Jimmy Johnson Page


If there is a Forest Gump of Northwestern Football, Jimmy Johnson is almost certainly he.  Few, if any, other Wildcats had more brushes with, and connections to, landmark moments in the history of NU football-- in fact, the history of American Football in general.  And yet, only a handful of 'Cat fans knows of his existence.

James E. Johnson's mother, Adis, was a full-blooded Stockbridge Indian. The Stockbridge are descendants of the Mohicans and continue to live on a reservation northwest of Green Bay, Wisconsin.  The Stockbridge reservation existed when Jimmy Johnson was born, on June 6, 1879; however, the Johnson family lived several hundred miles south, in Edgerton, Wisconsin.

As a child Johnson was sent to the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, PA.  There he completed his secondary education and-- in the fall of 1899-- continued at Carlisle and began its college curriculum.  Coincidentally, a new football coach was starting his tenure at Carlisle in 1899: Glen "Pop" Warner.  By the time he left Carlisle, Pop Warner had transformed the Carlisle Indian football team into a national powerhouse and international story, and he had re-written the rules of American Football.

While preparing for his first season at Carlisle, Warner selected Johnson for the Indian team, along with Frank Hudson.  Hudson would become famous as one of the best quarterbacks and drop-kickers of his day.  Warner certainly recognized the political climate of the time and the cultural circumstances of his athletes, who were all Native Americans and mostly from reservations.  When preparing them for the season, he emphasized to his team the opportunity that the game of football afforded them: the chance to beat white men on their own field, at their own game.

Johnson poses, wearing NU purple. Photo
courtesy of Chicago Hist. Soc.

All of Carlisle's games were played on the road: the team became a traveling show of sorts.  
Warner's scarlet and gold-clad players were a journalist sensation, with heavy newspaper coverage everywhere.  The team began playing over fourteen games a season, touring campuses all over the country, taking on the biggest teams of the day.

By the end of autumn, 1899, Johnson and the rest of the Indian team had played throughout the nation.  The Indian Helper, a weekly newsletter published by Carlisle, included the following passage concerning Johnson in its December 22, 1899 edition:

"A letter from James Johnson of the football team to his teacher, Miss Wood, tells of his having passed Des Moines, Iowa, and all were well.  They are expecting a happy time.  They met Dr. Carlos Montezuma, Chicago's Apache physician, who is with them on their journey.  Johnson saw his sisters in Chicago."

Over the course of the next two seasons Johnson became Pop Warner's star, succeeding Hudson at quarterback and assuming the team's Captain position.  During the 1903 season Johnson led Carlisle to even greater national prominence, culminating in a game against Harvard, the dominant power of the day.

While the Carlisle-Harvard game was a close fought, spectacular game, it would become the stuff of legend because of one single play, a moment that is among the most famous in sports.  Prior to the game, Pop Warner sewed an elastic strap inside the jersey of  Charles Dillon.  When Harvard kicked off to start the second half, Jimmy Johnson caught the ball.  Rather than block for Johnson, the team immediately huddled around him, as he took the ball and stuffed it inside the back of Dillon's rigged jersey, just above the elastic.  The team then broke the huddle, with all eleven players clutching their chests and running madly.  The Harvard players, bewildered, allowed Dillon to run over 80 yards untouched for a touchdown.  Although Harvard won the game by one point, Carlisle's trick play, and Jimmy Johnson's quick work with the ball, caused a sensation.  The play has since been reproduced everywhere, even in the movie M*A*S*H.

Word of the "Hidden Ball" play spread across the country, as did the news of Carlisle's nine-win season.  Another successful team causing a furor at this time was Northwestern.  By late November NU had won ten games and was in a controversial tie for the Western Championship.  Before the season, no one had expected the Purple even to be good; now the media were abuzz with NU, and the team's games were getting national attention for the first time ever.  The NU - Chicago game, a 0-0 tie, was one of the biggest games of the year.  In fact, Northwestern football was getting so much attention in 1903 that the team decided to move their last three home games away from small Sheppard Field (NU's home campus field) to the White Sox playing grounds at 39th Street, in order to accommodate the enormous crowds.   NU concluded its '03 title season on Thanksgiving Day by taking on Jimmy Johnson and Carlisle at Sox Park.

