A cover corner with few peers, Jimmy Johnson: 1938-2024

Hall of Famer Forever Published on : 5/9/2024
Pro Football Hall of Famer Jimmy Johnson, a dominant cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers over 16 season, passed away May 8, 2024, at the age of 86.The professional football world today is celebrating the career of JIMMY JOHNSON, a versatile and gifted all-around athlete who became a dominant cornerback in the National Football League over 16 seasons, all spent with the San Francisco 49ers.

A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 1994, Johnson died May 8, 2024, at his home. He had remained in the San Francisco area after his career and had been in declining health for some time, his family said.

“Jimmy Johnson was extraordinarily athletically talented. The 49ers enjoyed the luxury of using him on offense and defense early in his career to fill team needs,” Pro Football Hall of Fame President Jim Porter said. “Once he settled in at left cornerback, he flourished. The notion that a ‘lockdown’ cornerback could cut the field in half for the opposition was true with Jimmy.

“Only rarely would other teams’ quarterbacks even look his direction, and more often than not regretted the decision if they challenged him.”

Born March 31, 1938, in Dallas, Johnson moved to central California as a young boy. He became a gifted all-around athlete and team leader who was named captain of his high school’s football, baseball and basketball teams. He also ran track.

Later, at UCLA, he won the NCAA 110-meter hurdles championship and was named an All-American, inviting comparisons to his older brother, 1960 Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson.

Jimmy never shied away from the competition at home – “Younger brothers always want to be like their older brothers,” he once said – but he also saw its drawbacks.

“I've got another brother who dropped out of sports because he got tired of having people tell him to follow in Rafer's footsteps,” he related to a sportswriter. “They gave me the same jazz. I didn't like it either, but instead of letting it bug me, I decided to accept it as a challenge to see if I could make it on my own in sports.”

Football provided the outlet for Johnson to exhibit a bit of individuality in the context of a team sport he enjoyed.

He played wingback and defensive back for the Bruins and was voted both the team’s best blocker and its best tackler. He also earned the team’s Iron Man Award for logging the most minutes one season.

“I played a lot of football, maybe not as much as I wanted to,” he said. “I could have played 60 minutes.”

Johnson’s durability and versatility caught the eyes of pro scouts, and the San Francisco 49ers chose him in the first round of the 1961 NFL Draft with the sixth overall selection. Coaches initially intended to play him on offense.

Injury creates opportunity

Johnson dislocated his wrist while practicing for the annual College All-Star Game, however, and he remained in a cast at the beginning of his rookie camp.

Unable to catch a football, but too good to stay on the sidelines, he moved to safety. By the time Johnson’s rookie season ended in 1961, he had intercepted five passes – second most on the team – and had gained distinction as a sure tackler.

“He's a real good one. Mark my words. He’ll be around for a while,” said JACK CHRISTIANSEN, at that time a 49ers assistant only a few years away from his own enshrinement in Canton. “He has the three requirements: tremendous speed, great reflexes and the willingness to tackle with authority.”

In 1962, Johnson reverted to offense. He caught 34 passes for 627 yards – both second highest for the 49ers, with a team-leading an 18.4 yards-per-catch average. In a game against Detroit, he totaled 11 receptions for 181 yards. In a victory over the Bears, he sealed a 34-27 win with an 80-yard TD reception that set a team record.

Johnson began the 1963 season at wide receiver, but a thin secondary forced the 49ers to move him back to safety in Week 4. In 1964, he was moved to left cornerback, a position he would hold the rest of his career, although Christiansen, recently installed as head coach, left open the door for a move back to receiver in 1965.

He asked Johnson directly: “Do you want to play offense, or do you want to play defense?”

Johnson made the choice in the same manner he made many others over his lifetime – with keen analysis and self-awareness.

“If he had asked me that four years earlier, I would have surely chosen the high-profile offense position,” Johnson told an interviewer, “but those first four years had given me an insight on what defense was all about, and the pure fact that I knew that I could have a longer career as a defensive player than an offensive player.

