Robert Van Ness Johnson was born on December 6th, 1887 in Denver, Colorado. From 1905 to 1907, Johnson attended Colorado State Agricultural College in Fort Collins, Colorado, in what is now Colorado State University. In both academic years, he played for the Aggies football team and in doing so became the first black player in school history.
In the season opener of his freshman season, Johnson encountered the athletic color line. Refusal by the coach of opponent University of Denver to play against a team with a black player sparked a widespread debate across the state of Colorado on whether a color barrier was just. Johnson was eventually allowed to play his two seasons with the Aggies. Although playing at left tackle, Johnson recorded carries and even a rushing touchdown. A coaching change for the 1906-07 would leave him with less playing time, causing him to leave the team and the school.
For the 1907-08 academic year, Johnson traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts to attend Harvard University. Admitted as a “special student” who could not be eligible for an academic degree, Johnson struggled mightily with coursework, largely composed of engineering classes. His poor academic standing likely explains the absence of any record of athletic participation in 1907. Dismissed, reinstated, and then finally dismissed again, Johnson finally left the school in 1908.
For the 1908-09 and 1909-10 academic years, Johnson attended Dartmouth College. Johnson improved academically in each of his four terms while in Hanover, finding greater success studying social science and humanities subjects. Placing 166th out of a graduating class of 247 in 1910 culminated his remarkable academic turnaround.
Johnson returned to playing football only in 1909, his senior year, joining a very successful Big Green program at the time. Playing at right guard and making several appearances throughout the year spoke to his status as a viable player on the team. Johnson played with three 1909 All-Americans on the team, which ended the season with a 5-1-2 record.
Though his transcript listed Johnson as a non-graduate due to unpaid tuition bills, this did not hinder his professional aspirations. In 1928, Johnson reported to Dartmouth that he became a dentist, and later that year he moved to Chicago, Illinois to practice dentistry. Two years later, at the age of 42, Johnson died of peritonitis in Chicago.