PITTSBURGH—Hall of Fame, and Steelers great running back John Henry Johnson died June 3. He was 81. The San Francisco 49ers said in a release that Johnson, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987 after a 14-season NFL career, died in Tracy, Calif.

Johnson, a 6-2, 210-pound workhorse running back, spent 12 years in the National Football League with the San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers and a 13th season in the American Football League with the Houston Oilers.

LEGENDS—Steelers great John Henry Johnson, left, with quarterback Bobby Layne, a fellow Hall of Famer, in 1962. Layne called Johnson “my bodyguard.” (AP Photo/File)

In a statement the Steelers said “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 he retired after the 1966 season, his 6,803 career rushing yards ranked him behind only Jim Brown, Cleveland Browns; Jim Taylor, Green Bay Packers; and Joe Perry, San Francisco 49ers as the top ground gainers of all time. Johnson also was an excellent pass receiver with 186 receptions for 1,478 yards. He scored 330 points on 55 touchdowns in his career. During his era, the NFL only played 12 game seasons, which is a better indicator of how great his numbers were, compared to 14 games and now 16 game NFL seasons.

His most productive years came with the Steelers. Before the Steelers glory years of the 1970s and Franco Harris, he was considered by most as the greatest running back to ever carry the ball for the Steelers. He still ranks only behind Harris, Jerome Bettis and Willie Parker in rushing yardage. In both 1962 and 1964, he broke the 1,000-yard rushing barrier, the first Steeler to achieve that lofty level. It was with the Lions, however, that he participated in his only NFL title game, the 1957 contest that saw Detroit overwhelm the Cleveland Browns, 59-14. Johnson was a key figure in the Lions’ title drive that year and wound up as the club’s leading rusher with 621 yards. Johnson was selected to play in the 1955, 1963, 1964, and 1965 Pro Bowl Games.

A standout collegian at St. Mary’s until that school discontinued football and then at Arizona State, John Henry was a 1953 second-round draft pick of the Steelers. He first opted to play in Canada but after one season with Calgary, he returned to the United States to start his NFL career with the 49ers. He was an immediate sensation, finishing second in the league in rushing with 681 yards and a 5.3-yard average.

For the next two years, he was an integral part of the “Million Dollar Backfield” that included future Hall of Famers Hugh McElhenny, Y. A. Tittle, and Perry. Johnson was traded to Detroit in 1957 and then to Pittsburgh in 1960.

“I was deeply saddened to hear of John Henry Johnson’s passing,” said 49ers owner John York. “He was a good friend, not only to my family and me, but the entire 49ers organization. As a member of the “Million Dollar Backfield” he holds a cherished place in both 49ers and NFL history. His contributions to the game of football will be forever celebrated.

“Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to the entire Johnson family.”

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