When close followers of the Kansas City Chiefs examine the list of franchise players who have had their numbers retired they often express surprise as to who this Stone Johnson person is. Johnson never played a single regular season game for the Kansas City Chiefs. He is, however, still listed on the all-time roster of Chiefs players. But how could a player who never played in a single regular season game be worthy of a retired number?
Stone Johnson was the team’s number one pick in the Chiefs “red shirt” draft of 1962. (The “Red Shirt” draft applied to college players who had one year of eligibility left after sitting out one of their college years, much as the practice exists today. They retained the option of leaving college or returning for one more year of eligible play. Most did that but the AFL wisely drafted them early so when they did become available a team retained their rights). Coupled with members of the team’s overall draft including top choices Buck Buchanan and Ed Budde, the draft for the team held great promise.
Like Buchanan, Johnson had played at Grambling (quarterback) but was probably better known for his track expertise. He had been named to the 1961 All-America track team for the 100-yard dash after qualifying for the 1960 Olympic Games, setting a world record in the 200 meters of 20.5 seconds. He missed out on a gold medal as part of the 400 meter relay team after helping set a world record when his team was disqualified for an illegal baton pass.
Johnson was slated to play running back for Kansas City and in his first season in a pre-season game against the Houston Oilers in Wichita, Kansas, he suffered a fractured vertebra in his neck and died 10 days later on September 8, 1963. Teammate Chris Burford recalls that the injury came on a kickoff and that Johnson had “dipped his head just before contact.”
A tragic loss like this, ironically to be followed two years later with the death of running back Mack Lee Hill, staggered the young Chiefs franchise and in particular Abner Haynes. “It had a profound effect on the team but in particular Abner,” Burford remembers. “He had been a childhood friend of Stone’s and he was never the same player after that.”
Following Johnson’s demise, Burford and a number of his teammates including Len Dawson, Jerry Mays and Haynes flew to Dallas where they met Lamar Hunt and attended Johnson’s viewing and funeral.
Burford believes Johnson’s death cast a lingering pall over the 1963 season. “It was a very emotional and stunning development,” he said, “which had a lot to do with the team’s falloff in performance that first year in Kansas City.”
Johnson’s number, 33, was later retired and it was likely due to the tragic circumstances of his death, believes Burford, as did Hill’s some time later.