While working on our Unsolved Mysteries cover package for our April Issue, I was charged with tracking down some of the notable unknowns of Cincinnati sports lore. There proved to be a few that still persist—Sam Wyche’s firing, the Reds Opening Day tradition—but I also managed to get an explanation for one of them.
Former Bengals fullback and Ohio State Buckeye Pete Johnson has taken on a somewhat mythical persona over the years. Part of this stems from a gregarious, 250-pound force of a man being squashed into a powerful 6-foot frame, bolstering Johnson to the tune of 5,421 rushing yards for the Bengals from 1977-1983 (a team record at the time) and establishing him as one of the franchise’s biggest offensive threats (literally and figuratively) during the 1981 Super Bowl run. But the man’s fabled backstory was largely the result of a childhood spent under the guise of a mistaken identity. Raised by his great-grandparents in Georgia, young Willie James Johnson had always assumed his legal surname was that of his father. His adopted (and more recognizable) first name, however, came from his sweet tooth.
“I loved Peter Pan ice cream,” recalls Johnson. “So everyone just called me Pete, but I was enrolled in school and everything as Willie James Johnson.”
This worked out well, as one of his older cousins had the same name, allowing Pete to nab a spot on the varsity football team as a seventh grader. “I was going to band practice one day and the football coach told me I was too big to be in the band and I needed to go out for football,” says Johnson. “People saw [my cousin’s] name and assumed that’s who I was. I’m sure the coaches figured it out, but in the South, you didn’t ask questions.” This was especially true if you could play football: Johnson claims he was recruited by four different college football teams that year, his newfound identity serving him well. “I told all the guys [on the team] that I didn’t even have to go to high school, because I’m going to college next year,” Johnson chuckles. “I didn’t get to talk to [the college recruiters] again after that. The coaches kept me away from them.”
It wasn’t until Johnson needed a birth certificate in eighth grade that he realized his given surname was actually his mother’s, not his father’s, making his legal birth name Willie James Hammock. A surprise—understandably—for the gridiron standout, it proved to be no consequence out on the field. By that point the nickname had stuck, and the moniker confusion allowed Johnson to play six years of high school football. After his great-grandfather became ill during his junior year (academically) of high school in Georgia, he moved to New York to live with his mother, playing two more years of football before being recruited to the Buckeyes to play alongside Archie Griffin.
“When I came to Ohio State, ‘Pete Johnson’ had just followed me,” says the erstwhile fullback. The aforementioned laissez-faire advantages of high school football in the South, however…not so much.
“After the first quarter of school, coach Woody Hayes had asked all of my professors how I was doing in class, and they said I was doing great, passing everything,” says Johnson. “But when the grades came out, it was all incomplete, because there wasn’t a ‘Pete Johnson’ registered at school. Woody was throwing typewriters and everything in the education department.”
By the time Coach Hayes calmed down and everyone figured out what the real issue was, Pete Johnson and Willie James Hammock were finally forced to make a decision.
“Coach Hayes told me, ‘Son, you go back to your dorm room and make up your mind who you want to be,” recalls Johnson today. “Thirty minutes later, these guys in suits were knocking on my door telling me Coach thought I should change my name legally to Pete Johnson…All because of Peter Pan ice cream.”