One position at which the Cleveland Browns have had many excellent players is running back.
Ron Johnson, for one season in 1969, was another outstanding running back who played for the Browns.
Traded to the New York Giants in 1970, Johnson then rushed for over 1,000 yards in two seasons, and earned first team NFL All-Pro honors and two Pro Bowl invitations, with New York.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) May 30, 2021
We take a look at the life of Ron Johnson – before, during, and after his NFL playing career.
The Early Years Through High School
Ronald Adolphis Johnson was born on October 17, 1947 in Detroit, Michigan.
Arthur, Johnson’s father, supported the family with his own trucking company, Johnson Trucking.
Johnson had two brothers and two sisters.
Alex, Johnson’s brother, had a 13-year career in major league baseball, playing on eight teams from 1964 to 1976 and leading the American League in batting in 1970.
When he was growing up, Johnson idolized Jim Brown.
Johnson attended Northwestern High School in Detroit.
At Northwestern High School, Johnson starred in baseball (as a center fielder) and football.
Johnson likely could have pursued a career in baseball as well as in football.
However, he decided to play football.
“I chose football because I liked it better and it was a better sport for my talents.”
After graduating Northwestern High School in 1965, Johnson accepted a football scholarship from University of Michigan and headed to Ann Arbor, Michigan for college.
Johnson lettered in football at Michigan in 1966, 1967, and 1968.
In 1966, Johnson saw limited action, as he rushed for 95 yards on 23 rushing attempts.
Michigan had a 6-4 record in 1966.
Johnson became a full-time starter at running back in 1967, and he had an outstanding season.
In a 26-21 Michigan loss to Navy on October 7, 1967, Johnson rushed for 270 yards and two touchdowns on 26 rushing attempts.
He also caught three passes for 19 yards.
The following week, on October 14, 1967, Johnson rushed for 107 yards on 24 rushing attempts, in a 34-0 Michigan loss to Michigan State.
On October 28, 1967, Johnson rushed for 108 yards and two touchdowns on 17 rushing attempts, in a 20-15 Michigan loss to Minnesota.
The following week, on November 4, 1967, Johnson rushed for over 100 yards for the fourth time in 1967, when he rushed for 167 yards on 42 rushing attempts, as Michigan defeated Northwestern 7-3.
In 1967, Johnson rushed for 1,005 yards and six touchdowns on 220 rushing attempts and caught 13 passes for 179 yards and one touchdown.
He led the Big Ten in rushing yards in 1967.
Johnson was selected second team 1967 College Football All-American by the Central Press Association.
He also was named first team 1967 All-Big Ten Conference by both the Associated Press and United Press International.
He also was honored as the “Most Valuable Player” of the 1967 Michigan team.
In 1967, Michigan had a 4-6 record.
As good a junior year as Johnson had in 1967, he had an even better season as a senior in 1968.
Johnson rushed for 205 yards and two touchdowns on 31 rushing attempts, as Michigan defeated Duke 31-10 on September 28, 1968.
The following week, on October 5, 1968, in a 32-9 Michigan win over Navy, Johnson rushed for 121 yards and two touchdowns on 22 rushing attempts.
In the next game, on October 12, 1968, Johnson rushed for 152 yards and one touchdown on 19 rushing attempts, in a 28-14 Michigan victory over Michigan State.
He also caught two passes for 16 yards.
The following week, on October 19, 1968, Johnson rushed for 163 yards and one touchdown on 34 rushing attempts, as Michigan defeated Indiana 27-22.
In addition, Johnson caught three passes for 19 yards.
Johnson rushed for 129 yards and two touchdowns on 24 rushing attempts, in a 35-0 Michigan shutout of Northwestern on November 2, 1968.
For the sixth time in 1968, Johnson rushed for over 100 yards in a game, in a 34-9 Michigan victory over Wisconsin on November 16, 1968.
Johnson far exceeded 100 yards in the game, as he rushed for 347 yards (setting a Michigan single game record) and five touchdowns (also setting a Michigan single game record) on 31 rushing attempts.
He also caught two passes for 25 yards.
In 1968, Johnson rushed for 1,391 yards and 19 touchdowns on 255 rushing attempts and caught 15 passes for 177 yards.
Johnson led the Big Ten in all of rushing yards, yards from scrimmage, touchdowns, and points, in 1968.
He also was captain of the Michigan football team in 1968 – the first African-American to do so.
Johnson was selected first team 1968 College Football All-American by the Football Writers Association of America and The Football News and second team 1968 College Football All-American by the Associated Press, the Central Press Association, the Newspaper Enterprise Association, and United Press International.
In addition, Johnson was named first team 1968 All-Big Ten Conference by both the Associated Press and United Press International.
He also won the “Chicago Tribune Silver Football” trophy as the most valuable player in the Big Ten in 1968 and was honored as the “Most Valuable Player” of the 1968 Michigan team.
