When posters celebrating sports heroes became popular in the late sixty’s, the Football Giants were excluded. Y.A. Tittle, Frank Gifford and Sam Huff had retired. The Giants were a bad team and even their best player, quarterback Fran Tarkenton, had limited appeal. If you wanted a poster of a star player from New York, your choice was Joe Namath.
That changed in 1970 when the Giants traded their mercurial receiver, Homer Jones, to the Cleveland Browns for Ron Johnson. Johnson, an All-American half-back at Michigan, was their Number One pick in that 1969 draft. For reasons unknown, The Browns made the deal and the Giants prospered. With Ron Johnson running and catching the football, the Giants achieved their first winning record in seven seasons and came within one victory of making the playoffs.
Ron Johnson ran for 1,027 yards as Big Blue finished 9-5 and he was All-Pro first team. More important, he ignited a fire that made lesser players shine. This was my take on two home games I wrote about in my book: “17 Lost Seasons.”
(The Giants had won four games in a row when they met the Cowboys on November 8, 1970.) The Giants were becoming fun to watch and our joy continued Sunday as they beat the Cowboys 23-20. Bob Hayes did manage to catch two touchdown passes of 38-and 80-yards helping Dallas reach a 17-6 lead in the second quarter. But Ron Johnson ran 23 times for 136 yards and caught four passes for 59 yards.
Bill Christman and I both sat in Section 12, but I sat in Box 242C and he was in 242F. Each box had four seats. Two NYPD cops sat behind Bill, but whoever had the fourth seat sold it to different people for each game. Bill told me after the game, “An older, well-dressed man sat next to me. He was a Cowboys fan, but after we cut their lead to 20-16 in the third quarter, he looked at me and said, ‘You got this game won.’ Then he got up and left.”
Next Sunday’s game was against the Redskins. Bill and I car-pooled from Middle Village across the 59th Street Bridge, parked on Lexington Avenue outside of Bloomingdales. Parking was free, and Bloomindales was closed on Sundays back then. We caught the IRT Jerome Avenue express at Fifty-Ninth Street station for the five-stop ride to 161st Street and Yankee Stadium.
This game has remained fresh in my mind, especially the winning touchdown that Ron Johnson scored with one-minute left to play that made the final Giants 35, Redskins 33.
Sonny Jurgensen’s passing and Charlie Harraway’s rushing had boosted the Redskins to a 33-14 lead as the last period began. The Giants started the fourth quarter with the ball on their own 29-yard line and drove it the length of the field in 13 plays in five minutes. The drive culminated in a 5-yard Johnson TD run. Fran Tarkentton’s passes accounted for 60 of the 71 yards.
Leonard Koppett reported:
It took two passes to (Tucker) Fredrickson to make it a 33-28 less than 2-minutes later, with Tucker running and dodging the last 30 yards of a 43-yard play for the touchdown. And there was 4:06 to play when the Giants put the ball in play after Bobby Duhon had run back a punt from the Giants 6 to the 27. On third down, a pass to Bob Tucker for 20 yards reached the Washington 45. One to Fredrickson reached the 32 with 2 minutes left. With fourth and 6, Tarkenton hit Johnson for a first down on the 18. He hit McNeil on the 9 and Johnson went unopposed round the left side for the rest.”
Our view of Johnson’s run was superb. The Giants were driving toward the closed end of Yankee Stadium. He took the handoff and headed away from us. As he turned the corner toward the goal line, it was obvious that he wasn’t going to be touched. He only had to go 9 yards, but he could have gone 99.
“It makes you feel proud.” Coach Alex Webster said, “It is the way they wouldn’t give up. This is what you try to get from them, to make them believe in themselves.”
Johnson ran for 106 yards and had 49 through the air. Fredrickson had 33 and 165 respectively. A happy Fredrickson welcomed the press to his locker, “It’s a pleasure to talk to you gentlemen even though I haven’t spoken with you for quite a while. Just don’t build it up too much, though. Next week, I may be a ghost again.”
Ron Johnson spent six seasons with the Giants including 1972 when he set a new team rushing record of 1,182 yards. To my delight, his stardom produced a poster of Number 30 wearing a white away uniform with red and blue trim with the lower case “NY” on his helmet. This heroic photograph captured Ron carrying the football in his right arm at a full gallop, looking powerful, bound and determined.
The New York Times carried Ron Johnson’s obituary on November 10th. Johnson succumbed to complications from Alzheimer’s, no doubt due, at least in part, to his football career. He was 71.
That poster is framed and hangs proudly in my personal Giants gallery. Thank you, Mr. Johnson for the light you shined on us during that dismal era
R.I.P. Ron Johnson