In the parlance of the locker room, John Henry Johnson was one tough sumbitch. He needed to be, playing as he did in an era where Jim Crow was an intimidating adversary for black athletes in all sports.
“I didn’t take nothing from anyone,” the old fullback once said. “In a football game, though, I hit the black guy as hard as I hit the white guy. I didn’t think about color when I was playing. On occasion I’d get a little trouble. I was called a ‘nigger’ a few times, and all that would do was make me play a little harder, hit them harder.”
As an equal-opportunity head-banger, Johnson rushed for 6,803 yards in a pro career that stretched from 1954 through 1966, including a three-season layover (1957-59) in Detroit. He was the Lions’ chief ground-gainer in 1957, when the team won their last NFL championship. He was the only black on the roster. Since the Lions’ previous title winners (in 1935, 1952, and 1953) consisted wholly of white players, Johnson enjoys a unique disitnction. He remains the only black ever to play on a Lions’ championship team.
When the Lions acquired Johnson from San Francisco for backs Bill Stits and Bill Bowman prior to the 1957 season, Detroit coach Buddy Parker told the press: “Johnson is the kind of fullback I’ve been trying to get for quite a while. He can run up the middle, can run wide as well. He’s an exceptional blocker, and one of the best defensive backs in football.” Johnson, a graduate of Arizona State, had played a year in Canada before signing with the 49ers in 1954. In his rookie season he finished second in the NFL in rushing behind teammate Joe “The Jet” Perry. But with a crowded backfield that also included future Hall of Famer Hugh McElhenny, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Johnson spent much of the next two seasons on defense.
Johnson’s mother had named him after the mythical black strongman, John Henry. The Louisiana native was, like his namesake, a “steel-driving man” when he had a football tucked into the crook of his arm. He slammed into tacklers and teammates with pile-driver force, recalled San Francisco lineman Bob St. Clair, who dreaded blocking for Johnson when the team was knocking on an opponent’s goal line. “I just hope there will be a hole there, because if there wasn’t, John was running up my back,” St. Clair said. “I could feel those cleats going up my spine, and into the end zone he’d go.” Johnson had gotten into fracases during San Francisco’s last two visits to Briggs Stadium, so for the Lions it was a bit of a relief to get him on their side.
The 1950s were a transitional decade in the NFL. After barring blacks from playing between 1934 and 1945, the league gradually started integrating their ranks starting with the 1946 season. Change was spurred on by the rival All-American Football Conference (which fielded several black stars during its four years of operation from 1946 through 1949) and pressure from civil rights groups and the federal government. In 1949, the entire NFL still had only seven black players, but three played for the Lions: ends Bob Mann and Mel Groomes, and halfback Wally Triplett.
However, intentionally or not, after Parker replaced Bo McMillan as head coach, the Lions fielded an almost exclusively white team. In fact, the 1952 and 1953 Lions are the last teams to win an NFL championship with an all-white lineup. During Parker’s seven seasons (1951-57) as head coach, only two other blacks played for the Lions. Although the Lions drafted a handful of black players, the only ones to appear in a regular-season game from 1951 through 1956 were a pair of defensive linemen, Hal Turner and Walt Jenkins, who between them played in a grand total of five games. Parker, who like many top Lions hailed from Texas, insisted he was not prejudiced. Until Johnson, he had simply not found someone who was “good enough to play for me.” Ironically, Parker would have to wait a few more years for Johnson to play for him – in Pittsburgh. That’s because the mercurial Parker abruptly quit at the start of the exhibition season, leaving the coaching reins to his affable assistant, George Wilson. It was Wilson who would steer the Lions to their third and last title of the Eisenhower decade.
Johnson rushed for 621 yards in 1957. Only three backs, including Cleveland’s sensational rookie fullback, Jimmy Brown, piled up more yardage during the 12-game schedule. With Johnson in the backfield, the Lions tied San Francisco for the Western Division title, then went on to beat the 49ers in a special tie-breaker before crushing Cleveland, 59-14, for the team’s last NFL championship. Johnson had his usual businesslike afternoon that cold Sunday at Briggs Stadium. He had seven carries for 34 yards, grabbed a pass for 16 more, and as a blocker helped keep the Browns away from Tobin Rote as the Detroit quarterback enjoyed a career day with four TD passes.
One Lion sportively remembered Johnson as a “happy-go-lucky kind of guy who wrote bad checks at poker games.” Johnson’s carefree ways got him into trouble with the Lions, and by 1959 stories of marital discord were in the papers. After he missed a flight back from the West Coast in November 1959, his days in Detroit were numbered. He was briefly suspended and then traded to Pittsburgh, where he was reunited with Parker and former Lions quarterback Bobby Layne, who had been traded to the Steelers in a shocker.
“I really enjoyed playing in Pittsburgh, playing ball with Bobby Layne again, and Buddy Parker was a great coach,” Johnson said years later. “He was one of the most knowledgeable football people that I was ever around. He wanted effort because he felt that if you did what you were taught all week, and put out a great effort, you would win more than you’d lose.”
Although he was getting up in age, Johnson wound up having the most productive seasons of his career in the Steel City, twice topping 1,000 yards rushing in a season. He was 35 years old in 1964 when he ran for 1,048 yards, trailing only Jimmy Brown and Jimmy Taylor on the rushing list. It should be noted that Johnson’s production came at a time before expanded schedules and one-back offenses made 1,000-yard seasons almost commonplace.
Johnson was 37 years old when he played his last game the week before Christmas in 1966. After spending the last five seasons in Pittsburgh, the old warhorse was playing out the string with the Houston Oilers. When he retired that afternoon only three other backs in pro football history had rushed for more yards, though it would take until 1987 until he was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He died in California in 2011, his battered 81-year-old body confined to a wheel chair and his mental faculties severely impaired by the brain trauma he had endured during his long gridiron career.
Johnson had been in the vanguard of a remarkable transformation. Within the span of a couple of generations, the complexion of professional football changed from wholly white to majority black. Today, roughly two-thirds of all NFL players are African-American, and Detroit fans cannot imagine a team history that did not include such black stars as Lem Barney, Billy Sims, Al “Bubba” Baker, Barry Sanders, and Calvin Johnson.
“I don’t think these young black players in the game today have any idea what we had to go through,” Johnson once reflected. “They might have heard a little bit, but when they came in, we had their beds made for them and it was a lot easier.”