John Henry Johnson, the first African American student to play football at Saint Mary's College, died at the age of 81 this month. Johnson played at SMC during the 1949 and 1950 seasons. However, after the 1950 season he transferred to Arizona State to play out his college career.
A pioneering student athlete at Saint Mary's, Johnson's contribution at the College was extremely significant says Kinesiolgy Professor Deane Lamont, who researches the history of sport and race in sports. "Johnson earned most of his fame in this sphere during a game at San Francisco's Kezar Stadium in September of 1950 when he became the first ever African American to play against a University of Georgia team," said Lamont.
Mr. Johnson went on to become a star player in the NFL, with a career spanning from1954 to 1966.
He was part of the San Francisco 49ers renown "Million Dollar Backfield," the only backfield to have all of its members - running backs John Henry Johnson, Joe Perry, Hugh McElhenny and quarterback Y.A. Tittle - enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Johnson went on to play for the Detroit Lions (1957-59), the Pittsburgh Steelers (1960-65) and the Houston Oilers (1966) of the American Football League.
John Henry Johnson was born in Waterproof, LA on November 24, 1929 and would later play football at Pittsburg High School in the East Bay. His retired No. 35 jersey hangs in the weight room of the high school.
Read more about John Henry Johnson's extraordinary athletic career in news reports from the New York Times, Washington Post, Sports Illustrated and the San Francisco Chronicle and Oakland Tribune.