Hall of Fame defensive back Jimmy Johnson dead at age 86

Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive back Jimmy Johnson, a three-time All-Pro and member of the All-Decade Team of the 1970s, has died. He was 86.

Johnson's family told the Pro Football Hall of Fame that he died on Wednesday night at home in the San Francisco area after a lengthy illness.

Johnson, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1994, played his entire 16-year pro career with San Francisco. He appeared in 213 games, more than any other 49ers player at the time of his retirement.

“Jimmy Johnson was extraordinarily athletically talented,” Hall of Fame President Jim Porter said. “The 49ers enjoyed the luxury of using him on offense and defense early in his career to fill team needs. Once he settled in at left cornerback, he flourished. The notion that a ‘lockdown’ cornerback could cut the field in half for the opposition was true with Jimmy. Only rarely would other teams’ quarterbacks even look his direction, and more often than not regretted the decision if they challenged him.”

The 49ers drafted Johnson sixth overall in 1961 out of UCLA — the Chargers of the upstart AFL took him in the fourth round of that league’s draft — and he became a starter almost immediately as a cornerback. He had five interceptions as a rookie.

But he was so versatile that the Niners used Johnson on offense in 1962, when he made 34 receptions for 627 yards and scored four touchdowns.

Preventing opponents from compiling such stats was his forte, however, and by 1964 Johnson was a fixture on the corner. He remained there until retiring after the 1976 season, totaling 47 interceptions, returning two for scores, and earning a reputation as a stingy cover man with a nose for the ball.

“Jimmy embodied the essence of what it meant to be a 49er," the team said in a statement. “He was the ultimate gentleman and will be remembered for his humility, kindness and loveable demeanor.”

In 1971, in the midst of a three-year run as an All-Pro, Johnson won the George Halas Award for courageous play.

“You have to be worked on, cornered in and cornered out to become as good as you can be,” Johnson said when he entered the Hall of Fame. “So actually I feel standing here today that I never reached that level, I never reached as good a football player as I could be. But thanks to God and inner talent I was able to present a picture to those individuals who were voting for the Hall of Fame, and my longevity and the level of game that I played from my rookie season to my last. That on this wondrous year of 1994 I’ve been given the opportunity, the glorious opportunity, to become a member of the most wonderful society: The National Football League Hall of Fame.”

It reached the point when Johnson was at his peak that opponents rarely threw his way. He was Deion Sanders long before “Prime Time” hit the NFL.

“Jim doesn’t receive much publicity because the opposition avoids him as much as possible,” San Francisco quarterback John Brodie once said. “Talk to veteran quarterbacks like John Unitas and Bart Starr and they’ll tell you they call few pass patterns in Jimmy’s area. The only reason Johnson doesn’t lead the league in interceptions is he doesn’t get the chance.”

Former 49ers coach Dick Nolan once said Johnson was a better cornerback than two of his other players, (Hall of Famer) Mel Renfro and (two-time All-Pro) Cornell Green with the Cowboys.

The brother of Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson, Jimmy Johnson played two ways at UCLA. He was a wingback on offense and a defensive back, while also competing in track as a hurdler and broad jumper.

His brother was Johnson’s presenter for enshrinement in the Canton, Ohio, hall.

“Rafer Johnson is in fact my hero and that is an amazing thing in itself,” Jimmy Johnson said that day. “Most young men growing up usually have a hero in another town, another city, another country, and they will write to this individual, receive an autographed photo and then tack that photo up on the wall and worship that photo, play for that photo and get inspiration from that photo. No such problem for me.

“I had a brother living with me on a day-to-day basis that I was able to talk to, ask the pertinent questions, get the pertinent feedback and get corrected in my direction, if needed. I must say I must give brother Rafer credit for everything that I have accomplished in the field of athletics. And I just wish that we could split this trophy, this bust of myself, right down the middle because he surely deserves half of it.”

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Barry Wilner is a retired Pro Football Writer for The Associated Press. Wilner covered the NFL for the AP for more than 30 years.

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