John Henry Johnson, 1929-2011

Hall of Famers Published on : 6/4/2011
John Henry Johnson, a member of the San Francisco 49ers’ famed “Million Dollar Backfield” and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ first 1,000-yard rusher, died on Friday in Tracy, Calif. The Hall of Fame fullback was 81.

“I speak on behalf of all of John Henry’s fellow Hall of Famers, our Board and staff, in sending our condolences to the Johnson family,” stated Steve Perry, the Hall of Fame’s President/Executive Director. “John Henry’s place in football history as one of the game’s most punishing runners and greatest blockers will forever be remembered through his bronze bust in the Hall of Fame.”

Johnson, a 6’2”, 210-pound fullback began his NFL career as the final piece to the 49ers’ famed backfield that earned the nickname “Million Dollar Backfield.”  He joined the team in 1954 after playing one season in the Canadian Football League. Johnson became the final piece to the foursome, all of whom were later enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The others member of the backfield included quarterback Y.A. Tittle, fullback Joe Perry, and halfback Hugh McElhenny. Perry recently passed away on April 25.

Johnson had an impressive debut in the NFL as he finished second in rushing to Perry that season. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry while amassing 681 yards. A powerful runner who was equally adept at blocking, Johnson played three seasons for the 49ers before he was traded to the Detroit Lions in 1957.

He won his only NFL title during his first year in Detroit when he helped the Lions to a championship. Johnson was the team’s leading ground gainer during the regular season. He then chipped in with 40 yards on eight carries and had one catch for 16 yards in the Lions’ 59-14 blowout of the Cleveland Browns in the 1957 NFL Championship Game. After three years in Motown, John Henry landed in Pittsburgh with the team that originally drafted him in the second round in 1953.

It was with the Steelers from 1960-65 where he enjoyed his finest success that saw him lead the team in rushing four straight seasons beginning in 1961. He made history in ’62 when he became the first runner in that franchise’s storied history to rush for 1,000 yards when he gained a career-high 1,141 yards. Two years later, he surpassed the 1,000-yard mark again.

Johnson finished his career in 1966 with the American Football League’s Houston Oilers.

Despite impressive statistics for his era, Johnson took great pride in his skill as a blocker. It was a talent that did not go unnoticed by his teammates.

“John Henry is my bodyguard,” once declared Hall of Fame quarterback Bobby Layne. “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.”

In all, Johnson gained 6,803 yards and scored 48 rushing touchdowns. At his retirement, he ranked fourth all-time in career rushing yardage behind only Jim Brown, Jim Taylor, and Perry. He also had an impressive 186 career receptions that included seven for scores.

Johnson was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.

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