John Henry Johnson
refer to caption
c. 1955
No. 35
Position:Fullback, halfback
Personal information
Born:(1929-11-24)November 24, 1929
Waterproof, Louisiana, U.S.
Died:June 3, 2011(2011-06-03) (aged 81)
Tracy, California, U.S.
Height:6 ft 2 in (1.88 m)
Weight:210 lb (95 kg)
Career information
High school:Pittsburg (Pittsburg, California)
College:Saint Mary's
Arizona State
NFL draft:1953 / Round: 2 / Pick: 18
Career history
Career highlights and awards
Career professional statistics
Rushing yards:6,803
Yards per carry:4.3
Rushing touchdowns:48
Player stats at · PFR

John Henry Johnson (November 24, 1929 – June 3, 2011) was an American professional football player who was a running back. He was known for his excellence at the fullback position as both a runner and a blocker. His first professional stint was in Canada in the Western Interprovincial Football Union (WIFU, a forerunner league to today's Canadian Football League) for one season with the Calgary Stampeders. He then played in the National Football League (NFL) for the San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, and Pittsburgh Steelers before spending his final season in the American Football League (AFL) with the Houston Oilers. Commonly referred to as simply John Henry, an allusion to the folk hero of the same name,[1] Johnson was a tough and tenacious player who performed at a high level well into the tail end of his career.

After playing college football for St. Mary's Gaels and Arizona State Sun Devils, Johnson was selected in the second round of the 1953 NFL Draft by the Steelers, the 18th overall pick. He instead played one season of Canadian football for the Stampeders, in which he won the Jeff Nicklin Memorial Trophy as the league's most valuable player. He then signed with the 49ers, and played left halfback in San Francisco's famed "Million Dollar Backfield". He was traded to Detroit in 1957, and became the team's leading rusher en route to that year's NFL championship, their most recent.

His abilities seemingly in decline, Johnson was traded to Pittsburgh in 1960, where he had the most productive years of his career, recording two 1,000-yard rushing seasons. He is the second oldest player to record a 1,000-yard rushing season (behind only John Riggins), having achieved that mark for the final time on Dec. 6, 1964 at the age of 35 years 12 days. He is the oldest player to rush for 200 or more yards in a game. A four-time Pro Bowl selection, Johnson ranked third on the NFL's all-time rushing yards list when he retired, but was best remembered by his peers for the mark he left with his blocking. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.

Early life

Johnson was born in northeastern Louisiana, at Waterproof in southern Tensas Parish. He played high school football in northern California at Pittsburg High School.

College career

He played college football at Saint Mary's College of California in Moraga before transferring to Arizona State College in Tempe.[2][3] While at Saint Mary's, sportswriters deemed Johnson "one of the fleetest and finest players on the Pacific Coast."[4] The school dropped its football program after the 1950 season.[5][6]

As a senior at Arizona State in 1952, he played left halfback and was recognized as one of the roughest and hardest runners in the country,[7] and as one of the top defensive players as a safety.[8] He also excelled as a punt returner, and had a two-game stretch in which he returned four punts for touchdowns.[9] Johnson's running abilities made him a standout pro football prospect as a black athlete at a primarily white college.[7]

Professional career

Calgary Stampeders

Selected in the second round of the 1953 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers,[10] Johnson instead played one season in Canada with the Calgary Stampeders of the Western Interprovincial Football Union (WIFU) in 1953.[2] Johnson reasoned that Calgary had offered more money, but Steelers owner Art Rooney speculated that Johnson thought it was too cold in Pittsburgh. "He must have thought he was going to some resort up there," joked Rooney.[1] He led the Stampeders in rushing that season with 107 carries for 648 yards, an average of six yards per carry with five touchdowns. In addition, Johnson caught 33 passes for 365 yards and three more touchdowns, returned 47 punts for 386 yards, and had a 104-yard kickoff return touchdown. He also starred on defense and intercepted five passes.[11] He was awarded the Jeff Nicklin Memorial Trophy as the league's most valuable player.[2] Johnson was also a leading WIFU All-Star vote receiver, but because he played both offense and defense so well voters split their votes and he was left off the team's "roster".[12]

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.[13] Johnson finished second in the league in rushing with 681 yards,[14][15] behind only Perry,[16] who picked up the majority of his 1,049 yards behind blocking from Johnson. Johnson 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.[17] Johnson earned second-team All-Pro honors from United Press International (UPI) and the New York Daily News.[18]

