Million Dollar Backfield: R.I.P. Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson

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Million Dollar Backfield: R.I.P. Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson
Million Dollar Backfield: (L to R) Tittle, Perry, McElhenny, Johnson

In the days before exorbitant contracts, product endorsements and overpriced personal appearances, pro football players played their sport for thousands per season.

In addition, almost every player held a job in the offseason. Oftentimes, this would entail enlisting as a substitute teacher, or a salesman, or construction, or working at the tire store where the athlete’s dad was the owner.

Recently, two of the greatest running backs in the history of professional football that played during those torrid times passed away; each played a dominant role mainly with the 49ers">49ers">San Francisco 49ers.

Joe “The Jet” Perry left this earth on April 25, 2011 near his home of Chandler, Arizona. 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, succumbed June 3, 2011 in Tracy, California at the age of 81. It was reported in 1989 that Johnson had Alzheimer’s disease.  

Their fabulous careers and contributions to the growth of professional football deserve a review.

George Rose/Getty Images
Joe "The Jet" Perry in 1992 at his jersey retirement ceremony

Each player was part of a terrific foursome in the NFL from 1954-1957 nicknamed the “Million Dollar Backfield.” That quartet also included quarterback Y. A. Tittle and running back Hugh McElhenny. The nickname was not derived from the amount of money the players collectively were earning, but simply that the backfield is worth the high standard of “being worth a million dollars.”

Through the annals of pro football, these men comprised arguably what is known as the greatest backfield in pro football history. To cement that contention, all four have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio: Perry (1969), McElhenny (1970), Tittle (1971) and Johnson (1987). They mark 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.

Joe Perry against the Rams with Tittle in background

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. The 1950s in North America was not particularly dark-skinned friendly.

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.

Perry would ultimately become one of pro football’s most adored players. He was the first player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. And back then, they played 12 games.

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

Retired numbers displayed at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Joe Perry's is third from left.

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 snow-clad AAFC Championship Game.

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 would be regarded 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 became sidelined with a shoulder separation. Perry would then finish with 1,049 yards in 1954, thus becoming the NFL’s first player to gain 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 powerhouses in the 1950s.

John Henry Johnson of the 49ers

But that all changed in 1957.

Tittle was one of the league’s star QBs and the 49ers were potent with three healthy running backs and great 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. The teams split their regular season contests, so a playoff was scheduled to see who would play in the NFL Championship Game. This was the year of Tittle-to-Owens in what would be coined as the “Alley-Oop.”

In the divisional playoff game, the Niners built a 27-7 halftime lead only to lose 31-27. Detroit then destroyed the Browns 59-14 to win the NFL title.

Perry was traded to the Baltimore Colts in 1961 and then played for the 49ers again in 1963.

In an interview with Football Digest in 2003, Perry talked about his playing days versus the game offered today. “When I played, there were a lot of tough guys. We would play with broken bones and things like that that you don’t see nowadays.”

Joe “The Jet” Perry still holds the 49ers all-time career rushing record with 8,689 yards and rushing touchdowns with 50. In addition to his Hall of Fame induction, Perry was named All-AAFC in 1949, earned three NFL Pro Bowls, was the 1954 NFL MVP and was selected to the NFL 1950s All-Decade Team.

Johnson with QB Bobby Layne after the Lions win the 1957 NFL Championship

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, Perry competed in the Professional Bowlers Association Tour.

After a stellar career at Arizona State, John Henry Johnson, who played at 6’2”, 225 lbs., 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 basically, Johnson was hired as a blocking back for the team’s two star backs. However, he was an unselfish player and was used as a threat near the goal line. In his first season with the 49ers, he scored nine TDs and developed an incredible 5.3 YPC average.

John Henry Johnson became the Steelers first 1,000-yard rusher

Johnson was a devastating blocker and had a deceptive burst of speed for a big ball-carrier. With such a good fullback on board, the 49ers went ballistic on offense netting 2,498 yards with 60 TDs and ranked No. 1 offensively in Johnson’s rookie year of 1954 while playing just 12 games.

He was known as a punishing runner who would look to run over players first. His tactic was to scare his would-be tacklers and penalize them much the way modern-day players such as Larry Csonka, Brandon Jacobs and Marion “the Barbarian” Barber attempt to accomplish. And oftentimes he would plow through one of his own offensive linemen in order to find the end zone.

After two consecutive years being injured, the 49ers traded him to the Lions. Ironically, he would become a part of the very squad which 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.

After gaining only 1,145 yards in three seasons with the Lions, most folks viewed his playing days as essentially over. Although Lions QB Bobby Layne loved Johnson’s blocking abilities and often called him his bodyguard, he left Detroit and signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1960.

It was with Pittsburgh that Johnson found his greatest glory and success. He led the team in rushing four straight years. In 1962, he became the first Steeler RB to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season with his 1,141 yards. 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 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.

Johnson gained 6,803 career yards, scored 55 TDs and finished with a 4.3 YPC average.

But despite the impressive stats, Johnson’s greatest pride came from his skills as a blocker.

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