50 years ago today: Ron Johnson Day
November 16, 1968. Michigan Stadium.
A bitterly cold, rainy and muddy day for the final game on a grass field that had been there since the stadium’s inception in 1927.
The #4 ranked Michigan Wolverines (7-1, 5-0) took on the struggling Wisconsin Badgers (0-8, 0-5).
Not many people saw this game with a listed attendance of just 51,117 (just a 51% full stadium) but the ones who were lucky enough to be there saw history that still stands to this day. Keep in mind, Michigan Stadium wasn’t full for every game until 1975. Also keep in mind that 1968 and 1964 were outlier seasons in a dark age for Michigan Football from 1951-1968.
Notice the umbrellas and empty seats? (Bentley Historical Library)
Michigan’s senior captain–Michigan’s first-ever black captain–Ron Johnson rushed for 347 yards in just a little over 3 quarters. Johnson scored on touchdown runs of 35, 67, 1, 60, and 49 yards, accounting for almost of all of Michigan’s 34 points. Johnson had 347 of his team’s 363 rushing yards on the day and averaged 11.2 yards per carry. Michigan easily defeated the Badgers, 34-9.
The greatest individual performance by a running back in Michigan Football history. 50 years later, Ron Johnson’s mind-blowing 347 yards and 5 touchdowns are still Michigan single game records. In fact, only one player has even come close since that cold day in 1968. Tshimanga Biakabutuka’s 313 yards vs #2 Ohio State in 1995’s 31-23 upset victory is the only other instance of a Wolverine rushing for over 300 yards.
The 5 TD day helped boost Ron Johnson’s 1968 total to 19 TDs, also still a Michigan single season record.
Johnson was awarded the Chicago Tribune Silver Football in 1968 as the MVP of the Big Ten Conference, named First Team All-Big Ten and First Team All-American by the FWAA and Football News. Johnson also received the 1968-69 Big Ten Medal of honor that is “to be awarded annually at each institution, to a student in the graduating class that has demonstrated proficiency in scholarship and athletics.”
After Ron Johnson’s graduation from Michigan, he went on to be drafted in the 1st round at 20th overall by the Cleveland Browns. Johnson would later become a 2-time Pro Bowler, named All-Pro in 1970 and rushed for 4,308 yards with 40 touchdowns in his time with the Browns and the New York Giants, the latter he spent most of his career with.
After Johnson’s retirement, he started the food service company Rackson which went on to own 13 KFC franchises throughout Michigan and New Jersey. Ron Johnson was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1992.
Ron Johnson sadly passed away on the morning of November 10 after a near-decade long fight with Alzheimer’s. He will go down as one of the greatest players to ever wear the Winged helmet.
Ron Johnson was a shining star during a dark period of football at Michigan. And 50 years later his amazing afternoon is still a statistical wonder that has yet to be surpassed. A legend who has stood the test of time.
Rest in peace, Ron.
(Bentley Historical Library)