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 injuring his shoulder against the Los Angeles Rams,[19] 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 exchange for fullback Bill Bowman and defensive back Bill Stits.[20]

Detroit Lions

Lions head coach Buddy Parker saw Johnson's value as a blocker and moved him to fullback.[20] In his first season with Detroit in 1957, he led the team in rushing, carrying for 621 yards and five touchdowns.[21] 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 16-yard pass, and recovered a fumble on defense.[22] Going into the 1958 season, the Lions looked to continue their success, and Johnson was expected to be the team's primary ball carrier.[23] 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.[24]

In 1959, Johnson was suspended indefinitely by the Lions after he missed the team plane back to Detroit following a one-sided 33-7 loss to the 49ers on November 1 in which he carried the ball five times for only eight yards.[25][26] To that point, the Lions had a 1–5 record, and coach George Wilson used Johnson's suspension as an opportunity to call out the team for its lack of "desire."[27] Johnson was ultimately fined $1,000. 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.[28] Following the season, Johnson was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers for two draft picks. "That's all we could get for him," explained Wilson.[29]

Johnson with the Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers finally acquired Johnson in 1960, after having lost him to the CFL when they drafted him eight years prior.[10] His career rejuvenated, he had his most productive years as a pro while in Pittsburgh.[30] In his first season with the team, he rushed for 621 yards with a 5.3 yards-per-carry average, which included a career-high 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.[21] 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.[31] He became the oldest player in NFL history to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing in a season, finishing with 1,048 in 1964, but was later eclipsed by John Riggins.[32] Johnson was 35 years, 12 days old when he passed the 1,000 yard mark on Dec. 6, 1964. When Riggins accomplished the feat in 1984, he was 89 days older. In a game during the 1964 season against the Cleveland Browns, Johnson, then at age 34, carried 30 times for 200 yards and scored three touchdowns, out-dueling the great Jim Brown.[33] 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.[34] Johnson's effort impressed Steelers president Dan Rooney, who remarked that "he got almost all the yardage by himself."[33] Age and injuries caught up to Johnson in 1965, as he was limited to just three carries for 11 yards.[33]

Houston Oilers

After playing out his option with the Steelers, in July 1966 Johnson signed as a free agent with the Houston Oilers of the American Football League. He joined the Oilers with the hope of helping the team win an AFL championship.[35] However, the team finished the season last in the Eastern Division with a record of 3–11. Johnson retired after the season at the age of 37. He completed his NFL career having carried 1,571 times for 6,803 yards and 48 touchdowns, and picked up 1,478 yards on 186 pass receptions for seven receiving touchdowns.

Playing style

Equally proficient as both a blocker and runner, Johnson was described as "the perfect NFL fullback".[36] A talented runner, he ran with power both inside and outside the tackles, and he was as fast as McElhenny and Perry.[37] Jim Brown called Johnson the greatest running back he had ever seen.[36] He was also a very skilled safety and linebacker on defense.[1][38][39] 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 and all but ended his career.[40][41] "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."[40]

Perhaps the most notable aspect of Johnson's game was his blocking abilities, for which he received heavy praise.[1] He took pride in it, saying "It gave me a chance to hit all those people who hit me all the time."[42] 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."[43] 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."[21]


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,[44] and chose Steelers owner Art Rooney as his presenter.[45] Many of his contemporaries felt his induction was belated;[42][1] he had been eligible for induction for the past fifteen years.[46] 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.[47] Johnson is a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers Legends team, which honors the franchise's best players pre-1970.[48] He was a charter inductee to the San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame in 2009.[49]

Personal and later life

In November 1955, while on the sick list for the 49ers due to a shoulder injury, Johnson carried two women to safety out of a blazing apartment building in Oakland, California. One of the women was his pregnant wife, Barbara Johnson.[19] The couple divorced in 1959, and a bench warrant was issued for Johnson after he fell $2,360 behind on alimony payments, concurrent with his suspension from the Lions for missing the team plane.[26][25] After retiring as a player, he worked for Columbia Gas and later for Warner Communications. He had aspirations of coaching football, but the opportunity never arose.[36]

Johnson died at age 81 in 2011 in Tracy, California.[21][50] 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 having 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 used a wheelchair. She told the San Francisco Chronicle that she hoped by donating her father's brain, it would "help with a cure."[51]

