June 6, 2006

Johnson: Fifth down was an honest mistake

Did you ever wonder what became of your favorite college stars from yesteryear? Did you think about how often they're reminded of their crowning achievements?

Wonder no more.

Rivals.com is spending this summer tracking down some of the college stars who delivered the most memorable careers or moments of the last generation. We began the series last week by talking to a handful of notable quarterbacks of the last 25 years. This week we're focusing on players who helped deliver some of college football's most fantastic finishes.

Their crowning achievements occurred decades ago, yet the events may as well have taken place yesterday. The moments are still that fresh in the minds of each player.

They still are often asked about the plays that made them famous. And they're only too happy to share their memories.

Charles Johnson, Colorado quarterback
Name: Charles Johnson
Age: 37
Residence: Denver
Claim to fame: Led the winning drive in Colorado's 33-31 victory over Missouri on Oct. 6, 1990. The game is known as the "Fifth Down" game because Colorado was allowed to run five plays from inside the 3-yard line in the final minute. Johnson dove for the winning touchdown as time expired only after he had spiked the ball on what should have been fourth-and-goal. Johnson, who quarterbacked this game after an injury to starter Darian Hagan, later was named the most valuable player of a 10-9 Orange Bowl victory over Notre Dame. The Buffaloes ended up sharing the national title with Georgia Tech.

How often he's reminded about the Missouri game: "All the time. The most common question is did I know it was five downs. It's pretty frequent still. I hear it. I was working out the other day and watching ESPN (counting down the most memorable finishes in college football history), and they actually showed the fifth-down game. It will happen about once a year and will energize me, as well as when we play Missouri."

What do you remember about that game?: "Darian had gotten hurt either the game before or a couple of games before. I'd played a lot of downs, particularly the year before because we'd blown a lot of people out. The game before, we'd played Washington. It was a big game, with both teams ranked. He'd gotten hurt in that game, and I came in during the second half of that game, so I wasn't unaccustomed to playing.

"It's one of those games where we were heavily favored. We kept waiting for the rout to happen, and it never really did. We'd score. They'd score. We'd score. They'd score. And there was no exaggeration on how bad the conditions of the field were, but that aside, we were expecting to go in and beat them up pretty good. I think it was one of those sand-based sort of fields that were for wet or moist climates. When you wet it down, it gets really sticky. If you don't, on a hot day, you get this layer of sand or gravel on top of the turf. That's exactly what the conditions were. I counted about 92 slips. Looking back on that film, we had opportunities to score 45-50-55 points in that game, and our guys just slipped and fell all day.

"We were confident (despite trailing 31-27 with about two minutes remaining). I honestly don't think it occurred to anyone in the huddle that we wouldn't score (at the end). I didn't know how it would all unfold. I think there were under two minutes left, and we started out at around our own 15-yard line. The irony is that no one remembers the effort it took to drive the length of the field that it took to score. All the talk is about the last play of the game. If you ask me, (offensive coordinator Gary) Barnett and Coach Mac (head coach Bill McCartney), you'll get three slightly different versions of what took place. The play before the fifth-down (sequence) started, I hit John Boman with a pass on the tight-end out. No one was within 5 or 6 yards of him. He was around the 4-yard line and turns upfield. The game would have ended right there if he didn't slip or fall.

"I think we spiked it on first down (from the 3-yard line), then we ran (Eric) Bieniemy on second down. I think Missouri called a timeout after we'd run two plays. I recall there being 18 seconds left on the clock. Coach Mac put his arm around the official, pointed up to the scoreboard and said, 'There's 18 seconds left.' Then he pointed to the down marker. He said, 'It's second down. We're going to run three plays.' He reminded the referee not to let Missouri delay the game by just sitting around and letting the clock run off. The official said, 'OK, you should be fine.'

"I remember getting back to the huddle before the play, and I was telling the guys, 'Here's what we're going to do because there are only 18 seconds left. I told them we had this series of three plays that we were going to run, and to get back to the line of scrimmage so we could run the plays. All the down markers indicated second down. Our center, Jay Leeuwenburg, who was an All-American, looked at me and said, 'C.J., we can't do that.' I entertained his suggestion for a second until the referee said, 'Bring them out.' I think Jay was the only guy in the huddle who knew we'd already run two plays and therefore couldn't run three plays consecutively. It didn't occur to me until three days later that Jay was actually on to something when he said that to me.

"We came out and ran Bieniemy up the middle again, then we spiked it. Then we ran a little option to the short corner and punched it in. We actually spiked it on fourth down. It was third down on the clock but our fourth play. I think that really threw everybody off. I saw Missouri's players and coaches start toward the field from the sideline, but they stopped. It didn't occur to me they'd be coming toward the field for any reason. I thought they were just getting closer to the action because it was all about to end on the next play, one way or another. They were going to rush the field (after the spike), but they weren't sure because the ref didn't indicate the game was over."

"It was bizarre. After I scored, we had kind of rushed off the field assuming it was the last play. But we had to come back on to do the extra point. Between the time we scored the touchdown and actually running the last extra point, where I believe I just took a knee, that probably took five minutes to sort out the mess. By then, people were beginning to learn it was five downs. It was kind of a bizarre deal. There was one group in the stands that became particularly hostile, and I think a police officer was injured when we were escorted off the field. They were beginning to throw things on the field at us.

"We were in the locker room, and at the postgame press conference, before I'd even taken a shower, I was asked if I thought we'd run five downs. Of course, at that time, I didn't know. I told them I'd give it some thought. I was certain we'd run only four. I went back to Boulder, and I saw (the highlights) on ESPN, and I remember thinking to myself, 'Oh Lord, I'd told all these people I ran only four downs.' They probably think I'm full of it. While I was in the shower, I didn't really think about those four downs. It never occurred to me that we'd run five plays.

"I honestly think we were a little defensive about the criticism. There was some criticism, and we were defensive for a couple of reasons. For one thing, what had unfolded was not within our control. Number two, I think under normal conditions, we would have beaten up Missouri pretty good. Not to take anything away from their team, they were an explosive offensive team. People say both teams were playing on the same field, but we were more of an option attack with downfield cutting. You look at the game and see how many times we slipped on the open field. You'd be alarmed by it. Missouri was a vertical passing team. They were throwing the ball over the top. I think that meant they were less impacted by that type of field. I think we were a little bit defensive about some of the criticism.''

Pro career: Johnson didn't get drafted and never pursued a career in pro football.

What he's doing now: "I'm assistant athletic director at CU. I have a passion for helping young student-athletes. I came in here with the new athletic director (Mike Bohn) and have been here almost a year.

"I was doing radio and television here in Denver prior to this. I also was a co-founder of a corporate Internet data center here in town, one of the largest corporate Internet data centers in the nation.

"I love it here. We've been in the media a lot for a number of different reasons over the last few years. It's good to be here just as a part of rebuilding the image, if nothing else, of this great institution."


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