Born: March 13, 1963
Vance Edward Johnson was born March 13, 1963 in Trenton. His parents, Geno and Jean, encouraged him to push the limits of his physical talents, but also instilled a good work ethic. This combination helped Vance, though wiry and undersized, to excel in a wide range of sports, particularly football and track. Vance put these skills to work for Cholla High School in Tucson after the Johnsons moved to Arizona. He starred in both sports for the Chargers—rushing for over 1,300 yards and earning All-State honors in 1980—and accepted a scholarship to the University of Arizona in 1981.
Vance started at tailback for the Wildcats as a true freshman in 1981 and led the team in rushing. His playmaking ability keyed victories over Oregon and top-ranked USC. The following spring, Vance competed at the NCAA Championships and won the long jump competition. He also won a gold medal at the Junior Pan Am Games. In 1984, he would enter the Olympic Trials, but finished fourth, missing a chance to compete for Team USA in Los Angeles. Earlier in the year he had finished second to Mike Conley in the NCAA Championships.
During the 1982 football season, Vance earned First-Team All-Pac 10 honors. He led the Wildcats in rushing yards again and was a threat to break off big runs almost every time he touched the ball—especially on kickoff returns. Vance’s pass-catching ability convinced coach Larry Smith his future was as a receiver, and he switched him to that position in 1983. A broken hand limited his contributions as a junior, but as a senior in 1984 he was one of the PAC-10’s top receivers. He graduated with 4,343 all-purpose yards.
Vance didn’t last long in the 1985 draft. The Denver Broncos—looking to stockpile receiving targets for young John Elway— grabbed him early in the second round. Vance joined Ricky Nattiel and Mark Jackson to form The Three Amigos. Vance caught 51 passes as a rookie and 31 the following year, when Demver made it to the Super Bowl. Vance caught five passes for 121 yards in a 39–20 loss.
The Broncos returned to the big game at the end of the 1989 season, but lost to the 49ers 55–10. Vance caught two passes in that contest. The 1989 season was statistically Vance’s finest. He caught 76 passes for 1,095 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Vance was dealt to the Vikings in 1994, but failed to make the team. He re-signed with Denver in 1995, but played sparingly. In all, Vance caught 415 passes for 5,695 yards and 37 touchdowns. Vance also returned kicks and punts for the Broncos, totaling another 1,716 yards.
During his playing days, Vance later admitted to Oprah Winfrey in a 1996 appearance, he fathered several children out of wedlock and was guilty of physically abusing both of his wives. Winfrey interviewed him again 15 years later via Skype.
Near the end of his NFL career, Vance experienced financial problems. Those problems continued after his retirement. He bounced checks, fell behind on child support payments, and had a home go into foreclosure in 2008. His troubles were compounded by tragedy when his 19-year-old son, Vaughn, was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2007. Vance blamed himself, saying that he had failed to repair the family car, which Vaughn would have otherwise been driving. He fell into a deep depression and spent weeks in the hospital after collapsing in grief, adding more to his crushing debt load.
Still, Vance’s name carried some weight in Broncos territory. He owned his own real estate brokerage in Grand Junction, Colorado for a time. In 2007, he opened a restaurant in Parachute, called VJ’s Outlaw Ribbs. His parents helped him run the restaurant. In 2012, Vance opened another eatery in Grand Junction called Vance’s Epicurious. However, it closed within a year.