"75 for 75" is an article series from the 49ers Museum highlighting legendary moments in 49ers history as part of the team's 75th Anniversary celebrations in 2021.
October 1, 1961
It did not take long for defensive back Jimmy Johnson to make his mark with the 49ers.
In his third NFL game, Johnson picked off Detroit Lions quarterback Jim Ninowski's pass and returned it 32 yards to end a scoring threat. It also started Johnson's reign as the 49ers first great shutdown cornerback.
"Jim never received much publicity because the opposition avoided him as much as possible," quarterback John Brodie, Johnson's teammate for 13 years, once said. "Talk to quarterbacks like John Unitas and Bart Starr and they'll tell you they ran very few passes in Jimmy's area. The only reason Johnson doesn't lead the league in interceptions is he doesn't get the chance."
Although rarely tested by veteran quarterbacks, Johnson went on to post 47 interceptions and 615 yards on returns during his 16 seasons in San Francisco. Both were team records until Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott came to town and broke them.
After the 49ers selected Johnson in the first round (sixth-overall) of the 1961 NFL Draft, 49ers defensive coach and Hall of Fame defensive back Jack Christiansen said, "He has the three requirements: Tremendous speed, great reflexes and the willingness to tackle with authority."
He displayed those qualities during his sensational rookie campaign intercepting five passes, second most on the team and returning those 116 yards while impressing head coach Red Hickey with his physicality. Then in Johnson's second season, the 49ers skipper was searching for a reliable receiver and approached the club's best athlete.
At UCLA, Johnson was a superb athlete in track and field. The 6-foot-2, 187-pounder recorded a 13.9 time in the high hurdles and a 25-foot broad jump. His brother, Rafer Johnson, was even better. Rafer won the decathlon at the 1960 Olympics.
Johnson played the 1962 season at wide receiver and became one of Brodie's favorite targets. He hauled in 34 passes, second best on the club, and averaged 18.4 yards per catch. In a win over the Chicago Bears that season, Johnson posted the winning points on an 80-yard bomb from Brodie. It was his first NFL touchdown and the longest scoring reception in 49ers history at the time.
Johnson returned to the 49ers secondary in 1963 where he quietly locked down opposing receivers until his retirement in 1976, earning five Pro Bowl selections along the way.
"I played on the same side as Jimmy, and believe me, nobody who was familiar with him threw his way," claimed linebacker Dave Wilcox, his teammate for 11 seasons. "Any quarterback who did usually paid dearly for it."
Indeed, Johnson and Wilcox were a formidable duo for the 49ers. The two Pro Football Hall of Famers effectively sealed off the left half of the gridiron.
Dick Nolan, the 49ers head coach from 1968 to 1975, acknowledged Johnson's effectiveness. "I coached three defensive backs I felt were great," Nolan said. "Mel Renfro and Cornell Green with the Dallas Cowboys and Johnson," he said. "Jimmy is the best I've ever seen."
After playing 213 games with the 49ers, a franchise record surpassed only by Jerry Rice, Johnson hung up his cleats. He missed just 12 games in 16 seasons and twice earned the Len Eshmont Award as the 49ers player who best displayed the "inspirational and courageous play" of Eshmont.
Johnson's quiet dedication to his craft was rewarded in 1994 when he was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.