This is a longer version of a story I wrote for Saint Mary’s College magazine in 2011.
“Johnson is a swivel-hipped, broken-field runner that could develop into quite a football player.”
Those words from Saint Mary’s College assistant football coach Joe Angelo on the first day of practice in 1950, before John Henry Johnson had ever played a varsity game for the Gaels, were unusually prophetic. Johnson turned out to be quite a football player indeed and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987, the only Saint Mary’s alumnus so honored.
John Henry Johnson, the first African-American to play varsity football at Saint Mary’s, died June 3, 2011 in Tracy, California. He was 81 and had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for more than 20 years.
Johnson was born on Nov. 24, 1929, in the tiny Mississippi River delta cotton-farming community of Waterproof, Louisiana. There was no high school available to black students in Waterproof, so when he was 16 his parents sent him west to live with an older brother who was stationed at Camp Stoneman in Pittsburg, California. “My parents wanted to give me a chance for an education, so they sent me to live with my brother,” Johnson told a Pittsburg Post-Dispatch reporter in 1986. “Anything was better than Waterproof.”
He enrolled in Pittsburg Junior High School as a 9th-grader in the spring of 1946, having never played organized sports. By the time he graduated from Pittsburg High in 1949, he was considered to be the best athlete in East Bay history.
Johnson earned all-Contra Costa County Athletic League football honors all three seasons he played, scoring 90 points in eight games as a senior in 1948 and leading the Pirates to the league championship. As a basketball player, he twice led the league in scoring and set the league single-game scoring record. In track and field, he won the state discus championship in 1949 (an article in the San Francisco Chronicle claimed Johnson broke the national record, I haven’t been able to find other verification of that), and at the North Coast championships he also set meet records in the shot put and 180-yard low hurdles. He even batted over .500 the one season he played baseball.
An athlete with those credentials today would have athletic scholarship offers from dozens of major college powers. But black athletes in the 1940s didn’t have the same options. Johnson said he looked up to Jackie Robinson, who had played football at UCLA before concentrating on baseball and becoming the first black to play in the major leagues. So Johnson wanted to attend UCLA himself, but when the Bruins’ coaching staff was let go after the 1948 season, Johnson said he decided not to go there.
Saint Mary’s was appealing. Not only is the campus close to Pittsburg, but the Gaels had played in a bowl game as recently as 1946 with an all-America running back, Herman Wedemeyer. “In the Wedemeyer era, they really cut it up,” Johnson said, years later. “He was a great football player. That was the place for me.”
Pete Costanza, a Pittsburg man who became a father figure and adviser to Johnson, told the Post-Dispatch in 1986 he wanted Johnson to attend junior college for a year and wait for offers from bigger schools. But, according to Costanza, “some of the politicians in Pittsburg” recruited Johnson in behalf of Saint Mary’s. In any event Johnson was on campus in Moraga in the fall of 1949.
At that time freshmen were ineligible to play college football, so Johnson spent the season playing on the freshman team and practicing against the varsity. By the time the 1950 season rolled around, the Gaels’ coaches were convinced they had a special player on their hands. The team’s preseason press brochure said, “His hip and knee action in open field is as graceful as a ballet dancer’s efforts…And makes him almost as hard to catch as a porpoise in the open sea.”
The 1950 Gaels would face a challenging season under first-year head coach Joe Ruetz. Not only did the schedule include such major conference schools as Cal, Georgia and Oregon, but Ruetz started the season with only 34 players after several quit during the first days of practice. And not a single player in the starting lineup weighed as much as 200 pounds.
Johnson was one of two Gaels whose photos appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle the day of the season opener, Sept. 22, when Saint Mary’s hosted College of the Pacific at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco…quite a tribute to a player who not only had never played in a varsity game but would not even be in the starting lineup that night. By the time the game was over it was clear what all the excitement was about, though, as Johnson thrilled the crowd with a 84-yard kickoff return in the third quarter (although the run was nullified by a penalty). It was about the only bright spot in a 40-0 loss.
The performance impressed 25-year-old Chronicle sports writer Pierre Salinger (who went on to national fame as press secretary to Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and later, briefly, as U.S. Senator from California). Several days after the game Salinger wrote, “the Negro phenom ran hard, tackled hard, and blocked hard. [Johnson played both offense and defense.] He showed signs of greatness.”
