen?

CJ: My wife has a to-do list that is about as long as my arm. I kind of do handy stuff. My knees have prohibited my climbing ladders anymore, thank goodness. I still have a hobby: I love doing woodwork, I’ve got several different kinds of saws. I started building golf clubs and I really enjoy that, and I make fishing lures. I’ve got plenty of things to do.

CHF: You make golf clubs?

CJ: I buy the parts. I buy the grip and the shaft and the head and I put them together. That is why I have about 250 golf clubs here. I am experimental.

RML: What is the nature of the experiment? Are you looking at different mass? What kind of variables are you looking at?

CJ: Overall weight, head weight, swing weight, how limber the shaft is, and how they will help my swing. I am after the Holy Grail of the longer drive. And the Aggie head football coach wants me to help out with the quarterback. He was a quarterback at Kentucky and he has got a really good kid coming up who is going to be a junior but has never really learned football—the idea of down in yards, position on the field, score, timing to go, all those things—so he is kind of lost out there as to what to do when he goes back and nobody is open. He led the nation in throwing interceptions last year but he is really, really good. The coach wants me to help him in learning the game itself. That is going to be fun.

RML: You have done some coaching over your career, is that right?

CJ: I coached the Bronco quarterbacks the year after I retired from Denver, but that is about it. I helped coach some pee-wee teams in Houston, and some pee-wee basketball. Of course, I’ve got to help with my daughter’s softball team. And my son has been coaching for 25 years. He is assistant to the head football coach at a 6A school down in the Valley of Texas, close to Brownsville. He loves it. His wife is from Weslaco, and they have three girls. The oldest is here at New Mexico State with us now and doing very, very well.

RML: That is great. I am still intrigued by your comments about discipline and the need to somehow instill in young people the concept of understanding how important that is. I am afraid that kids are getting lost. I am watching what is happening in Baltimore; but it is not just kids in areas of conflict. There are kids all over the country that are so distracted by social media and games that occupy a lot of their time. They seem to lose track of the fact that in order to be good students, successful students, they have got to work at it. Discipline is really lost. I am wondering if you speak to students. Do you make any engagements to talk to kids at college or high school or anywhere else?

CJ: I have not in the last couple of years. Of course when I was teaching I did quite a bit of it, at high schools and elementary schools. But I think a lot of it is the excitement that we all felt when the computer was so fantastic and there were so many games to play on it and a lot of them were pretty good and not only entertaining but educating. I remember our being very positive about the impact the computer was going to make on young people. Sure enough it got waylaid by technology, where it is just fun and no learning anymore. I guess it is fun; I don’t do games or social media or any of that junk.

RML: I guess we are of the same mind on that. In many ways it is sort of an unintended consequence of what appears to be—and is in some respects—a really great advance. A lot of students that I have worked with over the years have become involved with electronic technologies through modeling and simulations of chemical and biological phenomena. That can be really powerful.

CJ: Without a doubt. 3-D printing is going to be awesome.

RML: Absolutely. But I do worry. I have five grandchildren and they are all adept with keyboards. They are young so most of the time they spend on keyboards is games that are sort of mindless, repetitive exercises; I don’t think there is much learning in them. There are certainly games that do have educational content but a lot of what I see my grandchildren playing with is not particularly educational. That worries me. I have this feeling that, for those of us who have had some experiences that might get kids’ attention, it might be useful if we became involved in trying to instill in these young people the concept that they really have got to be disciplined. They have got to work at learning and work at making themselves useful citizens. That is something that we have kind of lost.

CJ: Absolutely. I spoke earlier this spring at the football banquet of a high school team. The room was packed and full of parents. I got into just that: Spend your time doing things that are going to help you in school. Always be ready to do your best when you have a challenge, whether it is a test or a ballgame or whatever. The parents were dozing off. I was so surprised. They were paying no attention. The kids were reacting but not the parents. I was very disappointed. I thought, Who are all these parents that are 30–35, have got teenagers at 40, what are they doing? Where did they learn anything? Or did they?

RML: That is the $64,000 question, isn’t it? It’s hard to understand all of this but it is a problem.

CHF: You mentioned, Charley, that in your own classroom you pretty much punished students who were distracted by their gadgets. How did the students respond to your insistence on that kind of discipline? Also, did you have any conversations with your teaching colleagues about that or were you a voice in the desert?

CJ: I think my colleagues appreciated what I did. The students would talk about it, but I think it worked out. We’d lose probably 60 percent of our freshmen over the next couple of years, but those that stayed with it really got with it. Then some of the kids that got away came back. I think they went away but then realized what we were talking about and what the kids that stayed understood. I was proud of that.

RML: I think part of it is that everybody is involved in so many things. I guess it is a problem of balancing out and attaching priority to the things that are most important. I have the feeling that somehow the kids are getting left out of the equation more often than they should.

