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John Henry Johnson is Latest Running Back Pioneer to Pass Away

Posted on June 04, 2011 by Dean Hybl

John Henry Johnson is one of three Hall of Fame running backs to pass away so far in 2011.

The death on Friday of John Henry Johnson marks the third Hall of Fame running back from the 1950s to pass away so far in 2011. In addition to Johnson, Ollie Matson died on February 19th and Joe Perry passed away on April 25th.

As some of the first African American superstars in the NFL, these three future Hall of Famers were among a group of runners that brought excitement and versatility to the NFL in the 1950s.

Here is a brief look at the careers of these three all-time greats:

Ollie Matson – A decade before Bob Hayes went from Olympic sprinter to NFL superstar, Ollie Matson won silver and bronze medals as a sprinter at the 1952 Olympics and then earned All-Pro honors and co-Rookie of the Year honors as an NFL rookie.

A multiple threat as a running back, receiver and returner, Matson twice led the NFL in all-purpose yards and was a first team All-Pro during each of his first five seasons with the Chicago Cardinals.

Following the 1958 season, he was the centerpiece of one of the first blockbuster trades in NFL history as the Los Angeles Rams traded nine players to acquire Matson. He rushed for 863 yards and had 1,421 yards from scrimmage during his first season in Los Angeles, but the Rams won only 11 games during his four seasons in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Rams traded nine players to acquire Ollie Matson.

He went on to play for the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles before retiring after the 1966 season.

In 14 NFL seasons, he finished his career with 5,173 yards rushing, 8,458 yards from scrimmage and 12,799 all-purpose yards. At the time of his retirement, Matson ranked second in NFL history in all-purpose yards.

He was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1972.

Joe Perry – Though undrafted out of Compton Junior College, Joe Perry signed with the San Francisco 49ers in 1948 and immediately made it clear that he belonged in the NFL. After leading the NFL with 10 rushing touchdowns in 1948, he led the NFL in rushing the next season with 783 yards rushing and 6.8 yards per carry.

In 1953 he became only the third player in NFL history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season as he led the NFL in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and yards from scrimmage. The following season, he gained a career-high 1,049 yards to become the first NFL player to gain 1,000 yards in back to back seasons and also led the NFL in rushing for the third time in his career.

Along with Johnson, Hugh McElhenny and Y.A. Title, Perry was part of the “Million Dollar Backfield” for the 49ers. Unfortunately, even with such potent talent, the 49ers could never win the NFL title. They reached the playoffs only twice during Perry’s career, but lost the AAFC title to the Cleveland Browns in 1949 and then blew a 24-7 halftime lead in a 31-27 loss to Detroit in the 1957 division playoffs.

Perry led the 49ers in rushing eight times during his career and still ranks as the team’s career leader with 8,689 rushing yards.

After spending his first 13 seasons with San Francisco, Perry spent two seasons with the Baltimore Colts before returning to San Francisco for his 16th and final NFL campaign.

Joe Perry spent much of his career as the NFL's career rushing leader.

For much of his career, Perry was the NFL’s all-time leading rusher and retired with 9,723 yards rushing, 11,744 yards from scrimmage and 84 career touchdowns.

Perry was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1969.

John Henry Johnson – Originally drafted in the second round of the 1953 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Johnson spent a season in Canada, where he was named the league MVP, before joining the San Francisco 49ers in 1954.

After spending three seasons with Perry and the “Million Dollar Backfield” in San Francisco, Johnson moved to the Detroit Lions in 1957 and helped lead them to the NFL Championship, including their comeback win over the 49ers in the Division playoffs.

In 1960 Johnson joined the Pittsburgh Steelers and over the next six seasons earned three Pro Bowl appearances and became the first player in Steelers history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.

He was second in the NFL in 1962 with 1,141 yards and finished third in 1964 with 1,048 yards.

Johnson retired following the 1966 season as the fourth leading rusher in NFL history with 6,803 yards. He was also considered one of the best blocking fullbacks in NFL history.

After being a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame eight times, Johnson was finally inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987.

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