MOUNTAIN OF A MAN - Layton Johns Remembered as a Gentle Giant, By Lori Dann, Special to The Brantley Enterprise Jan. 9, 2003
Larry Chapman and Layton Johns grew up 40 miles apart in the small Georgia towns of Ludowici and Nahunta. They first met on the basketball court as high school seniors in 1959, when they played on opposing teams in the Savannah Morning News Christmas Tournament. Its a meeting Chapman says he will never forget.
When I shook his hand before the game, it felt like I was grabbing a shovel, said Chapman, who has been the head basketball coach at Auburn University-Montgomery for 25 years. It was like he was the Jolly Green Giant. But he looked down at me so approvingly and with such admiration that it surprised me.
Layton Johns was the reason I came to Auburn, and I'll forever be grateful to him for that, Chapman said. He was a gift in my life. God blessed me by letting me know him. Chapman was saddened to learn that his former college roommate was in poor health. I talked to his daughter Beth (Squires) a couple of weeks ago, and she told me Hospice was coming in, he said. It just broke my heart.
Chapman contacted several other former Auburn players including Rex Frederick, Bill Ross, and John Blackwell, and planned to visit Johns on Saturday, June 10th. They never made the trip. The day before, the former two-time All-SEC center died at the age of 60 following a year-long battle with lung cancer. He was buried three days later in Nahunta, with several of his former teammates in attendance.
When I think of Layton, the first thing I think about is his smile, said Blackwell, a guard/forward in the early 1960s who also roomed with Johns and Chapman.there was a seriousness about, but he was also so good natured and he was always able to put people at ease. He was a mountain of a man and extremely strong because he grew up a logger. But if he was your friend, he was always your friend. I really do miss Layton.
Johns weighed 225 pounds and was an intimidating presence in the paint; He averaged a double-double his final two seasons, tallying 15 points and 12.5 rebounds per contest as a senior. We should all kiss Layton's feet because he made all the coaches better coaches and all the players better players, Chapman said. He was special. He could really jump, and in our shuffle offense, he had to be able to shoot, cut, catch and run too. If we had thrown the ball to him as much as they do now, because of the shot clock, theres no telling what he would have done.
Blackwell recalls an incident in practice which demonstrated Johns pure strength. The big center broke free and was going in for a lay up, and Blackwell decided not to allow him to get off the shot. He grabbed both of Johns arms and pulled down, only to see him break through and bank the ball in for two points. I was shocked, Blackwell said. He just smiled down at me with that look like, Try to stop me. He was just so strong. We used to get into wrestling matches in our room, and I never won a one.
Despite Johns personal success at Auburn, Chapman said he remained the same humble country boy at heart. Not to under estimate his athleticism and strength, but the biggest thing about Layton was who he was, Chapman said. He was a real warrior. We never had to sweat whether he would stand up and compete, regardless of where he was playing. He had such a tremendous heart, and he made all of us feel like we were more important than him.
After his Auburn career, Johns was selected in the fourth round of the 1963 NBA Draft by the Lakers. But he bypassed professional basketball, opting instead to become a banker and owner of several restaurants. Chapman said doctors discovered the cancer when Johns went to Emory University in Atlanta to have hip replacement surgery about a year ago. He fought it the best he could, and was always upbeat, Chapman said. He knew he had cancer, but he stayed positive. He was such a dreamer.