Carl Raydale Johnson, San Angelo High School basketball and track star and one of the first Black athletes recruited to the University of Texas track team, was born in San Angelo on January 1, 1950. Johnson was the second son born to Cornelius Stanley Johnson and Lena Mae Johnson. His father cooked at various San Angelo restaurants before moving, separately, to Midland in 1954.
After attending San Angelo’s Carver Elementary and Blackshear Junior High, Johnson first caught many Texans’ notice in his sophomore year while playing basketball for the city’s Central High School varsity squad. In track that spring, Johnson ran a 9.6-second 100-yard dash and a 21.3-second 220-yard dash and finished second overall at the 1966 state meet. That summer, at an amateur meet, he set a record for the 220-yard dash in his division at 21.6 seconds. High expectations from Bobcat basketball and track fans did not work out the next year, however. A persistent knee injury limited Johnson’s junior basketball season, and he failed to make it to state that year in track. Still experiencing knee issues during his senior season, Johnson managed to score 284 points for the basketball team on their way to a 22-7 season. His total put him fifth in scoring for Texas Division 4A that year. In track that spring, he knew he did not have a chance in the shorter sprints, so he focused on the quarter-mile. A 47.8-second clocking at state gave him third and helped earn him a scholarship to run track at the University of Texas at Austin.
Johnson, one of the first Black members of the Longhorn track team, was recruited to run the quarter-mile, but by the 1971 season UT coaches and trainers had managed to return Johnson to the short sprints. He was a major Southwest Conference (SWC) contender in the 100 and 220 and anchored the Longhorn relay squad at the 4 X 100, a team that also included Mickey Ryan, Byrd Baggett, and John Berry. Two SWC runners put up 9.3-second times in the 100 that spring, including Johnson, but both were judged wind-assisted. At the conference championships at College Station that year, three runners finished the sprint at a blazing 9.5. Although it appeared to some that Johnson edged out the other two, judges gave the win to Aggie speedster Rockie Woods. Johnson co-captained the 1972 team, at the time its only Black athlete, and Texas topped the SWC that year and the next. Johnson, though, faded from the leader ranks.
Johnson’s track career was at its end in 1973. Johnson, three credits short of gaining a degree in social work, found work with poor and blind children in East Austin. At times laconic, even brooding, Johnson was most at ease when running, but his interests went beyond sports. He wanted to help teach young Blacks that they could be Black and get along in a White man’s world. He experienced racism firsthand in his youth and, perhaps, more overtly when he reached UT. Even in 1971, there was only one Black player on the UT football team. Once, traveling to an out-of-town meet, the track team stopped in La Grange to eat. The owner confronted Coach Jack Patterson and explained to him, using the racial vernacular of the time, that Johnson could eat in the kitchen. Patterson explained to the owner that his team ate together, so they would have to go elsewhere. The owner relented. The experience bonded Johnson with his teammates and inspired them.
No one got a chance to see what Johnson’s life could become. Three vehicles tangled in a collision on I-35 north of Austin in the early morning hours of July 1, 1973. Eleven people were injured, two seriously—an Illinois woman and Johnson. The two were transported to Brackenridge Hospital in Austin with serious injuries. Johnson, suffering massive internal injuries, clung to life until the next morning when he died at about 9:30 A.M. on July 2, 1973. He was twenty-three.
Johnson’s body was returned to San Angelo for burial. Sometime later, his mother received his diploma from the University of Texas in the mail. His goal when he died had been to finish his degree and begin to give back to others. The Carl Ray Johnson Recreation Center in San Angelo was named in his honor. In 2012 a scholarship fund, named the Carl Johnson Spirit Award, was established at Central High School in San Angelo to honor his memory. Friends characterized Johnson as the Jackie Robinson of athletics at the University of Texas.