John Henry Johnson died over the weekend in California at the age of 81. Johnson, along with Big Daddy Lipscomb, was my first Steelers hero, and for many good reasons. Johnson was a fullback in a halfback's body. He was 6-2, 210 pounds and one of the most complete backs in NFL history. He would run through you, around you, had great moves in the open field, had soft hands as an excellent receiver and no one, and I mean no one, ever blocked better as a running back. Bobby Layne loved having John Henry in the backfield on passing plays. Respected by everyone, Johnson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of fame in 1987.
Johnson was selected by the Steelers in the second round of the 1953 NFL Draft. He opted to play in Canada instead, but came back to the NFL after one year to join San Francisco's "Million Dollar Backfield," along with future Hall of Famers Hugh McElhenny, Y. A. Tittle, and Joe Perry. Traded to Detroit in 1957, Johnson led the Lions in rushing, helping them to the NFL Championship, before becoming a Pittsburgh Steeler in 1960. When he retired after the 1966 season, his 6,803 career rushing yards ranked him behind only Jim Brown, Jim Taylor, and Joe Perry as the top ground gainers of all time. Johnson also was an excellent pass receiver with 186 receptions for 1,478 yards. He scored 330 points on 55 touchdowns in his career. It was with the Steelers that John Henry enjoyed his finest seasons. In both 1962 and 1964, he broke the 1,000-yard rushing barrier, the first Steeler to achieve that lofty level. Johnson was selected to play in the 1955, 1963, 1964, and 1965 Pro Bowl Games.
What separated John Henry from other running backs was his ferocious ability and willingness to block. He had no equal at his position. He fractured at least one skull and three jaws that we know of, one jaw in two places, with his blocking alone. Before his NFL days, John Henry played in Canada where he broke Bill Bewley's jaw in two places. When he came to the NFL, he hit Charlie Trippi of the Chicago Cardinals so hard he fractured Trippi's skull. Some friends of Trippi's in Chicago seriously suggested to him that they arrange some underground retribution, but Trippi talked them out of it.
After breaking the jaw of Eddie Hughes of the New York Giants, his grand finale occurred in Los Angeles against the Rams in 1961. Johnson broke Les Richter's jaw with another forearm shiver. The Rams were intent on getting even. Los Angeles defensive back Ed Meador intercepted a pass and Johnson ran him out-of-bounds. A string of Rams came after Johnson, so he picked up the yard marker and started swinging at them wildly. That ended any thoughts of revenge. John Henry fractured three jaws and a skull and mind you, he played on offense. Paul Brown once yelled at Johnson, "You've hit everybody in the league." Johnson shot back "Then we've got a tie game. Everybody in the league has hit me."
John Henry had the game of his life, the defining game of his career, in 1964, in Cleveland against the Browns. Cleveland would win the NFL championship that year, but Johnson quieted more than 80,000 stunned fans on the lakefront with a performance for the ages. John Henry became only the ninth player in NFL history to rush for 200 yards in a game (30 carries). He scored all three Steelers' touchdown. The final score was 23-7. The game was not nearly as close as the score might indicate. Pittsburgh amassed a ghastly 354 yards rushing (Clarence Peaks chipped in with 96) and simply ran all over Cleveland at will. Johnson shared that Saturday night stage with the great Jimmy Brown and the latter was clearly the undercard. In 1996, in Ohio, I finally met John Henry Johnson and asked him to sign my Steelers' helmet. I reminded him of that game and his grin was wide enough to connect a 32-year bridge between a little boy and his first football hero. Thank you, John Henry, for being a whooping crane in a world of sparrows.