By Scott Brown, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, June 5, 2011
Former Steelers running back and coach Dick Hoak considers himself fortunate to have spent five seasons in the same backfield as John Henry Johnson.
"John was a great player. He was probably the best blocking fullback that there was at the time. He may have been one of the best I've ever seen," Hoak said. "Boy, he was fast enough that he could play in today's game."
Johnson, the bruising Hall of Fame runner who once held the Steelers' career rushing title, died Friday in Tracy, Calif. He was 81.
Johnson played fullback for the Steelers from 1960-65, and his 4,383 rushing yards led the franchise until another Hall of Famer, Franco Harris, shattered it in the 1970s. Johnson's total still ranks fourth on the team's all-time rushing list.
During his final five seasons with the Steelers, Johnson was part of an offense that included Hoak, who was 10 years younger than his more celebrated teammate.
"He could do everything. He was a lot of fun," Hoak said. "I don't know if he enjoyed playing with me, but I sure enjoyed playing with him."
The Steelers released a statement Saturday praising Johnson's contributions to the game:
"We are deeply saddened by the death of John Henry Johnson. He was one of the Steelers' great running backs, evident by being the team's first 1,000-yard rusher in 1962. Also known for being one of the greatest blocking backs of his era, John Henry was one of the first in a long line of Steelers' Hall of Famers. The entire Steelers organization sends its condolences to the Johnson family for the loss of one of the great players in team history."
When Johnson rushed for 1,141 yards in 1962, it established a Steelers' single-season record until Harris broke it in 1975. At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, Johnson led the Steelers in rushing in four of his six seasons and had several notable accomplishments:
» He still holds two of the Steelers' top six single-game rushing efforts, gaining 200 yards against the Cleveland Browns on Oct. 10, 1964, and 182 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles on Dec. 11, 1960.
» He had 15 100-yard games during his Steelers tenure.
» He ranks fifth on the team's career list with 1,025 rushing attempts and 26 rushing touchdowns.
» Three of his four career Pro Bowl selections came while he was with the Steelers.
The Steelers selected Johnson out of Arizona State with their second-round pick in the 1953 draft. He elected to play a year in the Canadian Football League before joining the San Francisco 49ers. There he joined the "Million Dollar Backfield" that included other Hall of Famers Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny and Joe Perry.
"He was a good friend, not only to my family and me, but the entire 49ers organization," 49ers owner John York said in a statement. "His contributions to the game of football will be forever celebrated."
Johnson was traded to Detroit in 1957 and won an NFL title that season with the Lions. He was traded to the Steelers in 1960.
Although Johnson continued to pile up yards, he couldn't lead the Steelers to greatness. They had two winning seasons among his six years, and he didn't return after the Steelers finished 2-12 in 1965.
One year, Hoak and Johnson decided to make small wagers on the outcome of local high school football games. Hoak would make the bets on Saturday, the day after the games had been played. This went on for several weeks before Hoak confessed his scheme.
"He just screamed at me and called me a bunch of names," Hoak said. "I really enjoyed playing with him."
Johnson spent one season with the Houston Oilers in the American Football League before retiring.
At the time, his 6,803 career rushing yards trailed only Jim Brown, Jim Taylor and Perry. He also caught 186 passes for 1,478 yards and scored 55 career touchdowns.
Hoak last saw Johnson in 2007 at a banquet the Steelers held for their 75th anniversary team. Hoak and Johnson were among the pre-1970 Steelers selected to a legends team.
"He was in a wheelchair at the time, and it was tough to see him that way because he was always so full of life," Hoak said. "He was never sitting still."
Read more: Former Steeler running back Johnson dies - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/steelers/s_740522.html#ixzz1ONA3OROx