Coming off that lopsided defeat, the Gaels were 31-point underdogs in their next game Sept. 29 against Georgia at Kezar, when they pulled off what would be the biggest surprise anywhere in the nation that season, holding the visitors to a 7-7 tie. The Gaels’ touchdown came on a 90-yard kickoff return by Johnson to open the second half.
“The hero of the piece was John Henry Johnson, the 191-point St. Mary’s sophomore,” Salinger wrote in the next morning’s Chronicle. “He was carried from the field on the shoulders of delirious Gael rooters at the end of the game, and no man deserved the honor more….He tackled viciously, blocked like a man possessed, and ran, head down, legs churning.”
Johnson was the first black athlete ever to compete against a University of Georgia team. The two schools had signed a two-year contract for games in California in 1950 and in Georgia in 1951, but Georgia officials would back out of the second year of the deal, as they weren’t ready for a black to take the field in Dixie.
But, as it turned out, Saint Mary’s had no football team in 1951. On Jan. 5 of that year school officials announced it would not play intercollegiate football or baseball “for the duration of the national emergency” that had been declared by President Harry Truman in December as part of what became known as the Korean War. Not only had the college lost what it thought to be a significant amount of money on the football program in 1950, but military service was threatening to further reduce the school’s all-male enrollment, which was then only about 900.
Saint Mary’s final game had been played in a constant downpour at Kezar Stadium on Dec. 3, when only 200 fans were on hand to watch a 14-7 defeat at the hands of Villanova. Johnson scored on a four-yard touchdown run in the third quarter and then ran for the extra point, the final points scored by a Gael gridder until the program was resumed in 1967.
Johnson decided to transfer to continue his college football career. After reportedly being turned down for admission by the University of San Francisco (whose team would go unbeaten and untied in 1951 before administrators there decided to drop the sport as well), Johnson joined several Saint Mary’s teammates who enrolled at Arizona State. He was ineligible to play in 1951 because of restrictions on transfer students but was back on the field for his senior season in 1952. And he made quite an impression there as well; even though his season ended early when he tore a ligament in his right knee, he earned all-Border Conference honors and was a second-round draft choice of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers.
Johnson did not want to play in Pittsburgh, so he accepted an offer to play for a Canadian professional team in Calgary (at a higher salary) and was named the league’s most valuable player in 1953. But after the Steelers traded his rights to the San Francisco 49ers, Johnson agreed to return to the States for the 1954 season.
With the 49ers Johnson was part of what immediately became known as “The Million Dollar Backfield.” He was the fullback with Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny at halfback and Y.A. Tittle at quarterback; all four are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Johnson finished second in the National Football League in yards rushing as a rookie (behind only Perry, who benefited from Johnson’s devastating blocking), scored nine touchdowns in 12 games and was named to play in the league’s all-star game, the Pro Bowl.
Playing for the 49ers also brought Johnson back to Moraga, as the team held its training camp at Saint Mary’s starting in 1955.
A shoulder injury in 1955 and a change in offensive formation in 1956 reduced Johnson’s playing time with the Niners, so before the 1957 season he was traded to the Detroit Lions and promptly helped the team win the NFL championship, something the Lions haven’t accomplished since. He led the team and finished fourth in the league in yards rushing. En route to the title the Lions rallied from a 20-point third-quarter deficit in the Western Conference championship game to beat the 49ers on the same Kezar Stadium field Johnson was carried off as a Saint Mary’s sophomore.
In 1960 Johnson was traded to Pittsburgh and this time decided to play for the Steelers. He was rewarded with the best seasons of his career; as the focal point of a team’s offense for the first time, he finished second in the league in rushing yards in 1962, fourth in 1963 and third in 1964, making the Pro Bowl all three years. He passed the 1,000-yard milestone in ’62 and ’64, the first Steeler to reach that mark. And he set a team single-game record in 1964 when he rushed for 200 yards and three touchdowns against a Cleveland team that would go on to win the NFL championship. That came when Johnson was approaching his 35th birthday, a ripe age for someone with the punishing job of NFL running back. He was the oldest man ever to rush for 1,000 yards in a season to that point and held that distinction for another 20 years.
