There was a time during the early-to-mid 1990s when it seemed as though the Steelers had a scout assigned specifically to the University of Colorado. During the first four years of Bill Cowher's tenure as the team's coach, the Steelers used five premium draft picks on players who spent some or all of their time in Boulder playing for Coach Bill McCartney.
Of those five players, two were first-round picks – cornerback Deon Figures in 1993 and wide receiver Charles Johnson in 1994.
Johnson, the 17th overall pick and the first wide receiver off the board in the 1994 NFL Draft, died early this week. He was 50.
During that early phase of the Cowher era, the Steelers used a third-round pick on nose tackle Joel Steed in 1992, a first-round pick on Figures and a second-round pick on Chad Brown in 1993, that No. 1 pick on Johnson in 1994, and a second-round pick on Kordell Stewart in 1995. All of those players ended up in the starting lineup for the Steelers, and all of them filled significant roles for the 1995 team that ended up winning the AFC Championship and advanced to Super Bowl XXX vs. Dallas.
On the field, Cowher characterized Johnson as an aggressive receiver, and he praised him for his toughness in the immediate aftermath of the 1994 NFL Draft. Off the field, Johnson was perpetually upbeat, the kind of player teammates enjoyed being around both on and off the field. The player known as CJ was a particular favorite of Stewart, who regularly referred to Johnson as his favorite receiver once he became the full-time starting quarterback in 1997.
Johnson appeared in 76 regular season games for the Steelers, with 58 starts, and he had 247 receptions for 3,400 yards (13.8 average) with 15 touchdowns. He added another 11 catches for 171 yards (15.5 average) and a touchdown in six playoff games. His best season in Pittsburgh came in 1996 when he caught 60 passes for 1,008 yards (16.8 average) and three touchdowns.
During the 1997-98 seasons, with his buddy Stewart as the full-time starter at quarterback, Johnson caught 111 passes for 1,383 yards (10.7 average) and nine touchdowns. After the 1998 season, Johnson left the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent to sign with Philadelphia. After two seasons with the Eagles, Johnson played one year in New England and one year in Buffalo. He was part of the Patriots team that won Super Bowl XXXVI.
After his NFL career ended in 2003, Johnson got into coaching high school football, and most recently he served as the assistant athletic director at Heritage High School in Wake Forest, N.C.