In today’s edition of 100 Days, 100 Detroit Lions, we head back to the championship season of 1957 to honor the big fella that soon-to-be-ex-head coach, Buddy Parker, brought to the Motor City to be Bobby Layne’s bodyguard.
80. John Henry Johnson
Fullback / Halfback / Defensive Back. 1957-59 Detroit; 1954-56 San Francisco 49ers; 1960-65 Pittsburgh Steelers; 1966 Houston Oilers
The Lions’ 1956 regular-season finale versus the Chicago Bears became infamous as a result of a vicious late hit by Bear defensive end Ed Meadows, which knocked Lion QB Bobby Layne out of action with a concussion. The Bears would go on to win the game and the Western Division title that day 38-21. The Lion defeat sent Detroit skipper Buddy Parker on an offseason search to find an elite fullback who could provide Layne pass protection, as well as help move the chains. Parker would find his answer in the form of San Francisco 49er powerhouse John Henry Johnson. Bobby Layne had this to say about the man who served as his personal bodyguard with both the Lions, and later, the Pittsburgh Steelers: “Ol’ John Henry’s got the meanest elbows in football. Guys come at me and he puts and elbow in their throat, and they don’t come so fast anymore.”
Parker would acquire Johnson by sending a draft choice, and former Pro Bowl defensive back Bill Stits, to San Francisco. Ironically, Buddy would have to wait until 1960, as the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, before he would direct John Henry in a regular season game. That was because Parker would quit the Lions abruptly during the team’s 1957 training camp. Nevertheless, Parker’s trade for Johnson would pay big dividends for the Motown Leos as John Henry finished the 1957 season as the team’s leading rusher with 621 yards, on 129 attempts. He would also catch 20 passes and score 5 touchdowns, while helping the Lions to their third NFL Championship of the decade.
Injury and discipline problems would limit Johnson to 524 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns during his last two Lion seasons. In 1960, he would be reunited with Parker and Layne in Pittsburgh when Detroit moved the fullback for draft choices. He would cement his eventual Hall of Fame enshrinement as a Steeler by rushing for 4,381 yards and 26 touchdowns, earning three of his four career Pro Bowl trips in the process.