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Top 50 football players in Arizona Wildcats history: No. 11 Vance Johnson

Photo illustration by azcentral sports.

Photo illustration by azcentral sports.

Position, years at UA: Running back, 1981-84

Honors, accomplishments at UA: Earned first-team All-Pac-10 honors as a sophomore in 1982. … Led team in rushing in 1981 and 1982. … Scored 20 rushing touchdowns and 11 receiving touchdowns.

Why he made our list: Much like Chuck Levy a decade later, the sum total of Vance Johnson’s numbers don’t tell the full story of the kind of breathtaking big-play ability he provided the Wildcats.

As a senior, he caught touchdown passes of 51 and 50 yards. Earlier in his career, he had a 93-yard kick return for a touchdown and a 79-yard scoring run. He had a 99-yard run and a 93-yard kick return called back because of penalty.

Johnson, a Cholla High grad who would go on to NFL acclaim as a receiver, was mostly used out of position as a 170-pound running back for coach Larry Smith. A broken left hand in 1983 preventing Johnson from playing that season as a slot receiver.

He had one of the best true freshman seasons at UA for a skill position player; for a while in 1981, Johnson was the only freshman starter in the Pac-10. That season, he scored the go-ahead, fourth-quarter touchdown on an 11-yard sprint to the outside in an 18-14 victory at Oregon, and his 13-yard reception late in the third quarter was the final score in UA’s epic 13-10 upset at top-ranked USC.

When he finished his UA career, Johnson had 4,343 all-purpose yards, which then ranked third in school history and is now seventh.

Johnson, who always said he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds, also was the 1982 NCAA long-jump champion and finished second in that event — to Mike Conley — in 1984.

Life after college: Johnson was the third pick in the 1985 second round, going No. 31 overall to Denver, where he spent his entire NFL career, ending in 1995. He was part of the Broncos’ famous “Three Amigos” receiving corps (with Mark Jackson and Ricky Nattiel), finishing with 415 catches for 5,695 yards and 37 touchdowns. Johnson played in three Super Bowls.

Johnson’s life outside of football was troubled, including multiple incidents of spousal abuse. He appeared on a tearful episode of the “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 1996 to talk about it, and reflected on his past with Oprah on her cable network in 2011 (see video below).

His 19-year-old son Vaughn was killed in 2007 when a SUV turned into the path of his motorcycle.

Johnson, who previously worked in real estate and the mortgage business, opened a barbecue restaurant, VJ’s Outlaw Ribbs, in Parachute, Colo., in 2007. He had a second restaurant, Vance’s Epicurious, in Grand Junction, Colo., for about three months in 2012 before a sudden closure.

In partnership with the Arizona Republic, we are counting down the top 50 football players in Arizona Wildcats history. Leave your top 10 at AG’s Wildcat Report on Facebook, and check out azcentral.com for the countdown of ASU’s Top 50 football players.

Arizona’s top 50

No. 50 — LaMonte Hunley

No. 49 — Hubie Oliver

No. 48 — Rob Gronkowski

No. 47 — Jim Donarski

No. 46 — Ontiwaun Carter

No. 45 — Steve McLaughlin

No. 44 — John Fina

No. 43 — Glenn Parker

No. 42 — Bobby Lee Thompson

No. 41 — Marcus Bell

No. 40 — Fred W. Enke

No. 39 — Ka’Deem Carey

No. 38 — Juron Criner

No. 37 — Dana Wells

No. 36 — Tom Tunnicliffe

No. 35 — Bruce Hill

No. 34 — Chuck Osborne

No. 33 — Brandon Sanders

No. 32 — Sean Harris

No. 31 — Mike Thomas

No. 30 — Bobby Wade

No. 29 — T Bell

No. 28 — Joe Salave’a

No. 27 — Eddie Wilson

No. 26 — Chuck Levy

No. 25 — Allan Durden

No. 24 — Nick Foles

No. 23 — Tony Bouie

No. 22 — ‘King Kong’ Nolan

No. 21 — Bill Lueck

No. 20 — Walter “Hoss” Nielsen

No. 19 — Trung Canidate

No. 18 — Mark Arneson

No. 17 — Chris Singleton

No. 16 — Mike Dawson

No. 15 — Max Zendejas

No. 14 — Dennis Northcutt

No. 13 — Jackie Wallace

No. 12 — Antoine Cason

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