Running back John Henry Johnson, a member of the 49ers' famed "Million Dollar Backfield" in the mid-1950s, died in Tracy on Friday at the age of 81, according to several relatives and close friends.
Family members said Johnson's health had been in decline the past five years.
Johnson's pro playing career spanned 14 seasons, including 13 in the NFL and now-defunct American Football League, and culminated with his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He prepped at Pittsburg High School.
"For kids in this town, and for me, he was more than a role model; a hero, you might say," said Federal Glover, who played football for Pittsburg High and now is a District V Supervisor. "He paved the way and inspired dozens of others to say to themselves, 'I may come from a small town and a small high school, but I can play in the big leagues.' "
Johnson's most productive seasons came with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the '60s, when he twice rushed for more than 1,000 yards. He also was a member of the Detroit Lions title-winning team in 1957.
However, it was during his three seasons with the 49ers for which Johnson is best remembered. He teamed with running backs Joe "The Jet" Perry and Hugh McElhenny and quarterback Y.A. Tittle from 1954-56 to comprise what many regard as the best backfield in history.
"John Henry Johnson helped create the legacy of professional athletes coming out of Pittsburg," Glover said in a news release.
McElhenny and Tittle did not return phone calls seeking comment. Perry died at 84 on April 25.
The 49ers weren't aware of Johnson's passing until Friday evening and did not issue a statement.
Current Pittsburg varsity football coach Victor Galli said Johnson's size and toughness made him a player for the ages.
"You watch film of him, and he's amazing," Galli said. "He would be successful in today's NFL because he was such a tough, hard-nosed football player."
Johnson's No. 35 is retired at Pittsburg High, and his framed jersey hangs in the weight room.
"We try to make sure that the kids know who he is," Galli said. "We try to keep history alive; who he is, where he came from. We're very proud of him, for sure."
Pittsburg High graduate and current athletic director Al Hurtado recalled the days of Johnson dominating the local landscape in football, basketball and numerous track and field disciplines.
Johnson led the Pirates to Contra Costa County Athletic League titles in football and basketball his senior season and also won titles in the high jump, hurdles, shot put and discus.
"He's the greatest player that ever attended Pittsburg High School," said Hurtado, a Pittsburg High graduate in 1958. "He was a legend even when he was in high school. Heck, he was the dominant athlete in all of the Bay Area. Everybody knew about John Henry. He was bigger than life."
Johnson's football career took root in the Bay Area. He played collegiately at Saint Mary's and Arizona State before he was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second round of the 1953 NFL draft -- No. 18 overall.
Johnson, 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, elected to play in Canada in 1953, but he joined the 49ers after one season in the Canadian Football League and became an instant hit when he rushed for 681 yards, second in the league, and nine touchdowns his rookie season. He was selected to four Pro Bowls during a career that yielded 6,803 yards rushing and 48 touchdowns.
When he retired after the 1966 season, Johnson trailed only Jim Brown, Jim Taylor and Perry for career rushing yards.
Johnson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987. He also is a member of the Pittsburg Sports Hall of Fame. He was with family members when he died.
"He was a very caring man," said John L. Brown, Johnson's nephew. "He always came back to the Pittsburg community and gave back. He also was a great family man who loved his five kids and many grandkids."