John Henry Johnson

Pro Football Fans noticed the death on June 4, 2011 of John Henry Johnson, a great running back and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  There is a section of the sports memorabilia room at Arizona State, his Alma Mater in Tempe.  This is just south of my place in Scottsdale.  There are three coincidences surrounding John Henry in twists of fate.

Johnson came into the NFL as part of the Dream Backfield with the San Francisco Forty-Niners, where he played  from 1954 to 1956.  The other three members of this great combination were Quarterback Y.A. Tittle and Running Backs Hugh McElhenny and Joe “the Jet” Perry.  When John Henry retired in 1966, he was fourth on the all time rushing list with 6,803 yards. The first three were Jim Brown, Jim Taylor, and naturally Joe Perry.  Perry died in late April just six weeks before JHJ.  In addition to running, John Henry Johnson caught 186 passes for 1,479 yards. His unique running style was a combination of grace, power, and speed.  Johnson could zig zag or take defenders straight on, depending on the circumstances.   Add that one thing not measured but very important.  Johnson loved to block and did it better than any other running back in his time.

After three years with Forty Niners, the Detroit Lions acquired him in 1957. He played also three years as a Lion and was their number one runner.  Even so, John Henry seemed to be on the edge of but never achieving greatness. He got in trouble with the coaches and left impression he was dogging it.  Perhaps that was true.  Johnson played five years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, 1960 to 1964; this formed the base for his entrance into the Hall Of Fame.  Consider the following:

1960. Johnson teamed with Tom Tracy to give the Steelers their best rushing duo up till that time.  With Tracy gaining 680 yards and Johnson 612,  Pittsburgh could bank on at least 100 yards on the ground each game.  John Henry ‘s best game was in week 11 at Forbes Field when the Steelers broke Philadelphia’s nine game winning streak, 27 to 21.  Johnson carried 19 times setting two Steeler records; most yards gained in a game, 182, and the longest run from scrimmage 88 yards.  As might be expected, this run was a touchdown and the longest in the NFL for 1960 .

1961.  With Tom Tracey injured, the almost entire ground game rested on Johnson and he responded in two ways.  His 787 yards set a Steeler record for yard gained in season and was John Henry’s best season to date.  In two consecutive games, he ran the opposition ragged. 

Week Seven at Forbes Field vs the San Francisco Forty Niners.  Johnson carried  15 times for 103 yards including a 30 yard touchdown run.  Pittsburgh 20 San Francisco 10.

Week 8 at Cleveland.  While not scoring, John Henry carried 22 times for 105 yards.  His effort established good field position and burned the clock.  The Steelers ended the title hopes of the  Cleveland Browns with a 17 to 13 win. 

1962.  John Henry Johnson became the first Steeler to rush for over 1,000 yards and was the key to the best season for Pittsburgh to date.  They were 9-5 in the Eastern Division, second only to the New York Giants, and went to the Runner up Bowl in January.  Johnson’s 1,141 yards was second to Jimmy Taylor, who had 1,410.  Only in this year did Jimmy Brown not lead the league in rushing.  1962 was the second and last year Brown failed to gain 1,000 yards-he had 996.  JHJ’s best game was 138 yards at St. Louis where the Steelers erupted for a 17 point fourth quarter and 26 to 17 win.

Typically though Johnson saved his best effort for the best teams.  In 1962, John Henry had two splendid games against the New York Giants. 

–Week Three at Pitt Stadium vs the New York Giants.  Johnson carried 20 times for 113 yards and a touchdown.  At the end of both the first half and the game, the Steelers came away with nothing inside the Giant 15.  The scored was tied when Pittsburgh tried a fake field goal in the final play of the first half.  New York’s defensive back, Al Webb,  knocked  Ed Brown’s intended pass for John Powers in the End Zone.   Bobby Layne completed a 30 yard pass to Buddy Dial at the Giants’ 15.  On the next play, long time Steeler nemesis Erich Barnes intercepted a pass under the Giants goal post to cook the game.  The score was 31 to 27 both before and after the interception.  Even though it was game three, this cost the Pittsburgh Steelers the Eastern Division title.

–Week Five at Yankee Stadium.  The Steelers tore apart the Giants defensive line for a 20 to 17 victory.  Johnson carried 22 times for 123 yards.  Defensive back Clendon Thomas intercepted two passes; Pittsburgh’s biggest win of the season. 

1963.  Johnson was injured and missed two consecutive games in October.   Johnson’s injury may have cost Pittsburgh the Eastern Division title.  I won’t go in the games chronologically but have separated them to make my point.

Week Four At Cleveland.  Twice on fourth and goal from the Cleveland one, Pittsburgh had to settle for eight yard field goals.  With John Henry carrying, this would have been a different matter.  Clendon Thomas also was injured and Browns quarterback Frank Ryan had a field day.   Browns 35 Steelers 23.

Week Five at St. Louis.  This arm wrestles in with the Giants at home game the previous year;  to be academic, what was the biggest regular season loss of the Pre-1970 Steelers.  Pittsburgh built 20 to 3 halftime lead, getting some big turnovers.   Without John Henry Johnson, the Steelers could not establish any ground game in the second half.  Rough 24 to 23 loss.  

But there were two great games

Week Two at Pitt Stadium vs. the New York Giants.  John Henry Johnson carried 24 times for 123 yards and a touchdown.  A whitewash and I would like an entire season of games like 31 to 0.

Week Nine at Pitt Stadium vs. the Cleveland Browns.   JHJ ran 27 times for 131 yards, with Pittsburgh winning, 9 to 7.  While this was a thrilling game, it should have been much easier.  Steeler quarterback Ed Brown overthrew receivers all day and Lou Michaels missed five field goals. 

1964. This may have been the most amazing year a running back ever had. Johnson was 35 years old; the team was next to last in passing; and their once good defensive secondary became a sieve.  JHJ gained 1,048 finishing third in the NFL behind Jimmy Brown and Jim Taylor.  As a team, the Steelers were fourth in rushing with the teams listed below.  I am not certain of the order of the first three but the important thing is how each team finished.

Cleveland Browns 10-3-1
Baltimore Colts 12-2    
Green Bay Packers 8-5-1
Pittsburgh Steelers 5-9

Cleveland defeated Baltimore 27 to 0 in the NFL Title Game.  In Johnson’s favor, the Steelers had a both good offensive line and Clarence Peaks, who ran well as the “other back.” As the records show, after John Henry Johnson, very little

Week Five at Cleveland.  JHJ had the best game of any back that year; the best game of career; and set a Pittsburgh record of 200 yards for a game, breaking his own mark of 182 yards set four years earlier.   He scored three  touchdowns on runs of 33, 45 and 4 yards.

Week Eleven at Yankee Stadium.  Johnson carried 25 times for 106 yards and two touchdowns.  Pittsburgh had the third highest score in team history and a personal high for coach Buddy Parker in his eight years in Pittsburgh. Steelers 44 Giants 17.       


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