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*Joe Perry was born on was born on this date in 1927. He was a Black professional football player.
Fletcher Joe Perry was born in Stephens, Ark., but moved with his family to Los Angeles as a youngster. His heroes were U.C.L.A.’s black football players Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, and Jackie Robinson, who would later break baseball’s color barrier. Perry played football at Compton Junior College in the Los Angeles area in 1944 and then joined the Navy. He was spotted by the 49ers while playing football for the Alameda Naval Air Station in the Bay Area.
Perry joined the 49ers in 1948, their third season in the All-America Football Conference, becoming the team’s first Black player. Washington and Strode had been signed by the N.F.L.’s Los Angeles Rams two years earlier. The Cleveland Browns, who won the All-America Football Conference championship in its four seasons, featured the Blacks Marion Motley and Bill Willis. But there were few other Blacks in pro football in the 1940s. Perry’s teammates, including those from the South, provided strong support in his early days as a pro. “You had two or three bigots on every team, so you heard stuff just about every game,” he recalled in 2006. “I could take anything they had to say, but if they had ever put their hands on me like they wanted to fight, that would have been something else.”
Perry averaged 7.3 yards a carry and ran for 10 touchdowns as a rookie. In one game, as Perry remembered it, he twice had burst past Albert as he tried to hand him the football for a play up the middle. “He said, ‘Joe, you’re like a jet coming through there.’ From then on, for as long as I played, I was known as the Jet.” The 49ers joined the N.F.L. in 1950, and Perry soon made his mark facing pro football’s best-known players. He gained 1,018 yards in 1953 and 1,049 yards in 1954 (averaging 6.1 yards a carry) in 12-game seasons. But the 49ers never made it to the N.F.L. championship game in his years with them, coming closest in 1957 when the Detroit Lions, in a playoff for the Western Conference title, beat them. Perry was traded to the Baltimore Colts before the 1961 season for two years and then returned to the 49ers for his final season.
He gained 9,723 rushing yards in 16 pro seasons, 1,345 yards in the All-America Football Conference, and 8,378 yards in the N.F.L., having become the league’s career rushing leader until Cleveland’s Jim Brown surpassed him in October 1963. Perry had 71 rushing touchdowns and 12 as a receiver. In the mid-1950s, Perry starred in what became known as the Million Dollar Backfield, teaming with Y. A. Tittle at quarterback and Hugh McElhenny and John Henry Johnson at halfback, all of them future Hall of Famers. Perry was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 1969. Perry was later a scout and assistant for the 49ers and a sales executive for Gallo wines, and he owned a bowling-supplies store.
He was small for a fullback at 6 feet and 200 pounds, but he drew on the speed that brought him the nickname the Jet and a knack for finding holes in the defensive line. “If you saw a hole, you take it,” Perry told The Sacramento Bee in 2006, describing his running style. “If you didn’t, you kept moving until you did. You run with instinct.”
Perry, a Hall of Fame fullback who was one of the first Black players in modern professional football, died in April 2011 in Tempe, Ariz. He was 84. The cause was complications of dementia, which he had had for about ten years, said his wife, Donna. She said that Perry’s physician believed football concussions caused dementia. Perry, who lived in Chandler, Ariz., had been receiving financial assistance under a National Football League benefits plan aiding former players with dementia, his wife said. His brain will be donated to a Boston University facility researching that issue.