CJ: I agree with you totally, the key word there being “priority.” It is complicated though. I know that parents want to contribute to their community, to their church, to their neighborhoods, and the kids get left, even for a short period of time, and then they can’t catch up.

RML: I hope more young people will have an opportunity to hear your message, Charley, because I think it is an important one. When the occasions arise for you to speak, I hope there are a lot of kids in the audience.

Is there anything that you would like to have the National Academy of Engineering think about from all the perspectives of your illustrious career?

CJ: I think being ready. Opportunities are going to come along for all of us. Being able to recognize them and to perform is the most important thing.

CHF: What kinds of opportunities do you foresee?

CJ: In general? Well, as technology changes, those who are knowledgeable and up to date on those particular technologies will have tremendous opportunities, with start-ups and with old companies. There are developments going on all the time. Students who know their capabilities can apply them both to the science and to getting a job.

We did a good job here at New Mexico State in getting our kids ready to interview. I can only think of two or three chemical engineering graduates who did not get a job in all these years.

RML: That is pretty remarkable. When you can place your students with ratios of that kind, that is a great credential.

CJ: We are proud of it.

RML: How many students were in the Department of Chemical Engineering when you were head?

CJ: We averaged 95 to 105 undergraduates a year and 20 to 30 graduate students. We had 10 professors most of the time. It is twice as big now.

RML: Thinking of New Mexico reminds me that there is a lot of conversation about interim spent nuclear fuel storage facilities there. Is that something that has gotten onto your radar screen?

CJ: One of my teammates was head of the Mechanical Engineering Department and for a while he was in charge of the Carlsbad repository. Then they had a leak last year and shut it down. Now they’ve found a place over close to Roswell, staying in the southeastern part of the state. I don’t know what is going to happen for sure; I don’t think anybody does. It is still such a political football—I hate to call it football; it is more like a political soccer ball.

RML: It was a classmate of yours who was directing the Waste Isolation Project Plant?

CJ: Yes.

RML: What is his name? I have been out there many times and I might have met him.

CJ: He was interim: George Mulholland.

RML: That name does ring a bell.

CJ: His son is in charge of Boeing’s NASA activities in Houston.

RML: Wow, that’s interesting.

CJ: George is from Upper Darby, PA. He and a teammate of his in Upper Darby came out here, did not have any idea where they were going—like so many people back then, long time ago, thought we were still Mexico. They got here and both of them were very successful.

RML: That is great. It is interesting how, when you look at all these things over long periods of time, there are so many connections that emerge out of thin air.

CJ: That is why I say, Be ready.

RML: Your advice is well taken and this is a great demonstration of it. I want to say I enjoyed this conversation enormously. We are of the same generation so I remember watching you play when I was living in Washington and Baltimore during the 1960s and ’70s.

CJ: I wasn’t the best but I had more fun than anybody. I loved playing the game.

RML: It is a great game. I have a Penn State undergraduate degree and an Ohio State graduate degree so football is in my DNA.

CJ: No kidding. You got splintered from sitting in the stands before they were plastic seats.

RML: Absolutely. Joe Paterno was in his first or second year of coaching at Penn State when I was a freshman there. I typically get out to watch—they have a blue/white game in the spring, an intersquad game, and they make decisions on who is going to play where and when. I love being in crowds like those at Ohio State and Penn State and watching football. There is nothing like it.

CJ: It was something with Ohio State this year, wasn’t it? Fantastic.

RML: I continue to marvel at how Cardale Jones—the third string quarterback at the beginning of the season—could win the Conference title, the Sugar Bowl, and then finally the National Championship. Must be some good coaching there!

CJ: I spoke at the Columbus Touchdown Club when I was in school, I think it was on a Friday or Saturday night, and I flew in there and I was studying—I had an exam on Monday. I was able to get the speech done, got back to the hotel, and then the airport got shut down. I was snowbound there and missed the exam and had to have a retake. I will never forget that. That was quite an experience and the fans were unbelievable. I spoke at the New York Touchdown Club and they were not nearly as nice and interested as the Columbus people were.

RML: Well, Columbus is a special place. I enjoyed being there as a student enormously. I still go back a lot. I am very much involved in some alumni things at Ohio State and at Penn State. I have a great appreciation for what they do.

CJ: It is a lot easier being here at my alma mater.

RML: Absolutely. Thank you, Charley. This has been great. I appreciate your taking the time to talk with us today.

CHF: Yes, thank you so much.

CJ: I have enjoyed the heck out of it.

RML: Good luck with your stem cell treatment. I would be really interested in knowing and following up with you just to find out how that all evolved.

CJ: Okay. I will probably know something the middle of July.

About the Author:Charley Johnson is a retired professor of chemical engineering from New Mexico State University and a former Denver Broncos quarterback.