Johnson was confirmed to have Stage 4 CTE, the most severe form of the disease.[52] He was one of at least 345 NFL players to be diagnosed after death with this disease.[53]


  1. ^ a b c d e Bouchette, Ed (August 7, 1987). "John Henry was a steel-drivin' man". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. p. 17. Retrieved October 10, 2016.
  2. ^ a b c Sell, Jack (December 2, 1953). "Steelers lose No. 2 draft choice to Frisco team". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. p. 20.
  3. ^ "Former Tempe football star scores in Canada". Prescott Evening Courier. Arizona. Associated Press. September 21, 1953. p. 5.
  4. ^ "Border Loop Is Nurturing Two Champs". Prescott Evening Courier. Associated Press. September 10, 1952. p. 1. Retrieved September 26, 2016.
  5. ^ "Gaels abandon gridiron sport". Spokane Daily Chronicle. (Washington). Associated Press. January 6, 1951. p. 7.
  6. ^ "Gaels bow out of grid picture". Eugene Register-Guard. (Oregon). Associated Press. January 7, 1951. p. 9.
  7. ^ a b McLin, E. H. (October 4, 1952). "The Sports Parade". St. Petersburg Times. p. 21. Retrieved September 26, 2016.
  8. ^ "Devils Await Old Adversary". Prescott Evening Courier. Associated Press. November 28, 1952. p. 5. Retrieved September 26, 2016.
  9. ^ "San Jose Wary Of Safety Ace". Spokane Daily Chronicle. Associated Press. October 1, 1952. p. 29. Retrieved September 26, 2016.
  10. ^ a b Jordan, Jimmy (April 12, 1960). "Steelers finally get John Henry Johnson". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. p. 19.
  11. ^ Stamps mourn death of John Henry Johnson. Calgary Stampeders. June 4, 2011. Retrieved March 19, 2017.
  12. ^ DeGeer, Vern (November 6, 1953). "Good Morning". The Montreal Gazette. p. 25. Retrieved September 9, 2016.
  13. ^ Tameta, Andre (May 22, 2009). "San Francisco's Million Dollar Backfield: The 49ers' Fabulous Foursome". Bleacher Report. Archived from the original on June 9, 2011. Retrieved September 23, 2016.((cite news)): CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  14. ^ Abrams, Al (April 14, 1960). "John Henry Could Help". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. p. 22. Retrieved September 23, 2016.
  15. ^ Corkran, Steve (June 3, 2011). "Former 49ers star John Henry Johnson dies". San Jose Mercury News. Retrieved September 24, 2016.
  16. ^ "1954 NFL Leaders and Leaderboards". Sports Reference LLC. Retrieved September 23, 2016.
  17. ^ "Lineups Named For Pro Bowl Today". Daytona Beach Morning Journal. Associated Press. January 16, 1955. p. 14. Retrieved September 24, 2016.
  18. ^ "1954 NFL All-Pros". Sports Reference LLC. Retrieved September 24, 2016.
  19. ^ a b "Player Rescues 2 Women In Fire". Spokane Daily Chronicle. Associated Press. November 28, 1955. p. 2. Retrieved September 25, 2016.
  20. ^ a b Latshaw, Bob (May 15, 1957). "Lions, 49ers Swap 3 Backs". Detroit Free Press. p. 25. Archived from the original on September 28, 2016. Retrieved September 28, 2016.((cite news)): CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  21. ^ a b c d Goldstein, Richard (June 5, 2011). "John Henry Johnson Dies at 81; Inspired Fear on the Field". The New York Times. Retrieved September 25, 2016.
  22. ^ "Cleveland Browns at Detroit Lions - December 29th, 1957". Sports Reference LLC. Retrieved September 26, 2016.
  23. ^ "Veteran Performers to Carry Load for Detroit Lions in 1958 Campaign". Ludington Daily News. July 7, 1958. p. 6. Retrieved September 27, 2016.
  24. ^ Diles, Dave (August 11, 1959). "Johnson, Rote Are Ifs for Detroit Lions". Prescott Evening Courier. Associated Press. p. 5. Retrieved September 27, 2016.
  25. ^ a b "Lions' Fullback Is Suspended". Spokane Daily Chronicle. Associated Press. November 2, 1959. p. 15. Retrieved September 26, 2016.
  26. ^ a b "Double Trouble For John Henry". Toledo Blade. Associated Press. November 3, 1959. p. 21. Retrieved September 26, 2016.
