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Ron Johnson, Giants Running Back, Dies at 71

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Ron Johnson, the All-Pro running back who became the first player in Giants history to gain at least 1,000 rushing yards in a season, achieving the milestone twice in the 1970s, died on Saturday at an assisted living facility in Madison, N.J. He was 71.

His wife, Karen, confirmed the death. Johnson was found to have Alzheimer’s disease in 2008.

The Giants had only two winning seasons between 1964 and 1980. Both came when Johnson achieved rushing milestones for the franchise.

“When I got to New York, the running backs were Tucker Frederickson and Ernie Koy,” he recalled in Ken Palmer’s “Game of My Life: Memorable Stories of Giants Football” (2007). “They were two white, big fullback-type guys. Everyone assumed that if you were black, you were fast. The Giants never really had anybody like that. So I was very, very well received when I got to New York.”

Johnson, 6 feet 1 inches and 205 pounds in his playing days, ran for 1,027 yards and eight touchdowns in 1970, his first season as a Giant. He also had 487 receiving yards, giving him a league-leading 1,514 yards from scrimmage. The Giants went 9-5. and he was voted to the All-Pro first team and the Pro Bowl.

“He’s the best halfback in football today — period,” the Giants’ star quarterback Fran Tarkenton told The Associated Press after Johnson caught a touchdown pass, ran for another score and rushed for more than 130 yards in a 23-20 comeback victory over the Dallas Cowboys in November 1970.

“He catches the ball, he blocks, he runs inside and outside, he makes the big plays,” Tarkenton said.

After missing most of the 1971 season with an injury, Johnson ran for 1,182 yards and nine touchdowns in 1972, when he was again chosen for the Pro Bowl.

He set a Giants record for touchdowns in a game when he scored three times on passes from Tarkenton’s successor, Norm Snead, and once on a run in a victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in October 1972. The Giants went 8-6 that season, then reverted to their losing ways.

Johnson was an All-American halfback at Michigan, and he was the first black player to be named a football captain there. He scored 19 rushing touchdowns in the 1968 season, including a five-touchdown, 347-yard game against Wisconsin; all are still university records.

As a rookie with the Cleveland Browns, who selected him in the first round of the 1969 draft, he scored seven touchdowns. The Browns traded him to the Giants in 1970 for receiver Homer Jones in a multiplayer deal.

For all his achievements in six seasons with the Giants, Johnson was hampered by injuries, and the team did not win so much as a division title.

“I’d like to go anywhere to play for a winner,” he told The Sarasota Herald Tribune in January 1975. The Giants did not trade him, and he retired following the 1975 season.

Ronald Adolphus Johnson, the youngest of five children, was born on Oct. 17, 1947, in Detroit, where his father, Arthur, owned a trucking company, and his mother, Willie Mae, was a homemaker. He was a high school football star and idolized Jim Brown, the Browns’ star fullback.

Johnson ran for 4,308 yards and 40 touchdowns as a pro and scored another 15 receiving touchdowns. His single-season Giants rushing record stood until 1985, when Joe Morris ran for 1,336 yards. He shares the club record of four touchdowns in a game with running back Rodney Hampton and receiver Earnest Gray.

Johnson is survived by his wife; a sister, Jean; a son, Chris; a daughter, Allison; and three grandchildren. His brother Alex, a major league outfielder for 13 seasons, won the 1970 American League batting championship, hitting .329 for the California Angels.

Johnson received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business from Michigan, worked as a financial analyst for Dean Witter, and then founded the Rackson Corporation, which is based in Totowa, N.J., and New York City and operates fast food outlets in several states.

He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1992. Fourteen years later, he became the hall’s first member to be chairman of the National Football Foundation, which operates it.

Johnson’s family told The New York Times in 2011 that he had never received a concussion diagnosis and that his mother and a brother also had Alzheimer’s disease.

But the possible connection between football contact and long-term neurological disability has been a rising concern. Johnson received between $88,000 and $130,000 annually under the 88 Plan, a fund operated by the N.F.L. and its players’ union that helps retired players with dementia.

He had sustained knee and thigh injuries while playing football and had neck surgery in 1988 to remove two vertebrae.

In reflecting on her husband’s neurological illness and her fears for him after football, Karen Johnson told The Times in 2011 how “I was always worried about the appendages.”

“I always thought it would be something physical, something with the knees, arthritis,” she said. “This came out of the dark.”


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