march 2011

joe perry and john henry johnson
Joe Perry (left) and John Henry Johnson. Perry was the first player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons, when a season was only 12 games. When he retired from football after the 1966 season, Johnson ranked fourth in career rushing yards behind Perry, Jim Brown and Jim Taylor

When The Jet And John Henry Ran Roughshod

Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson, legit pro football legends and teammates on powerhouse San Francisco 49ers teams of the mid-1950s, are gone

Two of the greatest running backs in pro football history, who formed one-half of the San Francisco 49ers' legendary "Million Dollar Backfield" from 1954-1957 (along with quarterback Y.A. Tittle and speedster running back Hugh McElhenny), passed away less than two months apart. Joe "The Jet" Perry, who boasted an unusual combination of speed and power, died on April 25 near his home in Chandler, AZ. He was 84. The cause of death was complications from dementia, which he battled for almost 10 years. His brain was donated to a Boston University facility for dementia research.

His running mate, fullback John Henry Johnson, died June 3, 2011 in Tracy, California at the age of 81. It was reported in 1989 that Johnson had Alzheimer's disease. 

Playing in an era when professional athletes had to work off-season day jobs to supplement the meager salaries they earned playing sports, the 49ers' "Million Dollar Backfield" appellation had nothing to do with its members' salaries, which were far below that number, but with the value they were perceived to have to the team.

million dollar backfield
The Million Dollar Backfield: (from left) Y.A. Tittle,
Joe Perry, Hugh McElhenny, John Henry Johnson

Arguments persist, and always will, about which combination of players formed the greatest backfield in pro football history. Always in the discussion, though, are the fearsome foursome toiling for the San Francisco 49ers in the mid-1950s as the "Million Dollar Backfield." All four have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Perry in 1969, McElhenny in 1970, Tittle in 1971 and Johnson in 1987. As such, they are the only entire offensive backfield that has been enshrined.

Currently, McElhenny lives in Las Vegas with his wife Peggy. He has a rare nerve disorder called Guillan-Barre Syndrome, which attacks one in 100,000 folks.

Tittle resides in Palo Alto, California. During his playing days, he sold insurance during the offseason. When he retired in 1964, his next career was already waiting for him and began his own company, Y. A. Tittle & Associates, which specializes in insurance and financial services. After building the company into five branch offices, Tittle once again retired and sold the company to his son.

Perry and Johnson, both black, played during an era when few players of color were drafted or allowed to take the field. Unfortunately, they were constantly harassed and endured racial slurs. You know what they are.

They were fortunate that the 49ers had a core of players who would defend their teammates. If another player from an opposing team started something racially, that player would encounter basically the whole team. Not that Perry or Johnson weren't ready to fight on their own, as both had spent a lifetime dealing with small-minded bigots and their handed-down hatred.

joe perry
Joe Perry earned election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1969. Perry asked Mrs. Tony Morabito, then co-owner of the San Francisco 49ers, to serve as his presenter.

Perry would ultimately become one of pro football's most beloved players. He was the first player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons, when a season was only 12 games.

Undrafted after his senior year at Compton Community College in Los Angeles, CA, Perry joined the Navy and played football for the Alameda Naval Air Station team located in the Bay Area. A player with the 49ers saw him play and reported his findings to management. Perry was subsequently offered a free-agent contract and upon his discharge from the Navy, signed and joined the team in 1948, thus becoming the franchise's first-ever black player.

The 49ers played in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) and were one of the league's premier clubs. Perry played in every game as a rookie, averaged 7.3 yards per carry (YPC) and scored 11 touchdowns. The next season he led the AAFC in rushing. In 1949, the 49ers went 9-3-0 and then lost to the Cleveland Browns 21-7 in the snowbound AAFC Championship Game.

Black players being as much a novelty in pro football as they were in all pro sports in the 1940s, Perry felt the sting, and more, of the white players’ resentment towards his race. In a 2003 interview with Football Digest magazine, Perry said he faced even greater dangers on the field than did his baseball counterpart, Jackie Robinson.

“It was tough,” Perry said. “There were a lot of bad things that happened, lots of things that were said to me on the field. It was harder for me [than for Jackie Robinson] because in football, there’s so much physical contact. I had to be on guard at all times for something.”

Perry got the nickname "The Jet" from his first quarterback, Frankie Albert, who commented that Joe had gone past Albert twice on the same play like a jet. The moniker stuck. Plainly put, Perry had exceptional speed. He was known for scampering through the hole faster than anyone who played before him.

When the 49ers merged into the NFL in 1950, Perry emerged as one of the league's best running backs. He gained 1,018 yards in 1953. The following year, he became second fiddle to McElhenny, who was on track to become the NFL rushing leader.

