EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Ron Johnson, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and one of the most prolific running backs in Giants history, passed away Saturday morning after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease. He was 71.
Johnson's death was announced by the athletic department at the University of Michigan, his alma mater.
"Ron was a great player for us during a difficult era," Giants president John Mara said Sunday. "He was smart, tough and was always a class act."
"Ron Johnson was the first mentor I had on the New York Giants," said former defensive end George Martin, a member ofthe franchise's Ring of Honor who was a rookie in 1975,Johnson's final season. "He led by example. He didn't do it to impress any of us. That was just his character. He was a leader by nature. I looked up to Ron and I tried to emulate every fiber of his being because to me he not only walked the walk, but talked the talk."
Johnson joined the Giants on Jan. 26, 1970 in one of the most famous trades in franchise history, one that sent speedy wide receiver Homer Jones to Cleveland for Johnson, defensive tackle Jim Kanicki and linebacker Wayne Meylan.
Jones caught just 10 passes in his only season with the Browns. But Johnson became one of the NFL's most productive backs. He was a Pro Bowler in both 1970 and 1972 when he rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each (14-game) season, including a career-high 1,182 yards in '72.
In his six years with the Giants, Johnson rushed for 3,836 yards, which places him seventh on the franchise's career list, between Ahmad Bradshaw and Hall of Famer Frank Gifford. With 1,066 rushing attempts, he is one of six players with more than 1,000 carries in a Giants uniform. Johnson's 33 rushing touchdowns are the eighth-highest total in franchise history, one less than Gifford and two less than Ottis Anderson.
Johnson's Giants resume also included 189 receptions for 1,813 yards and 15 touchdowns.
"When you looked at Ron, he looked like an ordinary guy," Martin said. "But he had something inside of him - when he ran with the ball, he looked so unorthodox. He was so determined. When he put on a uniform, he was like Superman. He just transformed himself. I looked at him and I tried to emulate everything Ron Johnson did."
Johnson entered the NFL as Cleveland's first-round draft choice – 20th overall – in 1969. In his one season with the Browns, he rushed for 472 yards and seven touchdowns, and caught 24 passes for 163 yards.
Johnson played at Michigan from 1966-68. He finished his career as the school's leading rusher and is currently 16th on the school's all-time list with 2,440 yards. Johnson ran for more than 100 yards in 10 games.
He still holds the Wolverines' single-game records with 347 rushing yards and five touchdowns against Wisconsin on Nov. 16, 1968. That season, Johnson was Michigan's first African-American football captain and was named an All-America after rushing for 1,391 yards and 19 touchdowns, the latter figure still the school's single-season record. Johnson was selected the Chicago Tribune Silver Football Award winner, Michigan's most valuable player. He finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy balloting and was named the Big Ten Medal of Honor recipient as Michigan's top student-athlete.
Johnson earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from Michigan in 1969.
Johnson was born on Oct. 17, 1947 in Detroit. His older brother, Alex, was a major league baseball player who won the American League batting title in 1970.
Following his football career, Johnson founded Rackson, a food service company based in New Jersey. The company eventually owned numerous Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises in Michigan and New Jersey.
In 1989, Johnson, along with Giants greats Harry Carson and George Martin, founded Minority Athletes Networking (MAN)because they saw the need for positive role models working in the lives of young people following the Central Park jogger incident.
"It was Ron's ideas that helped craft the foundation for MAN," Martin said. "We were glad to be a part of that impactful organization and we had no idea it would last 30-plus years. Ron actually came up with the name Minority Athletes Networking. He was actually the drive for many, many years.
"When you looked at the residue Ron left in his life, it was always positive, always affirming, and it was always impactful. Every time I look in the mirror, I see some aspect of Ron that has had a profound impact on me, because he was a guy that wasn't bound by being an athlete, he wasn't bound by his own color. He had no limitations as a man, period. And that's the way he conducted his life. I don't think people will ever accurately measure the impact of Ron Johnson had on society as a whole, and that includes Michigan, as well."
Johnson was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2008.
He is survived by his wife, Karen, a son, Christopher, and a daughter, Allison.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Photos of former Giants Running Back Ron Johnson who passed away this week