Former Saint Mary's fullback John Henry Johnson, a Pro Football Hall of Fame fullback who was a member of the San Francisco 49ers famed "Million Dollar Backfield," passed away June 3 in Tracy, Calif. The cause of death was not announced, but he had reportedly had Alzheimer's disease for several years.
Johnson, 81, started his football career at Saint Mary's in the late 1940's and transferred to Arizona State after the College discontinued the football program. He was a 1953 second-round draft pick of the Steelers, However, he opted to play professionally in Canada. After one season at Calgary, he returned to the United States to start his NFL career with the 49ers. He was an immediate sensation, finishing second in the league in rushing with 681 yards and a 5.3-yard average.
For the next two years, he was an integral part of the "Million Dollar Backfield" that included future Hall of Famers Hugh McElhenny, Y. A. Tittle, and Joe "The Jet" Perry. Johnson was traded to Detroit in 1957 and then to Pittsburgh in 1960.
It was with the Steelers that John Henry enjoyed his finest seasons. In both 1962 and 1964, he broke the 1,000-yard rushing barrier, the first Steeler to achieve that lofty level. It was with the Lions, however, that he participated in his only NFL title game, the 1957 contest that saw Detroit overwhelm the Cleveland Browns, 59-14. Johnson was a key figure in the Lions' title drive that year and wound up as the club's leading rusher with 621 yards. Johnson was selected to play in the 1955, 1963, 1964, and 1965 Pro Bowl Games.
When he retired after the 1966 season, his 6,803 career rushing yards ranked him behind only Jim Brown, Jim Taylor, and Joe Perry as the top ground gainers of all time. Johnson also was an excellent pass receiver with 186 receptions for 1,478 yards. He scored 330 points on 55 touchdowns in his career.
A recent story in the Washington Post described Johnson as follows: "Mr. Johnson, who was known by all three of his names, emerged in the NFL when pro football games sometimes resembled back-alley brawls. Players throughout the league came to fear No. 35, whose crushing blocks and tackles broke the jaws of at least two players, including one teammate in an intra-squad scrimmage.
"What did you want me to do?" an unapologetic Mr. Johnson asked. "Kiss the guy or tackle him?"
Despite the dangers of his sport, Mr. Johnson wore just a single-bar face mask on his helmet and no pads or gloves on his hands. At 6 feet 2 and 225 pounds, he had excellent speed but was better known as a powerful runner and punishing blocker. His stiff-arm - essentially an open-palm punch to the jaw while running at full speed - was devastating.
"If you didn't keep your eye on him," Wayne Walker, a former linebacker with the Lions, told the San Francisco Chronicle, "next thing you know you'd have your jaw wired."
The Chronicle reported last week that the brains of Perry and Johnson, have been donated for Boston University's research into head trauma. Perry died April 25 at 84.
Their families agreed to submit their brains for the BU study into head injuries and the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Kathy Moppin, Johnson's daughter, told the Chronicle her father had been confined to a wheelchair for several years and was unable to speak or swallow for the past year.
Thanks to the Pro Football Hall of Fame for information included in this report.