Johnny Johnson began his Northwestern football career in the last year of the 19th century. He ended his career as Northwestern's first All-American. Severn years after his college career had ended, Johnson coached the 1908 team to a 2-2 finish.
Johnson endured a mediocre 1899 season, when the Wildcats went 6-6, 2-2 in the conference. He shined at times when the team didn't, as evident by the Chicago Tribune article following a 76-0 loss at the hands of the University of Chicago: "[The quarterback] scolded, begged, and exhorted his men, but in vain, for only Johnson and Elliot seemed to be able to help the crippled, nervy quarterback to stop the rushes of the Maroon players."
The following season, Johnson's Cats improved to 6-2-3, with a 2-1-2. This season had the Wildcats beating Chicago 5-0, for the first victory over their nearby rivals since 1896. The hard-fought battle had none of Northwestern's 11 starters taking a seat on the bench throughout the entire game. The Daily Northwestern had this to say about the game: "The boys ran off the field with joyous hearts, forgetting their bruised bodies ... They are an honor to the University and we should tip our hats to each and every one of the 11 brave men who showed Saturday that Northwestern positively refuses to take a back seat in athletics."
Northwestern and Johnson peaked in the 1901 season, posting an 8-2-1 record. Johnson ran 55 yards for a touchdown in a 17-11 victory over Illinois. In another close game against Chicago, Johnson single-handedly proved to be the difference in a one-point win. Not only did he score the game's lone touchdown on a 50-yard scamper, but he also booted the extra point for the margin of victory.
It was in the Chicago game that Johnson originated the "huddle" that is omnipresent in football today. Hit hard on the side of his head on a punt return, Johnson was not able to remember signals or numbers. However, he summoned the men around him and told them which specific play to run. By halftime, Johnson had fully regained his thinking, but he had no recollection of the first half. The next day in the papers, reporters described the first-half huddle as "peculiar formation[s]".
For his spectacular play in the 1901 season, Johnson was placed on the All-Western team and, without his knowledge, was named an All-American by Collier's magazine. In a letter to Collier's years later, Johnson, inquiring as to whether he had made the 1901 All-American team, wrote that he "never saved a clipping of any kind. Football to me was just fun."