Several reasons were cited for Johnson’s skill as a running back when he was at Michigan.
“I just think it’s instinct. He’s a strong runner and has great instincts. And the men on the ball club like to block for him. That’s the kind of guy he is.”
“Johnson has good size, speed, agility and balance. But his extraordinary physique gives him the ability to shake off tacklers. He cuts well and picks up blockers impressively.”
Michigan posted an 8-2 record and was ranked 12th in the nation in the final Associated Press poll in 1968.
Johnson graduated from Michigan with a business degree in 1969.
After his time at Michigan, Johnson continued his football career in the NFL.
The Pro Football Years
Johnson was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the first round of the 1969 NFL draft.
He was the 20th overall pick.
While Johnson was a halfback in college, he largely played fullback with Cleveland.
He started next to Leroy Kelly.
As a rookie, Johnson (at a height of six feet and one inch and at a weight of 205 pounds) played in all 14, and started 13, regular season games in 1969.
On September 21, 1969, in his first NFL regular season game, Johnson rushed for 118 yards and two touchdowns (on runs of one yard and 48 yards) on 17 rushing attempts, as Cleveland defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 27-20.
In addition, Johnson caught two passes for 21 yards, including an 18-yard pass reception.
On November 30, 1969, Johnson scored two touchdowns, on a one-yard run and (the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter) on a seven-yard run, as the Browns defeated the Chicago Bears 28-24.
Chicago leads for most of the game, but Cleveland rookie Ron Johnson's 7-yard TD with 5 minutes left wins it, 28-24. pic.twitter.com/YuyO6k7IAZ
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) November 30, 2020
For the 1969 regular season, Johnson rushed for 472 yards and the above-described seven touchdowns (tied for fifth in the NFL) on 138 rushing attempts, caught 24 passes for 164 yards, and returned one kickoff for 31 yards.
With a 10-3-1 record in 1969, Cleveland won the NFL Century Division title.
Johnson helped the Browns rank in the 1969 NFL regular season third in points scored (351), fifth in total passing and rushing yards (4,428), ninth in passing yards (2,640), tied for second in passing touchdowns (24), third in fewest sacks allowed (20), fifth in rushing yards (1,788), tied for first in rushing touchdowns (17), and tied for sixth in average yards per rushing attempt (4.0).
In the 1969 NFL playoffs, Cleveland first played the Dallas Cowboys on December 28, 1969.
Johnson played in, but did not start, the game, as the Browns defeated Dallas 38-14.
The following week, on January 4, 1969, Cleveland advanced to play the Minnesota Vikings in the 1969 NFL championship game.
Johnson again played in, but did not start, the game, as the Browns lost to Minnesota 27-7.
On January 26, 1970, Johnson, along with defensive tackle Jim Kanicki and linebacker Wayne Meylan, was traded by Cleveland to the New York Giants in exchange for wide receiver Homer Jones.
The last time Cleveland did a big trade with the New York Giants for a WR was in 1970, G-Men got Ron Johnson, while Browns got Homer Jones. Jones replaced Paul Warfield, who CLE traded to Miami for #1 draft pick Browns spent on QB Mike Phipps (instead of Terry Bradshaw).
— Jon Perr (@Perrspectives) March 13, 2019
Johnson was surprised by the trade.
“I was shocked. They told me in Cleveland they had to make the deal to facilitate the trade of Paul Warfield to Miami for a No. 1 draft pick. They said they didn’t want to give me up but had no other choice. After I thought it over, I realized it was a good deal for me. I am better suited to be a halfback than a fullback as I was used at Cleveland. New York offers me great opportunities.”
Johnson took advantage of the “opportunity” in New York and had an excellent season in 1970.
1970 #NYGiants preseason at Steelers: RB Ron Johnson nearly scored on this quick hitter up the middle. Johnson was acquired from the Browns and became the NYG first 1000 yard rusher in 1970 with 1027 yards where he also earned All Pro and Pro Bowl honors. #GiantsPride pic.twitter.com/hLu36eor6S
— BigBlueVCR (@BigBlueVCR) August 24, 2020
He started all 14 regular season games for the Giants in 1970.
— Tom's Old Days (@sigg20) November 2, 2020
“Johnson is the best halfback in football today . . . period! He’s just a devastating football player.”
“[Johnson’s] got to be one of the finest running backs in the league right now.”
Johnson, in the 1970 regular season, rushed for 1,027 yards (second in the NFL) and eight touchdowns (fourth in the NFL) on 263 rushing attempts, caught 48 passes (ninth in the NFL) for 487 yards and four touchdowns, and returned five kickoffs for 140 yards.
He led the NFL in yards from scrimmage (1,514) and ranked second in the NFL in all-purpose yards (1,654) and tied for third in the NFL in total touchdowns (12).
For his play in 1970, Johnson was named first team NFL All-Pro and was invited to his first Pro Bowl.
