Remembering Giants Trainer John Johnson (1917-2016)

Posted Mar 1, 2016

Longtime Giants trainer Johnny Johnson had a 60-year career with the franchise

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – John Johnson, a beloved athletic trainer in the Giants organization for 60 years and a 2015 inductee into the franchise’s Ring of Honor, passed away on Sunday, a month shy of his 99th birthday.

Johnson retired following the Giants’ victory in Super Bowl XLII in January 2008.

“Johnny Johnson was one of the finest men I have ever known,” said John Mara, the Giants’ president and chief executive officer. “He spent 60 years with our team caring for players from Charlie Conerly and Frank Gifford, right on up to Eli Manning. Nobody was more loved and respected than Mr. J. We were so pleased to be able to include him in our Ring of Honor this past season. He was part of the family and we will miss him terribly.”

“We have lost a great Giant,” said Ronnie Barnes, the team’s senior vice president of medical services and a close friend of Johnson. “Johnny looked after our players for over a half century. He was compassionate and caring and a true professional. His dedication to his profession and his poise and class were recognized by all.”

Barnes began his Giants career in 1976 and became head trainer four years later. He worked closely with Johnson for more than four decades.

“John had a stellar career with the Giants,” Barnes said. “He traveled with the team and was an indispensable member of the medical staff. He had so many stories about the early NFL and medicine before the arthroscope and advanced diagnostic technology.  

“Leaving a legacy is something that we all strive to do, and John Johnson achieved that and more. He was a licensed massage therapist and physical therapist with tremendous hands. Michael Strahan sought him out and made John his personal athletic trainer. He cared for him with the same compassion that he had for Y.A. Tittle, Frank Gifford and Charlie Conerly.”

In 1947, Johnson took a job as the head athletic trainer at Manhattan College. The following year, a doctor there who was also one of the Giants’ team physicians asked Johnson if he wanted to work at the team’s training camp.

“And I said, ‘Well, of course,’” Johnson said in an interview last September, shortly after the Giants announced he would join the Ring of Honor. “Like everybody else, you’re looking for your paycheck.”

Johnson liked both jobs, and his arrangement was fine with both the school and the pro football team.

“In those days, you could have two jobs,” Johnson said. “Football would be in the morning, and I’d go up to Manhattan College in the afternoon.”

Millions of people have two jobs. Very few of them stay in their positions as long as Johnson did. He worked at Manhattan for 56 years, leaving after undergoing open-heart surgery. He stayed with the Giants on a daily basis for four more years. Only Wellington Mara, whose Giants affiliation began when he was nine years old when his father, Tim, founded the team in 1925 and lasted until his death in 2005, had a longer tenure with the team.

Johnson was on the Giants staff for 874 regular-season and 34 postseason games. He was a trainer, mentor, advisor, psychologist and friend to hundreds of players. Johnson worked for 12 head coaches, beginning with Pro Football Hall of Famer Steve Owen and ending with Tom Coughlin. When he started in ’48, the Giants had a quarterback from Ole Miss in Charlie Conerly. Fifty-nine years later, Johnson went out a champion thanks to a touchdown pass thrown by Eli Manning, another quarterback from Ole Miss. One of Johnson’s many treasured football possessions was a football signed by both of them.

In October, he entered the Ring of Honor with former players Chris Snee and Osi Umenyiora, as well as Jack Lummus, who played for the Giants in 1941 and died in the Battle of Iwo Jima four years later. Johnson joined Giants legends such as Mara, Gifford, Emlen Tunnell, Rosie Brown, Phil Simms and Strahan, all of whom were his friends.

“They were the greatest,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what I’m doing up there. Here we were, with a great Hall of Fame all around me. Good coaches, great players. You go back 60 years, that’s a long time.”

Johnson was born on March 31, 1917. He grew up in Sea Bright, N.J. and graduated from Long Branch High School. “I was a soccer player, loved to play soccer,” he said.

From Long Branch, he went to the Swedish Institute of Physical Therapy in New York.

“I thought maybe I’d like to have been a doctor, but I guess I couldn’t make the academics,” he said. “That’s where I came into physical therapy. Of course, I always liked sports.”

He worked at several jobs before finding himself as a civilian athletic trainer at an Air Force hospital in Ottumwa, Iowa. He then went to Manhattan College and soon after that, the Giants.

“Manhattan decided that I could head up there and take on the Giants as well,” Johnson said. “Remember, in those days, they only worked out early in the morning. So with that, I could go there in the morning and take care of the Giants and then go back to Manhattan in the afternoon. It kind of went together like that.”

It did for six decades. During that long tenure, Johnson grew close to the most influential figures in Giants history. Last year, at age 98, he had vivid memories of all of them. One his favorite figures was Wellington Mara.

“Mr. Mara was one of those people that, I guess, you just don’t meet anymore,” Johnson said. “He would come in after a ballgame and sit there (in the locker room). It wouldn’t make any difference, he would always say, ‘You did a good job.’ Of course, if we won, we were tickled to death. But if we lost, he was still a great friend of the kids.”

Johnson was a part of four championship teams, including three Super Bowl winners.

