Former San Francisco 49ers halfback John Henry Johnson passed away yesterday in Tracy, CA, at the age of 81. A member of “The Million Dollar Backfield,” Johnson was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1987 following a professional career that spanned 14 seasons. Johnson was later inducted into the Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. 49ers Hall of Fame upon its inception, in 2009.
"I was deeply saddened to hear of John Henry Johnson's passing," said 49ers Owner and Co-Chairman 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."
Johnson played three seasons for the 49ers (1954-56) and was joined in “The Million Dollar Backfield” by three Hall of Famers - Joe Perry, Hugh McElhenny and Y.A. Tittle. For three seasons, the four playmakers challenged opposing defenses with their formidable attack. The group remains the only full-house backfield to have all four of its members enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
A four-time Pro Bowler (1954, 1962-64), Johnson’s 6,803 career rushing yards trailed only Jim Brown, Jim Taylor and former 49er Joe Perry, upon his retirement in 1966. Known as a workhorse running back at 6’2” and 210 pounds, Johnson was also a productive receiver, having caught 186 passes for 1,478 yards. He totaled 55 touchdowns during his career.
Originally drafted in the second round (18th overall) by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1953 NFL Draft, Johnson opted to play in the Canadian Football League for one season before joining the 49ers in 1954. In his rookie year with the 49ers, Johnson ranked second in the league with 681 rushing yards and a 5.3-yard rushing average, adding nine touchdowns. He finished his three-year career in San Francisco with 1,051 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on 228 carries and 279 receiving yards on 38 receptions.
Johnson went on to play for the Detroit Lions (1957-59), the Pittsburgh Steelers (1960-65) and the Houston Oilers (1966) of the American Football League. He played a key role in the Lions successful 1957 season that culminated in a 59-14 victory over the Cleveland Browns in the NFL title game. As a member of the Steelers, Johnson twice eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark in a single season (1962, ’64).
A native of Waterproof, LA, Johnson was born on November 24, 1929. He prepped at Pittsburg High School in Northern California, where his No. 35 jersey is retired and hangs in the weight room. Johnson went on to play collegiately at St. Mary’s and Arizona State.