Johnson will forever have his place in 49ers lore
Practically a San Francisco Bay Area sports legend before he even entered the professional ranks, John Henry Johnson began his Hall of Fame career with the fledgling NFL team in his own backyard. By the time he moved on to further football greatness a few years later, the 49ers would never be quite the same.
Johnson, who died on Friday at age 81, was one of the team’s prominent pioneers during a golden era for the franchise when the 49ers developed their early legacy and mystique.
After just three seasons with the team, Johnson had become part of a select group of 49ers who forever will have their place in NFL history as the one-of-a-kind “Million Dollar Backfield.” That quartet never would have been tagged with that enduring moniker if it weren’t for the addition of Johnson, a bruising 6-foot-2, 210-pound halfback.
Johnson was the young complement and finishing touch to a powerhouse backfield that already included Y.A. Tittle at quarterback, Joe Perry at fullback and Hugh McElhenny at halfback. Each of those four players would establish themselves as all-time 49ers greats, and each would find themselves in pro football’s hallowed Hall of Fame after their careers were finished. Perry, the 49ers’ all-time leading rusher, died in April at age 84.
"I was deeply saddened to hear of John Henry Johnson's passing," 49ers owner and co-chairman John York said. "He was a good friend, not only to my family and me, but the entire 49ers organization. As a member of "The Million Dollar Backfield" he holds a cherished place in both 49ers and NFL history. His contributions to the game of football will be forever celebrated. Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to the entire Johnson family."
The “Million Dollar” label was placed on that 49ers backfield as a symbol of a value that was practically incomprehensible at that time. Johnson made an immediate impact on the acclaimed unit as a rookie in 1954, finishing second in the NFL in rushing with 681 yards, behind only teammate Perry’s league-leading 1,049 yards. Johnson also was second in the NFL with nine rushing touchdowns while garnering Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors that season.
After previously making waves in the Bay Area as a dominant prep athlete at Pittsburg High, and then later at nearby St. Mary’s College, Johnson was selected in the second round of the 1953 NFL draft, the No. 18 pick overall that year.
But Johnson didn’t sign with the Steelers, deciding instead to play in the Canadian Football League during his first professional season. The 49ers then brought the hometown boy back to his native Bay Area when they traded halfback Ed Fullerton – San Francisco’s fourth-round draft pick in 1953 – to acquire Johnson’s rights.
That deal turned out to be a steal for the 49ers as Fullerton’s NFL career consisted of just one game played with the Steelers in 1953. After his year in Canada, Johnson joined the 49ers the next season and began his path to stardom as the “Million Dollar Backfield” was born.
It remained together two more seasons, with injuries preventing Johnson from again making the impact of his rookie season. The 49ers dealt Johnson to the Detroit Lions in 1957 for defensive back Bill Stits, who contributed five interceptions in his two seasons with the team.
Ironically, at the end of that year Johnson would help lead the Lions to a wild 31-27 victory over the 49ers at Kezar Stadium in the first NFL playoff game in 49ers history. Johnson would carry Detroit to its last NFL title that season, finishing fourth in the NFL in rushing with 621 yards.
Johnson’s greatest seasons would follow after he was dealt in 1960 to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team that originally drafted him.
He went to three consecutive Pro Bowls with the Steelers from 1962-1964, finishing second in the NFL with 1,141 yards rushing in 1962. He also broke the 1,000-yard barrier with 1,048 rushing in 1964. Johnson was the first player in Steelers history to rush for 1,000 yards, and he was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1987 after being a finalist for induction in eight of the previous 12 years.
“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,” Steve Perry, the Hall of Fame’s president/executive director, said on the Hall of Fame’s web site. “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.”
After his final season with the Houston Oilers in 1966, Johnson finished his career with 6,803 yards rushing, which at the time ranked fourth among the NFL’s all-time leading rushers behind Perry, Jim Brown and Jim Taylor. Johnson, who also had 186 career receptions for 1,478 yards and scored 55 total touchdowns, now ranks 55th among the league’s career rushing leaders.
Johnson would return to his Bay Area roots after his playing career was over. He was seen in the 49ers locker room a few years back, the team’s current players circling around him, chatting with him and speaking about him with awe. Johnson was a charter member of the Edward DeBartolo Sr. 49ers Hall of Fame that was established by the team in 2009.
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