Jimmy Johnson Page
there is a Forest Gump of Northwestern Football, Jimmy Johnson is
certainly he. Few, if any, other Wildcats had more brushes with,
connections to, landmark moments in the history of NU football-- in
the history of American Football in general. And yet, only a
of 'Cat fans knows of his existence.
James E. Johnson's mother, Adis, was a full-blooded Stockbridge Indian.
descendants of the Mohicans and continue to live on a reservation
of Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Stockbridge reservation existed when
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
continued at Carlisle and began its college curriculum.
a new football coach was starting his tenure at Carlisle in 1899: Glen
Warner. By the time he left Carlisle, Pop Warner had transformed
Carlisle Indian football team into a national powerhouse and
story, and he had re-written the rules of American Football.
While preparing for his
first season at Carlisle, Warner selected
for the Indian team, along with Frank Hudson. Hudson would become
as one of the best quarterbacks and drop-kickers of his day.
certainly recognized the political climate of the time and the cultural
of his athletes, who were all Native Americans and mostly from
When preparing them for the season, he emphasized to his team the
that the game of football afforded them: the chance to beat white men
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
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
By the end of autumn, 1899, Johnson and the rest of the Indian team had
the nation. The Indian Helper, a weekly newsletter
published by Carlisle,
included the following passage concerning Johnson in its December 22,
"A letter from James Johnson of
football team to his teacher, Miss Wood, tells of his having passed Des
Iowa, and all were well. They are expecting a happy time.
met Dr. Carlos Montezuma, Chicago's Apache physician, who is with them
their journey. Johnson saw his sisters in Chicago."
Over the course of the next two seasons Johnson became Pop Warner's
succeeding Hudson at quarterback and assuming the team's Captain
During the 1903 season Johnson led Carlisle to even greater
prominence, culminating in a game against Harvard, the dominant power
While the Carlisle-Harvard game was a close fought, spectacular game,
it would become the stuff of legend because of one single play, a
that is among the most famous in sports. Prior to the game, Pop
sewed an elastic strap inside the jersey of Charles Dillon.
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.
then broke the huddle, with all eleven players clutching their chests
running madly. The Harvard players, bewildered, allowed Dillon to
over 80 yards untouched for a touchdown. Although Harvard won the
by one point, Carlisle's trick play, and Jimmy Johnson's quick work
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
of Carlisle's nine-win season. Another successful team causing a
at this time was Northwestern. By late November NU had won ten
and was in a controversial tie for the Western Championship.
the season, no one had expected the Purple even to be good; now the
were abuzz with NU, and the team's games were getting national
for the first time ever. The NU - Chicago game, a 0-0 tie, was
of the biggest games of the year. In fact, Northwestern football
getting so much attention in 1903 that the team decided to move their
home games away from small Sheppard Field (NU's home campus
field) to the White Sox playing grounds at 39th Street, in order to
the enormous crowds. NU concluded its '03 title season on
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
in conference standings, after all-- the match was billed as the
game in the country, eclipsing even Thanksgiving games being held in
East. Prior to the game, NU's excellent coach, Wally McCornack,
on the match and on the trick plays Carlisle had unleashed on Harvard:
the Indians can work tricks, so can the White Man!" Indeed, NU
the Purple at the time had a playbook with 128 plays, a ridiculous
of plays for that era.
The NU - Carlisle match, unfortunately, was no contest. NU had
riddled with injuries and severely weakened by the hard-fought tie with
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,
front of 11,000 Purple fans, Jimmy Johnson played his last game for Pop
and almost single-handedly beat Northwestern 28-0. Johnson
missed four drop kicks during the game, but made up for them with a
of dazzling runs. The Tribune reporter at the game marveled,
Johnson is always a wonder!" After the game, Johnson said, "I am
we won, as we came a long distance to do it, and I consider that we did
well. Northwestern was not as hard a proposition as I expected.
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.
so both NU and Carlisle ended the 1903 season with ten wins apiece.
earned a place on Walter Camp's All America roster, and then went on to
another strange piece of NU history by being the only player ever to
against the Purple in a game, only to play for NU in his
next football game. After graduating from Carlisle in 1904,
enrolled in NU's Dental School. Although the Dental School still
a football team of its own, Johnson's renown and skill were too good
the Varsity team to pass up (until 1906, it was perfectly legal for a
to use graduate students, even if the student had played four years
Johnson quickly became captain of the NU squad (an honor he shared with
Allen; eventually only Allen's name would be left on the captain
and began helping McCornack prepare his team. The Tribune
just prior to the start of the season, "The most pleasing thing to the
rooters was the appearance [at practice] of the two Carlisle Indians,
who was placed on Walter Camp's All America team, and Williams. . . .
demonstrated that he is all that has been claimed. The way he
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.
the four games NU lost, Johnson did not play in two, due to injuries.
the end of 1904 Johnson scored the winning touchdown against Illinois
Sheppard Field, the last score ever to be made on that field. He
was there to inaugurate the new Northwestern Field in 1905, rampaging
four preseason wins on the field before the dedication game with
During the Beloit game Johnson tore through for 200 yards, a
amount for the time. Johnson's performance was a relief to
since Jimmy had missed the team training for the 1905 season, on a
Johnson continued to score at will during 1905, leading NU to wins
Marquette, Ohio Northern and Michigan State. Even with the
record, NU was woefully short of depth and Johnson, now 26 years old,
been banged up terribly over the last two years. The Purple were
underdogs for their final game of the year (and their only road game),
national powerhouse Minnesota. Sadly, Johnson went down with a
injury just ten minutes into the game, and NU was doomed without its
quarterback. When Johnson and NU left the field that day, he took
place on yet another footnote in NU history: the NU-Minnesota game was
last NU was to play for three years. In the spring of 1906 NU's
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
having earned his dental degree from Northwestern, Jimmy Johnson and
family left Evanston. He fought in World War I, eventually
settled in San Juan, Puerto
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
All-American, member of the College Football Hall of
a footnote on many pages of football history.