Sun Devil Summer School: The Stars of the 1950s - John Henry Johnson

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Every so often a one-year wonder comes around in college football that firmly creates a lasting legacy in a fraction of the time it takes most of his peers.

Among recent decades, names like Derrick Rodgers and Leonard Russell resonate among a group of junior college transfers to take temporary residence in Tempe before taking off to the NFL after only one season.

Long before Rodgers and Russell was perhaps the greatest one-year wonder in program history in John Henry Johnson, who used his single season with the Sun Devils as a launch pad for an ultimate Hall of Fame career in the NFL.

Born Nov. 24, 1929 in Waterproof, La., as a teen Johnson was sent by his family to live with an older brother in Pittsburg, Calif., because no high school was available to African-Americans at the time in his area of Louisiana. 

Though he had never played organized sports prior to moving to California, by the time his high school days concluded he was considered one of the area’s top all-time high school athletes.

Johnson began his collegiate career at St. Mary’s College of California, becoming the first African-American football player in school history. However, in January of 1951 the school eliminated its football and baseball programs, leaving Johnson with no place to finish his college football career.

When the 1952 season rolled around, Johnson joined several St. Mary’s teammates in relocating to Arizona State, where he would enjoy an excellent senior season as an All-Border Conference honors recipient. A key component in the Sun Devils’ offensive backfield and the defensive secondary, Johnson helped push Arizona State to a Border Conference championship under head coach Clyde Smith.

After his lone season in Tempe, Johnson was selected in the second round of the NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers but opted to play professionally in Canada in 1953.

Johnson’s rights were traded to San Francisco for the 1954 season and he then began his tenure as a member of the “Million Dollar Backfield”, playing fullback alongside quarterback Y.A. Tittle and halfbacks Hugh McElhenny and Joe Perry.  All four went on to become Pro Football Hall of Fame members, with Johnson making his way to Canton in 1987.

After three seasons with San Francisco, Johnson played with the Detroit Lions from 1957-59, the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1960-65 and then the AFL’s Houston Oilers in 1966.

A four-time Pro Bowl selection and a two-time All-Pro, the fierce and hard-nosed fullback totaled 6,803 rushing yards and 48 touchdowns during his lengthy pro career.

In 1976, Johnson was inducted into ASU’s Sports Hall of Fame as a member of the school’s second annual class of inductees.

Johnson passed away on June 3, 2011 in Tracy, Calif.  That season, Johnson was inducted into ASU’s Ring of Honor and the San Francisco 49ers wore a number 35 decal on their helmets to honor his passing.