A four-year starter at Elizabeth City (NC) State University, former Eagles quarterback Johnnie Walton was inducted into the Black College Football Hall of Fame on June 10 along with seven others, including former Eagles assistant coach Leslie Frazier.
"Well, that's the top of the line to me. I wasn't expecting it, for one thing. But then it happened. And the way it was done, it was well presented. A drumroll and all," Walton laughed. "And the people there, the crowd, was nice. We had 400 to 500 at the banquet.
"I was amongst some guys that had similar roads to success. It was talking about the college days, and to me, if I hadn't gone to college, I probably wouldn't have been as successful as I am."
Walton's gridiron road began in college, where as a senior in 1968, he passed for 1,400 yards and 16 touchdowns. Named to the All-Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association team, he led the school to an 8-1 record.
Walton joins seven others who played for the Eagles – Harold Carmichael, Richard Dent, Hugh Douglas, Jimmie Giles, Claude Humphrey, Harold Jackson, and Roynell Young – as well as Philadelphia's former Director of Personnel Jackie Graves, former Defensive Coordinator Emmitt Thomas, and Frazier in the BCFHOF.
Undrafted in 1969, Walton signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Rams, where he spent time on their taxi squad for the first of four consecutive seasons. He also played that year for the Continental Football League's Indianapolis Capitals, leading them to the championship title and being named the league's Most Valuable Player.
In 1974, Walton moved on to play in the World Football League for two seasons with the Chicago Fire and the San Antonio Wings.
And then a familiar face, Dick Vermeil, who was Walton's position coach with the Rams, became the head coach of the Eagles in 1976. "He called and flew me up (to Philadelphia)," Walton says. "We talked and I signed with the Eagles as a backup."
After being with four teams in three leagues, being on an NFL team's active roster was certainly an accomplishment.
"Oh, I was very proud of myself," he says. "It was a trying time too, because I wanted to show what I could do if I got a chance to get behind the center in a starting role to help the team as much as possible. I had a lot of practice time, but I never got much playing time in.
"The starter at that time was Mike Boryla. And then during the (following) offseason, they picked up Ron Jaworski through a trade (with the Rams). And during that time, when you trade for someone, you're almost saying you're going to play them."
There was no almost about it. They played him.
All but anchored to the sideline for two seasons behind Jaworski and Roman Gabriel, Walton saw more playing time in 1979. And during a November 12 Monday night game in Dallas, he went from spot duty to the spotlight.
"With less than two minutes in the (first) half, I went in and threw a (29-yard) touchdown pass to Charlie Smith. And then Tony Franklin came in and kicked a 50-plus-yard (59) field goal. So that produced 10 points (and put the Eagles ahead, 17-7, en route to a 31-21 victory)," Walton recalled.
"I felt at that time I had contributed to the team's success because that's the first time we beat the Cowboys in (five) years. And that led to the playoffs.
"My last series, I threw a touchdown, so I thought going to playoffs I'd at least have gotten an opportunity since the offense did stall down in Tampa Bay. They beat us and it showed me that if I'd had more playing time, I felt like I could have helped the team to be more successful."
A trailblazer for Black quarterbacks in Philadelphia, 1979 would be Walton's final season with the Eagles after receiving an offer that literally hit home and was difficult to refuse.
"The opportunity came to me that I could coach at my alma mater," Walton says. "It was a big decision I had to make. And when (Vermeil and I) did talk, he did tell me that if I changed my mind before a certain date that I could come back and be on the team. But I thought I put my best foot forward and I had to keep on going with that decision I had made."
The head coach at Elizabeth City State for three seasons, Walton's team reached the Division II playoffs in his second year. But after compiling a 20-10-1 overall record and finishing 14-7 in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, he chose to play again and joined the USFL's Boston/New Orleans Breakers for two seasons before it folded.
Among Walton's fondest memories as an Eagle:
"The fondest one was the touchdown to Charlie Smith on Monday Night Football with Howard Cosell commentating. I go and watch that every now and then and it still kind of sends chills. It was very rewarding to me," he says. "It makes me feel good because I knew I could play. And a couple of games, the crowd was chanting, 'We want Walton! We want Walton!' That made me feel good."
And as a professional football player:
"Through it all, I persevered and I did feel like I showed what I could do. Because when I first went to the Rams, Coach (George) Allen said I didn't have stats," Walton says. "I competed against a lot of guys in those different leagues. You'd be surprised by the guys in the same leagues. Doug Williams, Danny White, Steve Young. The list goes on and on. And my stats are just as good as any of them. So it shows that I could lead a team as well as they could, but the NFL never gave me the opportunity to do that."
For the past 20 years, Walton has had the opportunity to be a city councilman in Elizabeth City.
"You talk about sports. Politics is harder than sports," Walton laughed. "There's so many people involved. I just feel like I was made to serve for two reasons. That's to praise God, give Him his glory. And then serve your fellow man. Any time I can do that, I feel successful.
"There's an election coming up this year and I do plan to run one more time because some things you put in place, you want to see that it occurs. Right now, the city is changing. The economy is picking up, and I see some positive things happening in Elizabeth City."
Walton and his wife, Earline, make their home in Elizabeth City. He has four children from a previous marriage, 25 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
A husband, father, grandfather, former quarterback, and a city councilman, Walton is also an author. The Autobiography of Johnnie Walton: Under-Rated EagLegend was published in February 2021.