“People say to me, ‘Who is the greatest team? Who is the greatest ballplayer?’” Johnson said. “I don’t think you can say that over 60 years, because we had a lot of great ballplayers. I think each year had certain guys that really were capable of doing big, like Sam Huff was great in his time. Lawrence (Taylor) was one of the best, there’s no doubt about that. Phil (Simms) was a great quarterback.”

Johnson enjoyed the quirky fact that the Giants had one great Ole Miss quarterback when he arrived and another in his final seasons.

“I think that’s amazing to think about,” Johnson said. “One day I said to Manning, ‘Sign this for me, will you, because here’s the guy I started with and you’re the guy I’m leaving with.’ So there you go, that’s the idea.

“Eli is a great kid. And it’s tough for him. Every time we lost, it’s always his fault. That’s not true, you know that. You’ve got to take more in, just like Conerly, you can’t blame it all on one person. It’s got to be a team loss.”

So why did he end his 60-year career after winning a Super Bowl?

“I was a little bit younger,” Johnson said. “I was 90 then.”

Following his retirement, Johnson stayed active by reading, gardening and enjoying life with family and friends.

Johnson was predeceased by his wife, Esther. He is survived by his daughters, Jeanette Johnson and Laura Watson, son-in-law Richard L. Watson and grandson Richard Norman Watson.  He was predeceased by his sister, Alice Welch. Johnson is also survived by his brother David Johnson, sister-in-law Gini Johnson and numerous nieces and nephews.
Visitation will be at Moritz Funeral Home, 348 Closter Dock Rd., Closter, N.J. on Friday from 2-4 and 7-9 p.m. The funeral service will be Saturday at 11 a.m. at the United Methodist Church at Demarest, 109 Hardenburgh Ave. Interment will be at Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, N.Y.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to The Salvation Army, Vantage Health Systems, 2 Park Ave., Dumont, N.J., or the United Methodist Church at Demarest.

Johnson's death prompted an outpouring of sadness and memories both within the organization, and among generations of players and coaches. Johnson was inducted into the Giants’ Ring of Honor last October, a milestone that elicited numerous remembrances from those who worked with him. Those tributes continued today after the announcement of Johnson’s passing:

•  Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Parcells, the Giants’ head coach from 1983-90:
“Mr. J was a wonderful man whom I was fortunate to have known - a Giant through and through.”

•  Bobby Duhon (Giants running back from 1968-72):
“He was great to all of us, stars and nobodies like me. He was always there to look after us, truly a great individual.”

•  Greg Larson (offensive lineman who played 179 games from 1961-73):
“He was my trainer and taper for 13 years. I always wanted to be the first on his table on Sunday morning. With my knee issues, I often wondered how many miles of tape he had used on my legs. When I went to the Pro Bowl (in 1968), I wish I had taken Johnny with me, because no one could tape a knee or ankle like he could. There are many memories I have of the Giants. Mr. (Wellington) Mara and Johnny are my two most special ones."

•  Bill Ard (Giants guard from 1981-88):
“I am sorry to hear of JJ's passing. What a great life! He was always so good to me, he taped my ankles for eight years!  He will be missed."

•  Mike Friede (wide receiver in 1980-81):
“Very sad news. My condolences to the Giants family. I feel honored to have been able to know and have Johnny work on me.”

•  Tucker Frederickson (the running back who was the first overall selection of the 1965 draft; he played for the Giants until 1971):
“He was the best. Might I also say, I spent more time on his table than I did on the field!!!”

These are the thoughts of other former players offered when Johnson was selected for the Ring of Honor:

•  Bart Oates (Giants center from 1985-93):
“This shows you how sharp he is. He came up and said to me (at the 25th anniversary reunion of the 2011 Super Bowl XXI champions), said, ‘Remember you used to come to me because I shaved the calluses off the balls of your feet?’ I did. And you figure this guy does thousands of people over the years, and he remembers doing my feet. I said, ‘You’re right, Johnny, because you just had that touch. You could take just what needed to be taken off, no more, no less.’ And it worked. About every three weeks, four weeks, I’d come in and he’d take the calluses off the ball of my feet.”

•  Jeff Feagles (Giants punter from 2003-09):
“Mr. J had the softest hands. It was from years and years of treating guys and all the lotion on his hands and rubbing. You shake his hands, and they were just very soft, very soft hands. He would have made a great receiver.”

•  Chris Snee (four-time Pro Bowl guard from 2004-13, who entered the Ring of Honor with Johnson):
“He has a great personality. I didn’t open up to anyone for a long time. He was one of the first to get me to crack a smile. Especially in 2004, I was a rookie, and obviously having a coach (Tom Coughlin) who was my father-in law, he was a pain in the (butt) at the time. He was very tough, and I didn’t quite feel like smiling when I went to work. John would get me to lighten up. What I also remember, he had probably the strongest hands. Even after he retired, he would come in. Whenever he would come in, if a guy needed his neck worked on, it would be John Johnson who did it. He would work on it. He had some vice grips for hands and would always get the knots out if needed. I definitely enjoyed the four years I was around him.”