Johnston Dead at 71; Supported Bringing Pro Football to Area

Article excerpt

Byline: Joe Humphrey, Times-Union staff writer

Thomas Littleton Johnston Jr., a supporter for professional football in Jacksonville, a one-time prize fighter and a regular at Hyde Park Golf Club, died Wednesday of lung cancer. He was 71.

Mr. Johnston was a career Navy man who enlisted at age 17 as an air traffic controller and later became an officer and aviator. His final mission was as officer in charge of a scientific exploration of Antarctica. He retired to Jacksonville with the rank of lieutenant, family said.

Mr. Johnston served as manager and chairman of the American Football Association's Jacksonville Firebirds, one of several professional predecessors to the Jaguars. He also helped organize a 1979 rally that drew more than 50,000 fans to the Gator Bowl to greet Baltimore Colts owner Bob Irsay, who was shopping around for a new city. Irsay eventually took his team to Indianapolis and the Firebirds didn't last, but the seeds were planted for the city's NFL future.

Mr. Johnston coached his children and others in Pop Warner football, Little League baseball and junior basketball, but was perhaps best known for time spent as a boxer and as a boxing coach.

As an enlisted sailor, he boxed under the pseudonym Johnny Thomas to keep his fighting a secret. He later stepped into the ring under his own name. Mr. Johnston won 52 consecutive fights and several titles from 1945 to 1959, son Stuart Johnston said. He also coached a successful Navy boxing team until the early 1960s.

In recent years, Mr. Johnston became a regular at Hyde Park on Jacksonville's Westside. He usually beat the sun to the first tee as part of a group from a nearby American Legion post. …