  27. ^ "Lions' back suspended". The Bulletin. United Press International. November 3, 1959. p. 2. Retrieved September 26, 2016.
  28. ^ "Wilson Says He's Sick Of Being Fall Guy For Detroit's Pro Lions". Ocala Star-Banner. Associated Press. August 25, 1960. p. 7. Retrieved September 27, 2016.
  29. ^ "John Henry Johnson Traded to Pittsburgh". Ukiah Daily Journal. United Press International. April 12, 1960. p. 2. Retrieved September 28, 2016.
  30. ^ Wexell, Jim; Mendelson, Abby; Aretha, David (2014). The Steelers Experience: A Year-by-Year Chronicle of the Pittsburgh Steelers (illustrated ed.). MVP Books. p. 58. ISBN 978-0760345764. Retrieved September 28, 2016.
  31. ^ "1962 NFL All-Pros". Sports Reference LLC. Retrieved September 26, 2016.
  32. ^ Langager, Chad (March 3, 2015). "Best Running Back Seasons By 30+ Year Olds". Retrieved September 28, 2016.
  33. ^ a b c Smizik, Bob (September 6, 1994). "The day John Henry Johnson ran wild". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. p. 6. Retrieved September 16, 2016.
  34. ^ "Player Game Finder Query Results". Sports Reference LLC. Retrieved September 28, 2016.
  35. ^ "John Henry Johnson Signs Contract With Oilers". Park City Daily News. Associated Press. July 17, 1966. p. 12. Retrieved September 29, 2016.
  36. ^ a b c Swauger, Kirk (October 14, 1984). "John Henry: The perfect NFL fullback". Beaver County Times. p. C2. Retrieved September 25, 2016.
  37. ^ Jacobs, Martin (2005). San Francisco 49ers (illustrated ed.). Arcadia Publishing. p. 53. ISBN 0738529664. Retrieved September 25, 2016.
  38. ^ Swauger, Kirk (October 14, 1984). "John Henry: the perfect NFL fullback". Beaver County Times. Pennsylvania. p. C2.
  39. ^ Murray, Jim (February 11, 1970). "Johnson seeks coaching job". Free Lance-Star. Fredericksburg, Virginia. (Los Angeles Times). p. 13.
  40. ^ a b Wexell, Mendelson, & Aretha 2014, p. 62.
  41. ^ "Trippi Badly Hurt; Fear Career Over". St. Petersburg Times. Associated Press. September 16, 1955. p. 12. Retrieved September 28, 2016.
  42. ^ a b Cook, Ron (June 27, 1982). "John Henry He's learned how quickly they forget". Beaver County Times. p. C3. Retrieved September 30, 2016.
  43. ^ "Night Train, Jimmy Hill, John Henry are 'meanest'". Baltimore Afro-American. October 6, 1964. p. 14. Retrieved September 26, 2016.
  44. ^ Melvin, Chuck (August 9, 1987). "Pro football's hall of fame inducts seven". The Day. New London, Connecticut. Associated Press. p. E5.
  45. ^ Bouchette, Ed (August 6, 1987). "Ceremonial chief". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. p. 12.
  46. ^ Players become eligible for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame five years after their final pro season.
  47. ^ "Johnson, member of 49ers' 'Million Dollar Backfield,' dies at 81". National Football League. June 4, 2011. Retrieved September 3, 2016.
  48. ^ "Steelers Announce Legends Team as Part of 75th Season Celebration Twenty-Four Honored as Best Pre-1970's Players in Club History". Pittsburgh Steelers. October 2007. Archived from the original on June 5, 2009. Retrieved September 30, 2016.((cite web)): CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  49. ^ "49ers Announce Edward DeBartolo Sr. 49ers Hall of Fame". San Francisco 49ers. May 12, 2009. Retrieved September 30, 2016.
  50. ^ Schudel, Matt (June 6, 2011). "John Henry Johnson, punishing NFL fullback of 1950s and '60s, dies at 81". The Washington Post. Retrieved September 30, 2016.
  51. ^ "Researchers to study 49ers RBs". ESPN. June 9, 2011. Retrieved January 28, 2016.
  52. ^ "John Henry Johnson". Concussion Legacy Foundation. Retrieved July 3, 2023.
  53. ^ "Researchers Find CTE in 345 of 376 Former NFL Players Studied". Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine. Retrieved March 26, 2023.

Further reading