Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Perry, the first Black player in San Francisco 49ers history, died in Arizona on April 25 of complications from dementia. He passed away at age 84.
Perry played 16 seasons in the NFL, 14 of them served with the 49ers from 1948-1960 and ’62-’63. He was known mostly for his running speed and was nicknamed “The Jet,” although he was officially classified as a blocking fullback. Perry became the first player in league history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons in 1953-’54, and set the NFL all-time rushing record with more than 9,000 rushing yards, which Hall of Famer Jim Brown later broke in ’63. The three-time pro bowler, who still owns the 49ers all-time rushing record with 7, 344 yards, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1969.
The Arkansas-born, Los Angeles-raised native was never paid the mega-million dollar salary most star football players receive today; his highest awarded deal came in 1961 at $37,500, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. But he did take the same bruising hits that are still featured in today’s league. According to reports, Perry claimed that the concussions he suffered during his career were the cause to his dementia.
“I was deeply saddened to hear about Joe Perry’s passing earlier today,” 49ers owner John York said in a statement released to the media. “He was a dear friend to my family and me and the entire 49ers organization. He was also an intricate part of our rich history. A truley remarkable man both on and off the field, Joe had a lasting impact on the game of football and was an inspirational man to the generations of players that followed him. Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to his wife, Donna, and his entire family. He will be sadly missed by all of us.”
Before the NFL, Perry served in World War II with the U.S. Navy. He attended Compton Junior College after his military tour, joining the school football team where he would link up with fellow Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Hugh McElhenny. They won two straight National Junior College football championships together in 1946-’47 before being recruited into the NFL.
Perry is also famous for being a member of the “Million Dollar Backfield,” which featured himself, McElhenny and Pro Football Hall of Famer John Henry Johnson, three all-time great running backs in the same backfield.