It was a time in franchise history when a victory over the Cleveland Browns was to be celebrated, when winning in Cleveland just didn’t happen very often at all. It was 1964, and the Pittsburgh Steelers carried a 2-2 record to Cleveland for their annual game against the Browns. Making the trip with only two healthy linebackers meant the Steelers were going to need someone to neutralize the disadvantage the defense was to face in the chore of going against running back Jim Brown, who had led the NFL in rushing in 1963 with 1,863 yards and would do so again in 1964 with 1,446.
On that Saturday night at Municipal Stadium, John Henry Johnson was the great equalizer. Johnson rushed for 200 yards and scored three touchdowns – on runs of 33, 45 and 5 yards – to key the Steelers’ 23-7 upset, a game that would turn out to be the only one the Browns would lose in Cleveland that season on the way to the 1964 NFL Championship. In a series that has included 118 meetings between the teams, their victory over the Browns that night remains one of the highlights for the Steelers.
John Henry Johnson, 81, died on Friday, June 3, in Tracy, California.
“We are deeply saddened by the death of John Henry Johnson,” the team said in a statement. “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.”
The Steelers made Johnson their second pick of the 1953 NFL Draft, the 18th overall selection that year, but when the Canadian Football League offered more money he signed with the Calgary Stampeders. One year later, Johnson entered the NFL, but with the San Francisco 49ers where he joined Joe Perry, Hugh McElhenny and quarterback Y.A. Tittle to form what came to be known as the Million Dollar Backfield. In 1954, Perry led the league with 1,049 yards rushing (6.1 average), Johnson finished second with 681 (5.3), and McElhenny only played in six games but finished eighth with 515 (8.0).
After three seasons with the 49ers, Johnson was traded to the Detroit Lions, where he was the leading rusher on the team that won the 1957 NFL Championship. Three years later, Coach Buddy Parker brought John Henry Johnson to the Steelers via another trade, and it was in Pittsburgh where the 6-foot-2, 210-pound fullback had his most productive seasons.
In 1962, Johnson, then 33, rushed for 1,141 yards to become the first player in Steelers history to crack 1,000 in a season. Two years later, Johnson did it again, with 1,048, and the game in Cleveland was the highlight.
A key component of the Steelers’ success as a franchise over the years has been a physical running attack, and John Henry Johnson was the prototype. While listed at 210 pounds, Johnson was said to have played at closer to 225, but the added weight did nothing to dull his explosiveness. Big, tough and physical, Johnson never shied away from contact, and his combination of power and speed resulted in a number of long cutback runs over the course of his career.
“You’ve got to scare your opponent,” Johnson once said. “I can run away from a lot of guys after I get them afraid of a collision with me… I always dish out more than I take.”
In Pittsburgh, Johnson teamed with quarterback Bobby Layne, also obtained in a trade with the Lions, to key the Steelers offense during a span that included the most successful seasons to that point in franchise history.
“John Henry is my bodyguard,” Layne said at the time. “Half the good runners will get a passer killed if you keep them around long enough. But a quarterback hits the jackpot when he gets a combination runner-blocker like Johnson.”
Johnson played a final season with the AFL’s Houston Oilers in 1966, and when he retired his 6,803 career rushing yards were fourth all-time behind Jim Brown, Jim Taylor and Joe Perry. During his six seasons with the Steelers, Johnson rushed for 4,383 of those yards, and his 1,141-yard season in 1962 was a team record until Franco Harris broke it in 1975 with 1,246. Johnson still holds two of the franchise’s top six single-game rushing performances – the 200 yards against the Browns, and 182 against the Philadelphia Eagles on Dec. 11, 1960; he is still fifth in team history with 26 rushing touchdowns; and three of his four Pro Bowl selections came while he played for the Steelers.
John Henry Johnson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.
“I was confident someday I would be here, but then on the other hand, I thought I might be dead since it had taken so long,” Johnson said during his acceptance speech in Canton. “Today I feel that I finally have that respect, and I wanna tell you, it makes me feel damn good.”