Chapter Eternal: Jimmy Johnson, 49ers Hall of Fame cornerback, brother of Rafer Johnson

Jimmy Johnson ’61 (UCLA), a two-sport standout at UCLA and Hall of Fame cornerback for the 49ers, passed into the Chapter Eternal on May 8, 2023. 

At UCLA, Johnson was a world-class athlete who starred as a hurdler and broad jumper for the track and field team, and a football ironman who played wingback on offense and cornerback on defense for the Bruins.  

A first-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers in 1961, Johnson went on to play 16 years in the league. He played his entire pro career with San Francisco appearing in 213 games and piling up 47 career interceptions. He was so versatile that the 49ers used him on offense in 1962, when he made 34 receptions for 627 yards and scored four touchdowns.

Johnson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1994, and was regarded as one of the best man-to-man defenders in league history — a true “lockdown cornerback.” A five-time All-Pro, he won the George Halas Award in 1971 for courageous play.

Brothers in every sense of the word

Jimmy Johnson was the younger brother of track and field legend, Rafer Johnson, who won a gold medal in the 1960 Olympic decathlon. They were both members of the CA Upsilon chapter of Pi Lambda Phi.

Jimmy chose Rafer as his presenter for his enshrinement in the NFL Hall of Fame where Rafer said of his brother:

“Jim and I often talked about his dream as we grew up and thought about what great tomorrows would bring. It was simple: He wanted to play his game to the best of his ability.”

“Jimmy is a quiet man, but he played with determination and commitment. Most of all, Jim was and is a gentle man and a true gentleman.”

In his acceptance speech, Jimmy said, “Rafer Johnson is in fact my hero and that is an amazing thing in itself.” 

“Most young men growing up usually have a hero in another town, another city, another country, and they will write to this individual, receive an autographed photo and then tack that photo up on the wall and worship that photo, play for that photo and get inspiration from that photo. No such problem for me.”

“I had a brother living with me that I was able to talk to, ask the pertinent questions, get the pertinent feedback and get corrected in my direction, if needed. I must say I must give brother Rafer credit for everything that I have accomplished in the field of athletics.”

CA Upsilon Brothers remember Jimmy

Johnson was well-liked and highly regarded by his Pilam brothers. He is remembered fondly.

“Jimmy and I were roommates at the fraternity when I was a freshman (I think, or soph) at UCLA 1959-60, or ’60-’61. He was not only a most caring person, but gracious, giving and very funny. At least he laughed at my jokes, and I at his. He was also humble. When he won the NCAA 110 hurdles, he never said a word. I was the one bragging. And what an athlete! I watched every game watchable, cringing when he got hit in one game against Syracuse, where I thought, ‘that’s the end of his athletic career.’ Well, after his time with the 49ers, I was proven wrong. A very special  guy, a unique person. May he rest in peace. Love you, Jimmy.”

– Bob Tobias ’63

“Jimmy was a close friend even though I was older. He was fun, caring, intelligent always there to help and be a brother. A true and real asset for the fraternity and a loss to all. He will be missed.”

– Barry V. Freeman ’62

CA Upsilon alumni are honoring Jimmy’s memory with a donation to the hospice service that was so supportive to Jimmy and his family, as well as other activities.