Obituary: John Henry Johnson / Hall of Famer was Steelers' leader in career rushing before Harris
Former Steelers running back John Henry Johnson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.
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John Henry Johnson, a pro football Hall of Fame running back who was the Steelers' career rushing leader until Franco Harris came along, died Friday in Tracy, Calif. He was 81 and the cause of death was not reported.
In a National Football League career spanning 13 seasons with four teams, Mr. Johnson had 6,803 career yards rushing by the time he retired in 1966, trailing Jim Brown, Jim Taylor and onetime San Francisco 49ers teammate Joe Perry, who died April 25, at his retirement. Mr. Johnson also caught 186 passes for 1,478 yards and scored 55 touchdowns.
Drafted by the Steelers in the second round of the 1953 NFL draft, Mr. Johnson played for the Canadian Football League for one season before joining San Francisco.
He played for the 49ers from 1954-56, joining Perry, Hugh McElhenny and Y.A. Tittle, whose offensive prowess led to the nickname "The Million Dollar Backfield." The group is the only "full house" backfield to have all four of its members enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Mr. Johnson also played for the Detroit Lions (1957-59), the Steelers (1960-65) and Houston Oilers (1966).
With the Steelers, Mr. Johnson became the first player in franchise history to gain 1,000 yards rushing in a season, accomplishing that feat twice -- in 1962 and 1964. While he was with the team for just six seasons (1960-65) Mr. Johnson is still fourth on the Steelers' all-time rushing list with 4,383 yards. Only Mr. Harris, Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker have rushed for more yardage for the Steelers.
"We are deeply saddened by the death of John Henry Johnson," the Steelers said Saturday in a statement. "Also known for being one of the greatest blocking backs of his era, John Henry was one of the first in a long line of Steelers' Hall of Famers. The entire Steelers organization sends its condolences to the Johnson family for the loss of one of the great players in team history."
A native of Waterproof, La., Mr. Johnson was born on Nov. 24, 1929. He graduated from Pittsburg High School in Northern California, where his No. 35 jersey is retired and hangs in the weight room. He wore that number throughout his NFL career. He played college football at St. Mary's and Arizona State.
In his rookie year with the 49ers, Mr. Johnson ranked second in the league with 681 yards rushing and a 5.3-yard average, scoring nine touchdowns. He finished his three-year stint in San Francisco with 1,051 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns, 279 yards receiving on 38 receptions.
Mr. Johnson went on to play for the Detroit Lions (1957-59) and helped them win the NFL championship in 1957.
He finished his pro career with the Houston Oilers of the American Football League in 1966.
Johnson was also a productive receiver, catching 186 passes for 1,478 yards. He scored 55 touchdowns, rushing and pass receiving, during his career and played in four Pro Bowl games (1954, 1962-64). He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 1987.
"I was deeply saddened to hear of John Henry Johnson's passing," said 49ers owner John York. "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."
First Published June 5, 2011 12:00 am