April 11, 2011
On April 11, 1960 the Detroit Lions traded FB John Henry Johnson to the team that originally drafted him, the Pittsburgh Steelers, for two draft choices (a 3rd round selection in 1961, used to pick OT Dick Mills from Pitt, and a 4th round selection in 1962 that went toward OT John Lomakoski of Western Michigan). As a 30-year-old running back whose production had diminished over the previous two seasons, it hardly seemed that obtaining Johnson was any sort of bargain for the Steelers.
“That’s the best we could get for him,” said Detroit Head Coach George Wilson. “We tried to make other deals but we had to settle for future draft picks.” (Neither Mills nor Lomakoski proved to be of consequence for the Lions).
After playing collegiately at little St. Mary’s College in California and - after that school dropped its football program - Arizona State, Johnson was a second-round pick of the Steelers in 1953, but never played for them (although they paid for a knee operation). He instead went to the Calgary Stampeders in Canada for a year before finally coming to the NFL in 1954 with the 49ers, who had dealt for his rights.
In San Francisco, Johnson was part of what was referred to as “The Million Dollar Backfield” along with HB Hugh McElhenny, FB Joe Perry, and QB Y.A. Tittle. It was an outstanding group, but it was also difficult for Johnson to get many carries with the other veteran backs that were available. He gained 681 yards on 129 carries (5.3 avg.) with nine touchdowns in ’54 and caught 28 passes for another 183 yards, gaining selection to the Pro Bowl. However, over the next two years he accumulated just 370 yards on 99 rushing attempts and had ten pass receptions for 96 yards. He also played as a defensive halfback and distinguished himself for his ferociousness as both a blocking back on offense and as a tackler in the defensive backfield.
Traded to the Lions in 1957, Johnson played well for the team that ultimately won the NFL title. He gained 621 yards on 129 attempts, caught 20 passes, and added his blocking ability to the offense. But once again, as in San Francisco, a good year was followed by two mediocre ones (524 yards rushing and 14 catches in 19 games).
There was also some controversy as Johnson was fined $1000 and suspended for a week in 1959 for missing the team plane to return from a West Coast trip. While the fine was later lifted, his days in Detroit were clearly numbered. Nick Pietrosante, a promising rookie in ’59, and third-year veteran Ken Webb were available to play fullback for the Lions, and Johnson was considered expendable.
Johnson joined two ex-Lions, QB Bobby Layne and HB Tom Tracy, under former Detroit head coach Buddy Parker in Pittsburgh (where Parker continued his practice of relying on veteran players), and despite his advanced age (for a running back), went on to have the most productive seasons of his career with the Steelers.
In combination with Tracy, Johnson helped give Pittsburgh a solid running game in 1960 (the team ranked 4th in both rushing yards and average), gaining 621 yards, with a healthy 5.3-yards per carry. Along the way, he had a 182-yard performance late in the season against the Eagles, which included an 87-yard run that was the longest in the NFL that year. In ’61, he carried the ball over 200 times (213) for the first time in his career and had 787 yards along with 24 pass receptions.
The Steelers contended in 1962, finishing second in the Eastern Conference with a 9-5 record, and Johnson finished second in rushing with 1141 yards on 251 carries (4.5 avg.) and caught 32 passes for another 226 yards at the age of 33 (which he turned in November). He had four hundred-yard games along the way and was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time since his rookie year.
Pittsburgh contended again in ’63, and Johnson played a key role by rushing for 773 yards. However, there was some controversy as he removed himself from games after suffering an ankle injury early in the season and wasn’t always in agreement with Coach Parker as to when he was ready to return. The Steelers missed his inside running when he was out of the lineup. Johnson nevertheless was a strong performer when in action and again was named to the Pro Bowl.
Prior to the 1964 season, Parker announced that Johnson, now 34 years old, would not be the starting fullback. However, Johnson not only started but gained 1048 yards on 235 attempts (4.5 avg.). In a game at Cleveland, he compiled an even 200 rushing yards on 30 carries, three of them for touchdowns. For the third straight year, he was a Pro Bowl selection.
His career with the Steelers came to an abrupt end in the first quarter of the first game of the ’65 season when he tore knee ligaments against Green Bay and was sidelined for the remainder of the year. When conflict flared between Johnson and the Steelers management during the ensuing offseason, he was released and played one last year with the AFL’s Houston Oilers before retiring.
While his career, especially in San Francisco and Detroit, seemed to move sporadically, by the time of his retirement he had gained 6577 yards (4381 of that with the Steelers) to rank fourth all-time in NFL history (adding the 226 yards gained in the AFL, his total was 6803). He was held in equally great esteem for his blocking and was a tough competitor. Perhaps most remarkable was his rushing production in his thirties, normally a time when pro running backs are at the end of their effectiveness. He was eventually enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, gaining induction in 1987.