Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Hall of Fame fullback John Henry Johnson played for the Steelers from 1960 to 1965.
Awards: Football Hall of Fame
Born in 1929, John Henry Johnson was a successful fullback who played in the NFL for 12 years from 1954 to 1965 and the AFL for one year in 1966. He played for the San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Houston Oilers. He was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1987. He passed away on June 3, 2011, in Tracy, California at the age of 81.
John Henry Johnson was born on November 24, 1929, in Waterproof, Louisiana. He later moved to Pittsburg, California. It was there that he attended high school and excelled in a number of sports including football, track, wrestling, baseball, and basketball. Johnson was chosen to be a part of the All-Contra Costa County Athletic League his sophomore, junior, and senior years in high school for football, basketball, and track. After graduating from high school, he attended St. Mary’s College of California, but only until the school discontinued football. Then, he transferred to Arizona State University to play football and track. Although he was the second draft pick for the Pittsburgh Steelers, before playing for the National Football League, Johnson decided to play in the Canadian Football League for one year. He played for the Calgary Roughriders and was awarded the Most Valuable Player in the league, receiving the Jeff Nicklin Memorial Trophy.
In 1954, Johnson joined the NFL and played as a fullback for the San Francisco 49ers. The 6’2”, 225 pound Johnson finished second in the NFL for rushing yards with a total of 681 yards his rookie year. The next two seasons he made up part of the “Fabulous Foursome” or “Million Dollar Backfield,” which also included Hugh McElhenny, Joe Perry, and Y.A. Tittle, all of whom are in the Hall of Fame as well.
In 1957, Johnson was traded to the Detroit Lions for Bill Stits and a draft choice. Head Coach George Wilson was especially interested in Johnson for his blocking. With a total of 621 yards, Johnson rushed the fourth highest yards in Lions history at that time. This also gave him the title of the fourth-best for rushing yards in the NFL in 1957. This total did not include the twenty passes he caught for a total of 141 yards. Johnson was a key asset in helping the Detroit Lions win their third league championship, beating the Cleveland Browns by 45 points. Johnson was injured, however, for the NFL playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers on December 22, 1957. The Lions were still able to defeat the 49ers with help from Tom Tracy and won the title of the Western Division Champions.
The success of the 1957 Detroit Lions team was not repeated, even though Johnson was still on fire. In 1960, Johnson was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers and continued his success as a fullback and made some of his greatest accomplishments. Johnson was the Steelers leading rusher in 1961, 1962, 1963, and 1964. He broke several records, such as being the first NFL player to rush more than 1,000 yards in one season. He accomplished this in 1962 with 1,141 yards, and again in 1964. He was also the first Steeler to rush more than 200 yards in one game, which he did on October 10, 1964, against the Cleveland Browns. Due to several injuries on the team, the Browns were projected to win; however, with Johnson’s 200 rushing yards, the Steelers were able to pull off the win for a huge upset with the final score being 23-7.
Johnson was chosen to play in the Pro Bowl in 1955, 1963, 1964, and 1965. Before retiring, Johnson played for the American Football League on the Houston Oilers for one year in 1966. When he retired, he held the title of fourth leading rusher in the NFL with 6,803 career-rushing yards in 1,571 carries. This is an average of 4.3 yards per carry. He also had 186 receptions for 1,478 yards and 330 points on 55 touchdowns. Johnson was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1987. He was also named one of the 50 most significant Bay Area Sports Figures of the Century in the Alameda newspaper.
John Henry Johnson is still celebrated for his success and accomplishments as a football player. He was chosen as one of the Pittsburgh Steelers best players from 1933 to 1970 along with Bobby Layne, Ernie Stautner, and Bill Dudley. These four tremendous players led the Pittsburgh’s legends team. On September 17, 2007, the Steelers won their 500th career regular season game against the Buffalo Bills, where the players wore 1960s era throwback uniforms. They wore these uniforms to honor the organization’s legendary players prior to 1970, which included Johnson.
Johnson died on June 3, 2011, in Tracy, California, at the age of 81. Johnson’s brain was donated to medical research, particularly regarding the consequences of physical sport injuries.