“So, I checked in at the left corner and spent the rest of my career toiling to be the best I could be.”

Johnson soon would be regarded as one of the best man-to-man corners in the history of the National Football League. He finished his 16-year NFL career with 213 games played, a team record until future Hall of Famer JERRY RICE surpassed it a quarter-century later. His 47 interceptions stood as the team record until another future Hall of Famer, RONNIE LOTT with 51, pushed Johnson down a slot.

Contemporaries said Johnson could have recorded dozens of additional interceptions, except for one small detail: Quarterbacks stopped throwing in his direction.

“Jim doesn't receive much publicity because the opposition avoids him as much as possible,” teammate John Brodie said. “Talk to veteran quarterbacks like JOHN UNITAS and BART STARR, and they'll tell you they call few pass patterns in Jimmy's area. The only reason Johnson doesn't lead the league in interceptions is he doesn't get the chance.” 

Dick Nolan, who succeeded Christensen as the 49ers’ head coach, was another big Johnson fan.

“I coached three defensive backs I felt were great: MEL RENFRO and Cornell Green with the Dallas Cowboys and Johnson,” Nolan said. “Jimmy is the best I've ever seen.” 

Hall of Fame humility

One of Johnson's 49ers defensive backfield teammates, Kermit Alexander, was equally laudatory.

“He's one of the most phenomenal athletes I've ever seen,” said Alexander, who played one season with Johnson at UCLA and seven years with the 49ers. “There are so many things he can do. He's an extremely controlled person and very, very talented. In the whole time we played together, I never saw him lose his cool, on or off the field. The reason his honors were so late in coming was that he never beat the drums for himself.”

Johnson, in fact, had been eligible 14 years before being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite a resumé that included four-time first-team All-Pro nods, selection to five Pro Bowls and a spot on the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1970s.
“Jim is one of the best corners in pro football,” Hall of Fame receiver FRED BILETNIKOFF of the Oakland Raiders once said in praise. “I just hope he makes a mistake of some sort so I can get an advantage.”

Johnson shared a mutual respect for the wide receivers he faced week in and week out.

“I don't look at someone and think that he can't beat me,” Johnson said. “If you play long enough, you're going to get beat. The question and the key to your effectiveness is how often.”

Johnson intercepted at least one pass in each season of his NFL career – except 1962, when he played offense exclusively. His single-season high came in 1965 (six); he picked off five passes in 1969 to match the number from his rookie season.

In 1971, Johnson won the George Halas Award, given by the Pro Football Writers Association, for courageous play after competing in the final half of the season with another broken wrist. From 1970 through 1972, Johnson was a first-team All-Pro and helped the 49ers to a pair of NFC title games, both losses to the Dallas Cowboys.

Teammates selected Johnson to receive the Len Eshmont Award as the team’s “most inspirational player” for both the 1965 and the 1975 seasons.

Johnson planned to retire after the 1975 season, his 15th in the league, but Monte Clark, a former high school teammate and close friend, took the 49ers’ head coaching job heading into the 1976 season. Johnson agreed to play one more year as a favor to Clark, starting 13 games for a team that finished 8-6 and second in the NFC West.

Only one year later, the team retired his jersey at “Jimmy Johnson Night at Candlestick Park.”

“Jimmy Johnson has not only been a great football player, he has been one of the game’s finest citizens throughout his career,” said Joe Thomas, the 49ers’ general manager. “There is no one in the NFL who does not have the highest respect for him, both as a player and as a man.”

Introducing his brother for enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Rafer Johnson said: “Jimmy is a quiet man, but he played with determination and commitment. Most of all, Jim was and is a gentle man and a true gentleman.”

In addition to his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Johnson is a member of the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame (1978), Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame (1990), UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame (1992) and a charter member of the San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame (2009).

His legacy will be preserved forever in Canton, Ohio.