Another injury kept Johnson out of action almost all of the 1965 season, then after spending 1966 with the Houston Oilers of the American Football League, Johnson retired as a player. At that time, and for several years thereafter, he ranked fourth on the NFL’s all-time rushing list.
Johnson settled in Pittsburgh after his playing career, and while he expressed unhappiness he was never considered for a coaching job with the Steelers, he did not return to the game. He had left Arizona State without a degree but went back to school during the offseasons while playing pro football and earned a B.A. in education in 1955. He worked as coordinator of urban affairs for the Columbia Gas Company of Pittsburgh, later worked in collections for Warner Cable there, and then in the community relations department of Allegheny County, Pa., before retiring in 1989 and moving to his second wife Leona’s hometown of Cleveland.
“By then he was seriously ill,” Leona Johnson told longtime Oakland Tribune sports columnist Dave Newhouse in his book, “The Million Dollar Backfield.” “He couldn’t remember where his offices were. He’d get lost on the freeway. He couldn’t find the grocery store. He got so he was afraid to leave the house.”
After Leona died in 2002, Johnson returned to California to live with his daughter Kathy, the oldest of his six children, one of whom preceded him in death. (Kathy’s mother, who married Johnson while he was a student at Saint Mary’s, was Barbara Flood. Her younger brother, Curt Flood, grew up in Oakland and became an all-star baseball player with the St. Louis Cardinals. Before dating Barbara, Johnson reportedly dated the sister of San Francisco’s Johnny Mathis, a star athlete who became a very popular singer.) Dementia confined him to a wheelchair for the last several years of his life, and in his final year he was unable to talk or swallow.
Kathy authorized the donation of his brain to be examined at Boston University for a study of head trauma, including the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which may be related to impacts to the head while playing football. The widow of his old Million Dollar Backfield mate, Joe Perry, also allowed the study of his brain; Perry died just six weeks before Johnson, at age 84.
What made John Henry Johnson a star was a combination of size, speed, strength and bone-crunching blocking ability that was unknown before his time and remains rare today. He was genuinely feared by his peers for his blocking, and several stories of blocks that injured opponents made the rounds for years.
“If you didn’t keep an eye on him, next thing you know you’d have your jaw wired,” said Wayne Walker, a teammate and later opponent as an NFL linebacker before he was the longtime sports director of San Francisco’s KPIX-TV.
Johnson wasn’t the most popular player in the NFL as a result. Pat Summerall, who played against Johnson before starting his long career as an NFL play-by-play announcer, said he once heard the Chicago Mafia might get involved in avenging injuries suffered by an Italian-American player who Johnson stiff-armed in the face. Johnson said he’d heard that rumor too.
Dave Newhouse, describing Johnson in “The Million Dollar Backfield,” wrote: “Away from football, he was as nice and cozy as a warm soft bed. But dress him in football gear, and he was a bed of nails.”
“I was an aggressive player,” Johnson told Newhouse. “I know I wasn’t dirty. I just enjoyed hitting.”
In 1970, Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray quoted Johnson as saying: “You got to put a little fear in that other man. Upsets his concentration, y’know? I could run away from lots of people, once I got them to hunching up for the collision.” (Murray could be a little creative with his quotes, so I won’t swear Johnson said it just that way.)
Hall of Fame quarterback Bobby Layne, who was Johnson’s teammate with the 1957 Lions and again from 1960-62 with the Steelers, wrote an article for the November 1964 issue of SPORT magazine titled “Pro Football’s 11 Meanest Men.” Johnson was one of them. But 20 years later, Layne told the Beaver County (Pa.) Times, “John Henry was maybe the meanest player around on the football field, but he is one of the best friends a guy could have. We were, and still are, real close. Friends in real life, not just on the football field. He’s the greatest.”
In honor of Johnson, in 2011 all 49ers players wore a decal on the back of their helmets with 35, the uniform number Johnson wore at Saint Mary’s and throughout his pro football career. (There was also a 34 decal in honor of Joe Perry.) “He [Johnson] was a good friend, not only to my family and me, but the entire 49ers organization,” team owner John York said after Johnson’s death. “His contributions to the game of football will be forever celebrated.”