“Ron was a great player for us during a difficult era,” Giants co-owner and team president John Mara said Sunday. “He was smart, tough, and always a class act.”
Johnson had been battling Alzheimer’s disease. His death was announced by the Michigan athletic department.
He was born on Oct. 17, 1947 in Detroit. His older brother, Alex, was a left fielder who spent 13 seasons in the major leagues. Alex Johnson played for eight teams in his career and was the American League batting champion in 1970, hitting .329 for the California Angels.
Johnson played at Michigan from 1966-68. He finished his career with the Wolverines as the school’s all-time leading rusher with 2,440 yards and is currently ranked 16th all-time. He still holds the school’s single game records for rushing yards and touchdowns (347 yards, five touchdowns in a 34-9 victory against Wisconsin on Nov. 16, 1968).
In his final season with the Wolverines, Johnson was named captain (the first African-American player to receive the honor) and an All-American. He was selected as the winner of the Chicago Tribune Silver Football Award as the Wolverines’ Most Valuable Player. He also finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting and was named Big Ten Medal of Honor recipient as Michigan’s top student athlete.
Johnson graduated with a degree in business administration in 1969. He was selected by the Cleveland Browns with the 20th overall pick in the 1969 NFL Draft. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Johnson was an immediate contributor to the Browns with 472 yards and seven touchdowns on 138 carries. He also had 24 receptions for 164 yards.
Cleveland went 10-3-1 in the regular season. The Browns defeated the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Round before losing to the Minnesota Vikings in the final NFL Championship Game.
Three weeks after losing the opportunity to play in Super Bowl IV, Cleveland traded Johnson, defensive tackle Jim Kanicki, and linebacker Wayne Meylan to the Giants for wide receiver Homer Jones. Jones was not only a gifted receiver (he averaged 22.3 yards per reception) but is also credited with creating the touchdown spike.
The Giants were in the midst of a 17-year postseason drought (1964-80) and trading Jones, one of the team’s few bright spots, was not met with approval by fans. However, he had only 10 catches for the Browns in 1970, retiring after just one season in Cleveland. Meanwhile, Johnson led the NFL in rushing attempts (263) and became the first Giants player to rush for 1,000 yards (1,027) in a single season. He also ran for eight touchdowns and caught four more.
“He’s the best halfback in football today — period,” Giants quarterback Fran Tarkenton told The Associated Press after Johnson caught a touchdown pass and ran for another score in a 23-20 come-from-behind victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 8 of the 1970 season. . “He catches the ball, he blocks, he runs inside and outside, he makes the big plays.”
After missing most of 1971 with an injury he returned in 1972 to once again lead the NFL in rushing attempts (298) and recorded the second 1,000-yard season in Giants history (a career-high and then-franchise record 1,182 yards). Johnson had a career-high 14 touchdowns (nine rushing, five receiving).
In six seasons with the Giants (1970-75), Johnson carried the ball 1,066 times for 3,836 yards and 33 touchdowns. He also caught 189 passes for 1,813 yards and 15 touchdowns. Johnson is seventh in franchise history in rushing yards (Tiki Barber, Rodney Hampton, Joe Morris, Brandon Jacobs, Alex Webster, Ahmad Bradshaw) and eighth in rushing touchdowns (Jacobs, Barber, Hampton, Morris, Webster, Ottis Anderson, Frank Gifford).
All of the losing eventually got to Johnson. The Giants were 30-53-1 during his time with the team. He once said, “I’d like to go anywhere to play for a winner”. The Giants didn’t trade him and he retired after the 1975 season.
Johnson caught three touchdown passes and ran for another in a Monday Night Football game against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 3 of the 1972 season. The Giants went 8-6, in ’72, one of two seasons they finished above .500 during the postseason drought. The other was 1970, where they finished 9-5.
“Ron Johnson was the first mentor I had on the New York Giants,” former defensive end and Giants Ring of Honor member George Martin. Martin was a rookie during Johnson’s final NFL season. “He led by example. He didn’t do it to impress any of us. That was just his character. He was a leader by nature. I looked up to Ron and I tried to emulate every fiber of his being because to me he not only walked the walk, but talked the talk.”
At the conclusion of his playing career, Johnson got his master’s degree from Michigan. He worked as a financial analyst at Dean Witter and founded the Rackson Corporation, a Totowa, N.J.-based food services company that operates numerous fast food franchises in Michigan and New Jersey.
He also teamed up with Martin and Hall of Famer Harry Carson to start Minority Athletes Networking (MAN). MAN was created in the aftermath of the Central Park jogger case in 1989 as a means to provide positive role models for the youth of New York City.
“It was Ron’s ideas that helped craft the foundation for MAN,” Martin said. “We were glad to be a part of that impactful organization and we had no idea it was last 30-plus years. Ron actually came up with the name Minority Athletes Networking, He was actually the drive for many, many years.
“When you looked at the residue Ron left in his life, it was always positive, always affirming, and it was always impactful. Every time I look in the mirror, I see some aspect of Ron that has had a profound impact on me, because he was a guy that wasn’t bound by being an athlete, he wasn’t bound by his own color. He had no limitations as a man period. And that’s the way he conducted his life. I don’t think people will ever accurately measure the impact of Ron Johnson had on society as a whole, and that includes Michigan as well.”
Johnson was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1992. In 2006, he became the Hall’s first member to serve as chairman of the National Football Foundation, operator of the Hall.
Johnson received an annual pension under the 88 Plan, a fund operated by the NFL and the NFL Players Association that assists retired players with dementia. He suffered injuries to both his knees and thighs during his playing career and also had neck surgery to remove two vertebrae in 1988.
Johnson never received a concussion diagnosis and both his mother and brother were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2008. His wife, Karen, told the New York Times she feared for his health after the end of his playing days.
“I was always worried about the appendages,” she said in a 2011 interview. “I always thought it would be something physical, something with the knees, arthritis. This (the Alzheimer’s diagnosis) came out of the dark.”
Johnson is survived by his wife; son Christopher; daughter Allison; sister Jean; and three grandchildren. Alex Johnson died of complications from cancer in 2015 at age 72.
– Curtis Rawls is a Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage and covers the NFL, the New York Giants, and the NBA. Please like and follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Twitter. Curtis can be followed on Twitter @CuRawls203.