John Henry Johnson dies at 81; Pro Football Hall of Fame running back

John Henry Johnson

Pro Football Hall of Fame running back

John Henry Johnson, 81, a Pro Football Hall of Fame running back during the 1950s and ‘60s who was a member of the San Francisco 49ers’ “Million Dollar Backfield,” died Friday in Tracy, Calif., the team announced. No cause was given, but the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2002 that Johnson had Alzheimer’s disease.

Johnson, 6 feet 2 and 210 pounds, played for the 49ers from 1954 to ’56 and teamed with fellow Hall of Fame members fullback Joe Perry, halfback Hugh McElhenny and quarterback Y.A. Tittle. Perry died in April.


Johnson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987.

“As a member of the ‘Million Dollar Backfield,’ he holds a cherished place in both 49ers and NFL history,” 49ers owner John York said in a statement. “His contributions to the game of football will be forever celebrated.”

Drafted in the second round by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1953, Johnson played one season in the Canadian Football League before joining San Francisco.

Johnson also played for the Detroit Lions from 1957-59, the Steelers from 1960-65 and American Football League’s Houston Oilers in 1966. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards in two of his seasons with Pittsburgh (1962 and ’64) and was selected to the Pro Bowl four times.

Johnson was born Nov. 24, 1929, in Waterproof, La. He was a high school star in football, basketball and track in Pittsburg, Calif., and played at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., and at Arizona State.

—Los Angeles Times staff and wire reports