By J.G. Preston
This season the San Francisco 49ers are wearing the number 35 on their helmets to honor former 49er John Henry Johnson, who wore that uniform number throughout his professional career and as the first African-American to play football at Saint Mary’s College.
Johnson died June 3 in Tracy at age 81, having suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for more than 20 years.
In 1950, on Johnson’s first day of practice at Saint Mary’s, assistant football coach Joe Angelo called him “a swivel-hipped, broken field runner that could develop into quite a football player.” The young athlete, born in 1929 in the tiny Mississippi River delta cotton-farming community of Waterproof, La., turned out to be quite a football player, indeed. After a distinguished NFL career, Johnson was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987, the only Saint Mary’s alumnus so honored.
There was no high school available to black students in Waterproof, so when he was 16, Johnson’s parents sent him west to live with an older brother in Pittsburg, Calif. When he enrolled in Pittsburg Junior High School as a ninth grader in 1946, Johnson had never played organized sports. By the time he graduated from Pittsburg High in 1949, he was considered one of best athletes in East Bay history, a standout in football, track and field, and basketball.
Today those credentials would attract dozens of athletic scholarship offers from major college powers. But that wasn’t the reality for black athletes in the 1940s. Johnson was interested in Saint Mary’s not only because the campus was close to Pittsburg, but because the Gaels had played in a bowl game as recently as 1946 with all-America running back Herman Wedemeyer. “In the Wedemeyer era, they really cut it up,” Johnson said, years later. “He was a great football player. That was the place for me.”
When Johnson arrived in Moraga in the fall of 1949, freshmen were ineligible to play college football, so he spent the season playing on the freshman team and practicing against the varsity. By the time the 1950 season rolled around, the Gaels’ coaches knew they had a special player on their hands. The team’s preseason press brochure said, “His hip and knee action in open field is as graceful as a ballet dancer’s efforts…And makes him almost as hard to catch as a porpoise in the open sea.”
In his second varsity game, the Gaels were 31-point underdogs against the University of Georgia at San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium. But Saint Mary’s pulled off what would be the biggest surprise anywhere in the nation that season, holding the visitors to a 7-7 tie. The Gaels’ touchdown came on a 90-yard kickoff return by Johnson to open the second half.
“The hero of the piece was John Henry Johnson, the 191-pound St. Mary’s sophomore,” according to the report in the next morning’s San Francisco Chronicle. “He was carried from the field on the shoulders of delirious Gael rooters at the end of the game, and no man deserved the honor more….He tackled viciously, blocked like a man possessed, and ran, head down, legs churning.”
Johnson was the first black athlete ever to compete against a University of Georgia team. The two schools had signed a two-year contract for games in California in 1950 and in Georgia in 1951, but Georgia officials would back out of the second year of the deal because they weren’t ready for a black to take the field in Dixie.
But, as it turned out, Saint Mary’s had no football team in 1951. That January school officials announced the elimination of intercollegiate football and baseball. Johnson decided to transfer, joining several SMC football teammates who enrolled at Arizona State.
After his senior season Johnson was a second-round draft choice of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers. But he wasn’t interested in playing for Pittsburgh and chose instead to go to a Canadian professional team in Calgary in 1953. Then the Steelers traded his NFL rights to the 49ers, so Johnson agreed to return to the States for the 1954 season and became part of the legendary “Million Dollar Backfield.” He was the fullback with Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny at halfback and Y.A. Tittle at quarterback; all four are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In 1957 the 49ers traded Johnson to Detroit, and his new team won the NFL championship that year. In 1960 he was traded to Pittsburgh, where he had the best seasons of his career. He retired as a player after the 1966 season, ranked fourth on the NFL’s all-time rushing list
After his playing career, Johnson settled in Pittsburgh, Pa. and held several jobs before retiring in 1989, by which time his health had deteriorated noticeably. After his wife Leona died in 2002, Johnson returned to California to live with his daughter Kathy, the oldest of his six children. Kathy authorized donation of her father’s brain to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy where researchers are studying the connection between neurodegenerative disease and head trauma during football play.
John Henry Johnson possessed a combination of size, speed, strength and bone-crunching blocking ability that was unknown before his time and remains rare today. He was genuinely feared by his peers for his blocking.
“I was an aggressive player,” Johnson told Dave Newhouse, author of The Million Dollar Backfield. “I know I wasn’t dirty. I just enjoyed hitting.”
Newhouse put it this way: “Away from football, he was as nice and cozy as a warm soft bed. But dress him in football gear, and he was a bed of nails.”
J.G. Preston has reported on, broadcast and written about sports for various publications and radio stations over the past 30 years. He now works as press secretary for Consumer Attorneys of California and writes about baseball history at http://prestonjg.wordpress.com