By Vittorio Tafur, Dwight Chapin, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writers
San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, June 5, 2011
(06-04) 21:34 PDT -- The NFL lost one of its toughest players Friday when John Henry Johnson, a member of the 49ers' "Million Dollar Backfield" in the 1950s, died in Tracy. The Hall of Fame running back was 81.
"All the defensive guys said, 'Watch him!' " said longtime Detroit Lions linebacker Wayne Walker. "Because if you didn't keep your eye on him, next thing you know you'd have your jaw wired."
Mr. Johnson's death comes less than six weeks after Joe "The Jet" Perry passed away. Johnson, Perry, Hugh McElhenny and Y.A. Tittle constituted the only full-house backfield to have all four of its members enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"I was deeply saddened to hear of John Henry Johnson's passing," 49ers owner and co-chairman John York said. "He was a good friend, not only to my family and me, but the entire 49ers organization. His contributions to the game of football will be forever celebrated. Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to the entire Johnson family."
Mr. Johnson, an East Bay native, played three seasons for the 49ers (1954-56). A four-time Pro Bowler (1954, 1962-64 for the Steelers), Mr. Johnson's 6,803 career yards rushing trailed only Jim Brown, Jim Taylor and Perry upon his retirement in 1966.
Mr. Johnson was also a productive receiver, catching 186 passes for 1,478 yards. He scored 55 touchdowns during his career.
"Football was like a combat zone," Mr. Johnson once said. "I was always told that you carry the impact to the opponent. If you wait for it, the impact will be on you."
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound back didn't wait.
"He was one of the few runners who would look for somebody to hit," said former teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Bob St. Clair. "John had finesse, but every once in a while, instead of trying to dodge you, he would run over the top of you."
Another ex-teammate, Gordy Soltau, said, "He would attack a brick wall."
In a 1955 exhibition game, Mr. Johnson smashed into Chicago Cardinals star Charley Trippi so hard that Trippi sustained multiple face fractures.
That blow - and other hard hits - gained Mr. Johnson a reputation in some quarters as a dirty player, and might have delayed his being voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But Mr. Johnson always maintained that he had only a "do unto others" philosophy, noting his own lasting football injuries.
"I accepted them as a part of the game," he said. "You're hitting them, so don't cry if you get hit, too."
Mr. Johnson was a schoolboy football, basketball and track star in Pittsburg before going on to play football at St. Mary's and then, after that school dropped the sport, Arizona State.
Drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1953, he signed instead with Calgary in the Canadian Football League, where he played with former 49ers quarterback Frankie Albert.
Albert called him "the greatest running back I've ever seen," and the 49ers secretly signed him while he was still in the CFL, in a deal that enraged that league's officials.
In San Francisco, he joined the other three 49er Hall-of-Famers-to-be in '54. He was traded to the Detroit Lions before the 1957 season, then moved to Pittsburgh - where he had six of his most productive years - in 1960. He closed his career with Houston in 1966.
Despite his rough style, it was said that when Mr. Johnson was not involved in a play, he didn't relish being a decoy.
Soltau said that when he was with the 49ers, if he was the man in motion, "He would run wide until he would fade into sidelines."
Buddy Parker, Mr. Johnson's head coach with the Lions and Steelers, said, "He was like Jim Thorpe. If he didn't feel like playing, there wasn't anything you could do with him. But when he did feel like playing ... when he was really running ... there was not a better fullback in the game."
Mr. Johnson was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1989. He is survived by five children.
This article appeared on page B - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle