John Henry Johnson


1962 NFL Illustrated photo John Henry Johnson"John Henry was a steel driving man, Lord, Lord. John Henry was a steel driving man.”

Among the more popular, authentic American folk songs, is a 19th century ballad that tells of the speed and strength of a hammer-slinging hero of the railroad expansion era.

Now almost a century later, another John Henry makes his bid for fame but the setting is a football field and instead of a "steel driving man," he's the pile-driving fullback of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Thirty-three year old John Henry Johnson was drafted by Pittsburgh in 1953 but spent his first year in pro ball with the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian League. The San Francisco 49ers obtained the rights to the Arizona State graduate and he joined them in 1954 since they were close to his home in Oakland, California.

In his rookie season in the NFL, Johnson gained 681 yards, scored 9 touchdowns and averaged better than 5 yards per try. Traded to Detroit in 1957, he bore the brunt of the Lions running game leading the championship team in yards gained. In league standings that year, JHJ finished fourth.

In 1960, his first season with the gold and black, the 6’2” battering ram enjoyed an outstanding season. He conducted a personal vendetta against Philadelphia as the Steelers handed the Eagles one of their two losses.

All told, that snow-swept December afternoon, John Henry gained 182 yards, a Steeler record and rumbled 87 yards to a touchdown, his longest gain in his football career.

Picking up where he left off in 1960, the big fullback last year enjoyed his best season in the league. He set Steeler records for both running attempts (213 tries) and in yards gained rushing (787). The total yardage is even more impressive considering that the rest of the Steeler running game was almost negligible, allowing the defense to key on that number 35.

Running statistics do not show however, John Henry's overall importance to the local squad. Possessed with big, sure hands, he represents a definite receiving threat on either swing or downfield passes. In two years here he has totalled 435 yards on the other end of Steeler aerials.

As a blocker, Johnson rates as best in the league. This was vividly demonstrated in the recent Giant game as a "blitzing" Sam Huff travelling at top speed collided with Johnson but failed' to move him.

Describing John Henry's running style is not easy but perhaps Robert L. Tague of the New York Times best summed it up in one word "rambunctious."

1962 NFL Illustrated photo John Henry JohnsonStarting fast, running upright like a halfback or at most, a half-crouch, Johnson generates great power in long, quick strides. Once in the secondary, he "can turn it on."

It usually takes more than one defender to bring him down. His unorthodox or "rambunctious" moves are employed to avoid an approaching defensive man.

With a head and shoulders fake, he might attempt to hurdle a tackler with a high jump, go into a twisting sideway shuffle or flick out a jab-like straight arm. A not unfamiliar sight is that of Johnson, his back to his own goal, legs churning, with two or three opponents hanging on.

Scuttlebutt around the NFL has it that JHJ had a low boiling point and once around, he lost some of his effectiveness. Questioned about this, Johnson smiled "Naw, I wouldn't say that. I might get mad once in a while but not if a guy hits me right. If somebody throws an elbow or something like that, I’ll tell him about it but that just makes me want to play all the harder."

Johnson paused before naming his greatest thrill in football. "I guess it was scoring the final touchdown against the Bears in 1957 to put us into the championship game.

Then, beating Cleveland. That might change depending how far we go this year." He plans to play football "as long as I can give what they want.

Asked to evaluate his defensive opposition in the National Football League, Johnson replies "I can' say this guy or these guys are the best - they're all rough. On one Sunday, one guy might be the best, and another guy on another Sunday you see.

If you asked me who's the best runner, I can tell you. Hugh McElhenny. I played alongside that guy and still couldn't believe some of the runs he made. He's just the greatest."

Sharing the spot on the Steeler bench at home games is a thin, happy ten-year-old Michael Henry Johnson. His proud father commented "he's playing end and halfback on a grade school team and has some pretty good moves. I'd like for him to be a ball player - I won't push him. Let him decide he wants to play and I'll give him all the help I can."

Barring injury, 1962 will definitely be Johnson's best season to date. After only six games, he has already gained 464 yards and ranks third among ball carriers in the league. He also moved into the tenth position among the all-time ground gainers in the National Football League.

Asked if he were doing anything different this year, John Henry modestly replied "No, it's just that they're opening the holes up front. Most people don't realise it but no runner goes anywhere unless the line gives him some room to run."

There are still eight long Sunday afternoons remaining until title time but Pittsburgh prospects have never been better.

If the Stealers maintain their present pace, there's a strong chance the championship game will be played in the Steel town. Nobody has to tell John Henry Johnson how it feels to be a champion - he's been there before.

Article and images from the 1962 program for the Brown's game at Pitt Stadium, October 28th.

Editor's note: The Steelers finished 9-5, second to the 12-2 New York Giants.

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