He also was selected first team All-Pro by the Associated Press, the Pro Football Writers of America, and Pro Football Weekly, second team All-Pro by the Newspaper Enterprise Association, first team All-Conference by the Associated Press and Pro Football Weekly, and second team All-Conference by United Press International.
The Giants had a 9-5 record, but failed to make the playoffs, in 1970.
In 1971, Johnson was hampered by both a thigh injury and a ligament injury.
He played in and started only two regular season games in 1971.
Johnson rushed for 156 yards and one touchdown on 32 rushing attempts and caught six passes for 47 yards in the 1971 regular season.
New York fell to a 4-10 record in 1971.
In 1972, Johnson returned to his excellent form from 1970.
He started all 14 regular season games in 1972.
For the 1972 regular season, Johnson rushed for 1,182 yards (third in the NFL) and nine touchdowns (tied for fourth in the NFL) on 298 rushing attempts and caught 45 passes for 451 yards and five touchdowns.
In addition, Johnson was tied for the lead in the NFL in total touchdowns (14) and ranked second in the NFL in yards from scrimmage (1,633) and third in the NFL in all-purpose yards (1,633).
Johnson was invited to his second Pro Bowl in 1972.
He also was selected second team All-Pro by the Pro Football Writers of America and second team All-Conference by United Press International.
With Johnson having another Pro Bowl season, the Giants improved to an 8-6 record in 1972.
In 1973, Johnson, playing in 12, and starting 11, regular season games, had another solid season.
In the 1973 regular season, Johnson rushed for 902 yards and six touchdowns on 260 rushing attempts and caught 32 passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns.
He ranked ninth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage (1,279) and tied for tenth in the NFL in total touchdowns (9).
New York had a 2-11-1 record in 1973.
In 1974, Johnson played in 11, and started six, regular season games.
He rushed for 218 yards and four touchdowns on 97 rushing attempts and caught 24 passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns.
The Giants had a 2-12 record in 1974.
Johnson played in all 14, and started eight, regular season games in 1975.
He rushed for 351 yards and five touchdowns on 116 rushing attempts and caught 34 passes for 280 yards and one touchdown.
In 1975, New York had a 5-9 record.
1975 turned out to be Johnson’s last NFL regular season.
When Johnson became a free agent after the 1975 season, the Giants did not re-sign him.
Instead, Johnson signed with the Dallas Cowboys on June 23, 1976.
However, Johnson never played in a regular season game for Dallas, which waived Johnson on September 6, 1976.
The Years After The NFL
Johnson married Karen.
They had two children, Christopher and Allison.
After his retirement from the NFL, Johnson formed Rackson, a food service company.
Rackson owned “Kentucky Fried Chicken” franchises in New Jersey, Tennessee, and Michigan.
Johnson was inducted into the University of Michigan Athletic Hall of Honor in 1989.
In 1992, Johnson was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Johnson was named chairman of the National Football Foundation (operator of the College Football Hall of Fame) in 2006.
Suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Johnson died on November 10, 2018 in Madison, New Jersey.
Over his six years with the Giants from 1970 to 1975, Johnson became one of the top running backs in Giants history.
Johnson ranks seventh in Giants career regular season rushing yards (3,836) and eighth in Giants career regular season rushing touchdowns (33).
In addition, as a receiver, Johnson ranks 26th (sixth just including running backs) in Giants career regular season pass receptions (189), 35th (sixth just including running backs) in Giants career regular season pass reception yards (1,813), and tied for 34th (fourth just including running backs) in Giants career regular season pass reception touchdowns (15).
These rankings were achieved by Johnson despite him starting only 55 out of a possible 84 games for New York.
In particular, if Johnson was not disabled by injuries, had started all 14 regular season games in 1971, and played as well as he did in 1970 and 1972, Johnson would be ranked even higher in Giants career regular season rushing and receiving statistics.
As for Johnson’s one season with the Cleveland Browns in 1969, there is a tendency to focus on Johnson’s departure and the trade of Johnson to New York being a poor transaction by the Browns.
After all, Johnson, an All-Pro and Pro Bowl performer for the Giants, was traded for Homer Jones, who did not have an All-Pro or Pro Bowl season in his one year with Cleveland in 1970.
In analyzing the Johnson trade, two other points should be made.
First, with Leroy Kelly at halfback, Johnson would have seen little playing time at halfback, clearly Johnson’s better position than fullback.
It was not as if Cleveland completely lacked running back talent after the trade of Johnson.
Perhaps the criticism of the Johnson trade should be based on Cleveland not getting more in exchange for Johnson (and Jim Kanicki and Wayne Meylan), rather than Cleveland trading Johnson.
More recognition also should be given to Johnson having three two-touchdown games for Cleveland, and being a starting running back (for 13 games) on a division-winning Browns team, in 1969.
In any event, for his one year with Cleveland in 1969, Johnson is part of the long tradition of outstanding running backs who have played for the Browns.