However, McElhenny was sidelined with a shoulder separation. Perry finished with 1,049 rushing yards in 1954, thus becoming the NFL's first player to post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Johnson finished a solid second in the league rushing department.

The 49ers languished on the NFL landscape for years, having the bad luck of being stuck in the same division as the Los Angeles Rams and the Detroit Lions, both 1950s powerhouses.

joe perry
Joe the Jet takes off

All that changed in 1957 when, with Tittle coming into his prime, the offense boasted three dangerous running backs and swift, sure-handed receivers in R.C. Owens and Billy Wilson. The team finished tied for first place in the Western Conference at 8-4-0 with the Lions. Having split their regular season contests, the teams were pitted in a playoff game to determine which would go on to the NFL Championship Game. In addition to its fearsome rushing attack, the 49ers had a potent air attack keyed by the acrobatic Tittle-to-Owens play dubbed the "Alley-Oop."

In the divisional playoff game, the Niners went ahead 27-7 at halftime but succumbed to a fierce second-half Lions comeback and lost 31-27. Detroit then steamrolled the Cleveland Browns 59-14 to win the NFL title.

Perry was traded to the Baltimore Colts in 1961 but returned to the 49ers again in 1963.

joe perry
Joe Perry with his ?Million Dollar Backfield quarterback, Y.A. Tittle

Perry remains the 49ers’ career rushing and rushing touchdowns leader with 8,689 yards and 50 TDs. In addition to his Hall of Fame induction in 1969, Perry was named All-AAFC in 1949, made three NFL Pro Bowl teams, was the 1954 NFL MVP and was selected to the NFL 1950s All-Decade Team.

At one juncture, he was the NFL's career rushing leader, but with modern RBs adhering to a 16-game season, others eventually passed him. The most he made playing football in a single season was $37,500.

In 1971, the 49ers retired his No. 34 jersey.

While as a player, Perry would pack his bowling ball and play in local lanes wherever the 49ers played. After retiring from football, he competed in the Professional Bowlers Association Tour.

john henry johnson
John Henry Johnson at work

After a stellar career at Arizona State, John Henry Johnson, a massive 6'2", 225-pound fullback, was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second round of the 1953 NFL draft. He signed with the Calgary Roughriders of the Canadian Football League (CFL) instead and as a rookie, he was named the CFL's MVP. After he signed with the CFL, the Steelers traded his rights to the 49ers, who signed him for the 1954 season.

The 49ers already had running backs McElhenny and Perry in the backfield. McElhenny was drafted in the first round in 1952 and had already been selected to two Pro Bowls after being named first-team All-American in college. Perry himself had just won the NFL rushing title in 1953.

So Johnson settled in as a blocking back for the team's two star backs and was used as a threat near the goal line. In his first season with the 49ers, he scored nine TDs and rushed for an impressive 5.3 yards per carry.

Johnson was a devastating blocker and had a deceptive burst of speed for a big ball carrier. With a powerhouse fullback in the lineup, the 49ers’ offense exploded, gaining 2,498 yards with 60 TDs and ranking first offensively in 1954, Johnson's rookie season.

With a reputation as a punishing runner who preferred to run through rather than around would-be tacklers, Johnson’s relentless style became the template for the likes of Larry Csonka, in the generation following Johnson’s, and today in Brandon Jacobs and even, to a certain degree, in Adrian Peterson, who possesses an awe inspiring blend of Johnson’s power and Perry’s speed.

After two injury-riddled years, the 49ers traded Johnson to the Lions. Ironically, he would become a part of the very squad that would tie the Niners for first place in the division and then knock them out of any championship hopes in that thrilling 31-27 comeback victory. Johnson would win his only NFL title with Detroit.

john henry johnson steelers
John Henry Johnson, revitalized with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1962, became the team’s first running back to gain more than 1,000 yards in a season (Photo: Robert Riger/Getty Images)

After gaining only 1,145 yards in three seasons with the Lions, it appeared Johnson’s best days were behind him. In 1960 he signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers and set about proving all his doubters wrong.

He led the Steelers in rushing four straight years. In 1962, with his 1,141 yards gained on the ground, he became the first Steelers running back to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season. Two years later, he surpassed the mark again with 1,048 yards.

In 1966, Johnson spent his last season with the Houston Oilers of the American Football League.

When Johnson retired from football, he ranked fourth in career rushing yards behind Perry, Jim Brown and Jim Taylor. In his career he gained 6,803 career yards, scored 55 TDs and finished with a 4.3 yards per carry average. In addition to his Hall of Fame induction and the CFL MVP award, he was named to four Pro Bowls and was later named to the Pittsburgh Steelers Legends Team, which displays the club's best players from the pre-1970 era.

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