Northwestern High School in Detroit has produced a number of world class athletes, including baseball greats Willie Horton and Alex Johnson, and Olympic Gold medalist Henry Carr. Johnson’s younger brother, Ron, was also a graduate of the school and went on to the University of Michigan and later to the NFL, his longest stint with the New York Giants.
We focus on Johnson because he died on Nov. 10, 2018, at 71, and his death was attributed to injuries he sustained on the gridiron.
The youngest of five children, Johnson was born on Oct. 17, 1947, in Detroit. His father, Arthur, owned a trucking company, and his mother, Willie Mae, was a homemaker. Like his older brother, Alex, Johnson starred in baseball and football at Northwestern.
In the fall of 1965, Johnson enrolled at the University of Michigan and for three years was a star running back under famed coach Bump Elliott. It was not until his junior year that he earned a starting position in the backfield, and quickly impressed with his speed and power, carrying the ball 210 times, gaining 982 yards, and averaging 4.7 yards per carry. After three games as a starter he broke Michigan and the Big Ten’s single game rushing records with 210 yards rushing on 26 carries, averaging 10.4 per carry against Navy. He also exceeded more than 100 yards in games against Michigan State, Minnesota and Northwestern.
His feats and feet earned him the MVP of the Michigan Wolverines football team in 1967. The next year he was named captain of the team, the first African-American to be so honored. He continued to compile astonishing numbers with the pigskin under his arms. In 1968, during the last game of the year against Wisconsin, Johnson set an NCAA record by rushing for 347 yards on 31 carries. He also scored a Big Ten record five rushing touchdowns against Wisconsin. And that achievement remains unequaled by a Michigan running back.
Johnson eclipsed the career rushing yardages compiled by the legendary Tom Harmon at Michigan, topping him with 2.524 yards. He also broke Harmon’s record for a single season rushing touchdowns with 19. Attempting to define Johnson’s skills as a runner, coach Elliott said, “I just think it’s instinct. He’s a strong runner and has great instincts.” Johnson summed up his ability as “finding the right hole” in the line.
He found the right hole so often that by the end of his senior year he was selected to the first team by Football Writers Association of America and Football News. Among the honors was the Big Ten Medal as the most outstanding scholar-athlete at the University of Michigan, and, of course, his teammates deemed him the most valuable player. In 1969, he graduated with bachelors and master’s degrees in business. Later after his retirment from football, he worked as a financial analyst for Dean Witter, and then founded the Rackson Corporation, which is based in Totowa, N.J., and New York City and operates fast food outlets in several states.
In the first round of the draft in 1969, Johnson was selected by the Cleveland Browns, a team where his idol Jim Brown had starred. There was nothing exceptional about this first year as a pro, though he did start in 13 of the 14 games, gaining only 372 yards, scoring seven touchdowns in 138 carries. In 1970, the same year he married Karen, he was traded to the Giants for receiver Homer Jones. Johnson relished this opportunity because now he could function as a halfback, rather than as a fullback.
Johnson, in his first year with the New York Giants in 1970, led the NFL with 1.514 yards and scored 12 touchdowns. That same year his brother, Alex, won the American League batting title with the California Angels. At the season’s end, the 6-foot-1, 205 pound running back gained more than a thousand yards with an additional 487 yards as a receiver, and taken together the numbers put him at the top of the league. The Giants had a winning record of 9-5, and Johnson was voted to the All-Pro first team and the Pro Bowl.
Giants quarterback Fran Tarkenton said Johnson “is the best halfback in football today…period! He’s just a devastating football player.” The next year, in the summer, Johnson sustained a thigh injury while playing a pick-up basketball game in Ann Arbor. After blood collected in his thigh tissue, he had to undergo surgery, thus he missed the first six games in 1971. Once back on the field he was injured again and missed the rest of the season.
But he was back in top form in 1972, leading the NFL with a career-high 298 carries and gaining 1.181 yards, which was third best behind O.J. Simpson and Larry Brown. Johnson’s more than 1,000 yard seasons were the only winning ones for the Giants between 1964 and 1980. During the 1975 and 1975 seasons his time on the field decreased. In 1976, he signed a contract with the Dallas Cowboys but didn’t appear in any games with the team. His overall statistics included 4,308 yards gained rushing, 40 touchdowns, and another 15 from receptions.
Upon his retirement from football in 1976, Johnson was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1992, and became chairman of the National Football Foundation in 2006. Two years later he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Throughout his career, he wife worried about the possibility of injuries from playing, fearing it would be his appendages. But his dementia may have come from concussions, though he was never tested, and did receive up $130,000 annually from a fund operated by NFL and the players’ union to assist players suffering from such damages.
Johnson died in an assisted living facility in Madison, N.J.