John Henry Johnson
Johnson c. 1955
|Date of birth:||November 24, 1929|
|Place of birth:||Waterproof, Louisiana|
|Date of death:||June 3, 2011(aged 81)|
|Place of death:||Tracy, California|
|Height:||6 ft 2 in (1.88 m)|
|Weight:||210 lb (95 kg)|
|High school:||Pittsburg (CA)|
St. Mary's (CA)
|NFL Draft:||1953 / Round: 2 / Pick: 18|
|Career highlights and awards|
|Career NFL statistics|
Selected in the second round of the 1953 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Johnson played one season in Canada with the Calgary Stampeders of the Western Interprovincial Football Union in 1953, then 13 seasons back in the United States. He played a dozen seasons in the National Football League (NFL) with the San Francisco 49ers (1954–56), Detroit Lions (1957–59), and Pittsburgh Steelers (1960–65). He played his final season in 1966 with the Houston Oilers of the American Football League (AFL).
Early life and college
Johnson was a native of Waterproof in southern Tensas Parish in northeastern Louisiana. He played high school football in northern California at Pittsburg High School, and college football at Saint Mary's College of California in Moraga before transferring to Arizona State College in Tempe. While at Saint Mary's, sportswriters deemed Johnson "one of the fleetest and finest players on the Pacific Coast."
As a senior at Arizona State, he played left halfback and was recognized as one of the roughest and hardest runners in the country, and as one of the top defensive players as a safety on defense. He also excelled as a punt returner, and had a two-game stretch in which he returned four punts for touchdowns. But it was his running abilities that made Johnson a standout pro football prospect as a black athlete at a primarily white college.
Selected in the second round of the 1953 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Johnson instead played one season in Canada with the Calgary Stampeders of the Western Interprovincial Football Union (WIFU) in 1953. That year, he scored nine touchdowns and averaged nearly four yards per carry, and he was awarded the Jeff Nicklin Memorial Trophy as the league's most valuable player. He was also named a WIFU All-Star, but voters could not decide at which position to place him, so he was left off the team's "roster".
San Francisco 49ers
Johnson was signed by the San Francisco 49ers in 1954 as a halfback, where he joined Hugh McElhenny, Y.A. Tittle, and Joe Perry to form the 49ers' famed "Million Dollar Backfield". That year, the 49ers shattered the team record for rushing yards in a season, and Johnson finished second in the league in rushing with 681 yards, behind only Perry. He scored nine touchdowns, which were the most for a season in his career. He was invited to his first Pro Bowl following the season, joining Tittle and Perry. Johnson earned second-team All-Pro honors from United Press International (UPI) and the New York Daily News.
For the remainder of his time in San Francisco, Johnson was unable to replicate the success of his rookie year, as his production dropped significantly in the following two seasons. He played in seven games in 1955 before suffering a shoulder injury against the Los Angeles Rams, and finished the year with only 19 carries for 69 yards and one touchdown. He was traded to the Detroit Lions following the 1956 season.
In his first season with Detroit in 1957, Johnson led the Lions in rushing, carrying for 621 yards and five touchdowns. In the 1957 NFL Championship Game, which was won by the Lions 59–14 over the Cleveland Browns, Johnson carried seven times for 34 yards, caught a sixteen-yard pass, and recovered a fumble on defense. Going into the 1958 season, the Lions looked to continue their success, and Johnson was expected to be the team's primary ball carrier. However, Johnson missed several games due to injuries, and the Lions finished with a 4–7–1 record and one of the league's worst rushing offenses.
In 1959, Johnson was suspended indefinitely by the Lions after he missed the team plane back to Detroit following a November 1 blowout loss to the 49ers. To that point, the Lions had a 1–5 record, and coach George Wilson used Johnson's suspension as an opportunity to scold the whole team for its lack of "desire." Wilson took the brunt of the blame for Detroit's struggles in 1958 and 1959, but he questioned the resolve of some of the team's higher-paid players, including Johnson. Following the season, Johnson was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers finally acquired Johnson in 1960. His career rejuvenated, he had his most productive years as a pro while in Pittsburgh. In his first season with the team, he rushed for 621 yards with a 5.3 yards-per-carry average, which included an 87-yard score against the Philadelphia Eagles. He became the first Steelers player to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, when he did so in 1962, and he repeated the feat in 1964. He made three straight Pro Bowl appearances, and was a second-team All-Pro selection by the AP, UPI, and Newspaper Enterprise Association in 1962. As of 2016, he remains the oldest player to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing in a season in NFL history, finishing with 1,048 in 1964, aged 35. In a game in 1964 against the Cleveland Browns, then aged 34, Johnson carried 30 times for 200 yards and scored three touchdowns, out-dueling the great Jim Brown. It was only the ninth 200-yard rushing game in NFL history to that point, and the performance made him the oldest player to reach that mark, a record he still holds. Johnson's effort impressed Steelers president Dan Rooney, who remarked that "he got almost all the yardage by himself." Age and injuries caught up to Johnson in 1965, as he was limited to just three carries for eleven yards.
Houston Oilers and retirement
Playing style and legacy
Even decades after his playing career, Johnson was described as "the perfect NFL fullback". A talented runner, he ran with power both inside and outside the tackles, and he was as fast as McElhenny and Perry. He was also very skilled in blocking and on defense. During a preseason game in 1955, Johnson hit Chicago Cardinals halfback Charley Trippi so hard that he fractured Trippi's face in multiple places, leaving him with a smashed nose and concussion. "Football was like a combat zone," said Johnson. "I was always told that you carry the impact to the opponent. If you wait for it, the impact will be on you." Quarterback Bobby Layne, a teammate of Johnson with both the Lions and Steelers, listed Johnson as one of the one of "Pro Football's 11 Meanest Men" in an article for SPORT magazine in 1964. "By 'mean,' I mean vicious, unmanageable, consistently tough," said Layne. "I don't mean dirty." Layne also called Johnson his "bodyguard," saying "Half the good runners will get a passer killed if you keep them around long enough. But a quarterback hits the jackpot when he gets a combination runner-blocker like Johnson."
Upon his retirement, Johnson was ranked fourth on pro football's all-time rushing yards list, behind Jim Brown, Jim Taylor and his fellow Million Dollar Backfield teammate Perry. As of 2016, he is fourth on the Steelers franchise all-time rushing yards list, behind Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis, and Willie Parker. In 1987, he was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and chose Steelers owner Art Rooney as his presenter. The 49ers' "Million Dollar Backfield" is currently the only full-house backfield to have all four of its members enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Personal and later life
Johnson died at age 81 in 2011 in Tracy, California. Several days later, it was announced that Johnson and his fellow Million Dollar Backfield teammate, Joe Perry, who died six weeks earlier, would have their brains examined by researchers at Boston University, who were studying head injuries in sports. Both men were suspected of suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a disorder linked to repeated brain trauma. According to his daughter, Johnson could not talk or swallow in the final year of his life and also was in a wheelchair. She told the San Francisco Chronicle that she hoped by donating her father's brain, it would "help with a cure."
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