Even though NU had little to gain or lose from the game-- it would not factor in conference standings, after all-- the match was billed as the biggest game in the country, eclipsing even Thanksgiving games being held in the East.  Prior to the game, NU's excellent coach, Wally McCornack, commented on the match and on the trick plays Carlisle had unleashed on Harvard: "If the Indians can work tricks, so can the White Man!"  Indeed, NU could: the Purple at the time had a playbook with 128 plays, a ridiculous amount of plays for that era.

The NU - Carlisle match, unfortunately, was no contest.  NU had been riddled with injuries and severely weakened by the hard-fought tie with Chicago and an equally grueling tie with Notre Dame.  Johnson and Carlisle were at the top of their form.  In a driving blizzard at Sox Park, in front of 11,000 Purple fans, Jimmy Johnson played his last game for Pop Warner and almost single-handedly beat Northwestern 28-0.  Johnson actually missed four drop kicks during the game, but made up for them with a series of dazzling runs.  The Tribune reporter at the game marveled, "Captain Johnson is always a wonder!"  After the game, Johnson said, "I am glad we won, as we came a long distance to do it, and I consider that we did pretty well.  Northwestern was not as hard a proposition as I expected.  We would have made a larger score if the field had not been so slippery."

Carlisle and NU battle in the snow at Sox Park.  Photo processed from
an image originally in the Chicago Tribune.

And so both NU and Carlisle ended the 1903 season with ten wins apiece.  Johnson earned a place on Walter Camp's All America roster, and then went on to make another strange piece of NU history by being the only player ever to play against the Purple in a game, only to play for NU in his very next football game.  After graduating from Carlisle in 1904, Johnson enrolled in NU's Dental School.  Although the Dental School still had a football team of its own, Johnson's renown and skill were too good for the Varsity team to pass up (until 1906, it was perfectly legal for a school to use graduate students, even if the student had played four years somewhere else).

Johnson quickly became captain of the NU squad (an honor he shared with Harry Allen; eventually only Allen's name would be left on the captain roster) and began helping McCornack prepare his team.  The Tribune reported just prior to the start of the season, "The most pleasing thing to the NU rooters was the appearance [at practice] of the two Carlisle Indians, Johnson, who was placed on Walter Camp's All America team, and Williams. . . . Johnson demonstrated that he is all that has been claimed.  The way he handled punts on the dead run was most impressive."

Photo courtesy of Chicago Hist. Soc.

During the next two seasons, NU played 21 games and won 16, tying one.  Of the four games NU lost, Johnson did not play in two, due to injuries.  At the end of 1904 Johnson scored the winning touchdown against Illinois at Sheppard Field, the last score ever to be made on that field.  He also was there to inaugurate the new Northwestern Field in 1905, rampaging through four preseason wins on the field before the dedication game with Beloit.  During the Beloit game Johnson tore through for 200 yards, a tremendous amount for the time.  Johnson's performance was a relief to McCornack, since Jimmy had missed the team training for the 1905 season, on a wedding tour.

Johnson continued to score at will during 1905, leading NU to wins against Marquette, Ohio Northern and Michigan State.  Even with the winning record, NU was woefully short of depth and Johnson, now 26 years old, had been banged up terribly over the last two years.  The Purple were heavy underdogs for their final game of the year (and their only road game), against national powerhouse Minnesota.  Sadly, Johnson went down with a career-ending injury just ten minutes into the game, and NU was doomed without its star quarterback.  When Johnson and NU left the field that day, he took his place on yet another footnote in NU history: the NU-Minnesota game was the last NU was to play for three years.  In the spring of 1906 NU's faculty voted to terminate the varsity team, ending 24 years of NU football.

Having played in his team's final game, with his football career over and having earned his dental degree from Northwestern, Jimmy Johnson and his family left Evanston.  He fought in World War I, eventually settled in San Juan, Puerto Rico and practiced dentistry there.  Johnson died at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota in January 1942.  He is buried in Chicago.

Many thanks to the College Football Hall of Fame and to Clarence Cameron for their assistance in the research for this article.

All-American, member of the College Football Hall of Fame,
a footnote on many pages of football history.