Joe "The Jet" Perry, the Hall of Fame running back who broke barriers as the first African-American to play for the 49ers, died at 84 of complications from dementia on Monday in Chandler, Ariz.
Perry, possibly the fastest fullback ever, was the first NFL running back to gain 1,000 yards rushing in consecutive seasons. He did it in 1953 and '54, when the season consisted of just 12 games.
Perry joined the 49ers in 1948, the team's third season in the All-America Football Conference. The 49ers didn't join the NFL until 1950. But as their first black, Perry endured considerable racial abuse.
"It was no picnic," he recalled in a 1999 interview. "I can never remember a season where I didn't hear a racial slur."
Perry played 16 pro seasons (1948-63), 14 with the 49ers and two with the Baltimore Colts. He retired with 9,723 yards and was the NFL's all-time leading rusher before being overtaken by Jim Brown.
But Perry is best remembered for being a member of the 49ers' Million Dollar Backfield of the 1950s. His three backfield colleagues -- Y.A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny, John Henry Johnson -- also are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"We're the only complete backfield in the Hall of Fame," Perry said. "There never will be another backfield like us."
Perry was a world-class sprinter before joining the 49ers. Mel Patton held the world 100-yard dash record of 9.3 seconds in the 1940s. But in the Fresno Relays, he hit the tape in 9.4,
He received the nickname "The Jet" during a 49ers practice when quarterback Frankie Albert turned to hand the ball off to Perry, who had already run past.
"Perry is just like one of those big jets that come by here," said Albert.
"He was the fastest player off the ball in the history of the world," Tittle told the San Francisco Chronicle. "You'd take the ball from center and turn, and he was already gone through the hole."
Fullback is perceived as a position for bruisers, not speedsters. Though Perry was 6-foot, 207 pounds, he had a powerful torso with huge legs, and he blocked with a fury.
"Joe was lightning out of his stance," Bob St. Clair, the 49ers' Hall of Fame offensive tackle, once said. "People don't realize how fast he was or how tough he was. When he'd get going, he didn't care who was in his way. He'd hit whoever was in front of him."
Former 49ers receiver R.C. Owens called Perry "the toughest running back you'd ever want to see. He didn't back off from anybody."
But Fletcher Joe Perry's toughness wasn't ever challenged more than while integrating the 49ers in '48. He had played at Compton Junior College, then joined the Navy during World War II. He was signed by the 49ers as a free agent after playing football for St. Mary's Pre-Flight in Moraga.
Though 49ers teammates generally accepted him as their first black teammate -- Jackie Robinson had integrated Major League Baseball the previous year -- Perry found opponents more hostile.
"Someone would say, 'Nigger, don't come through here again,' " he said. "And I'd say, 'I'm coming through again, and you better bring your family.' Look at my nose: Ed Sprinkle of the Chicago Bears got me. But my M.O. is, 'I won't take no spit.' If someone speared me, I'd find some way to jump into his face, even with my two feet. I could do that, and I have done that."
At that time, most NFL players didn't wear face masks. So busted noses and jaws occurred.
Perry also encountered difficulty off the field in his early years with the 49ers -- usually at restaurants and hotels.
"At the Lord Baltimore," he said, "there were black people working in the dining room, but black people couldn't eat there. If they were like me, they had fought for their country. So I started turning over tables until I got my way."
In 1955, after Perry's back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, the 49ers honored him like no other player in their history, white or black. He was showered with innumerable gifts at Kezar Stadium, including a new car, furniture, a television set, and kitchen appliances.
"I was a favorite son," he said. "I just thought Joe Perry Day was one of the great honors in my life."
Another great honor came in 1969 when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
"Joe was the kind of guy you'd love to play your whole career with," said the Baltimore Colts legendary quarterback, Johnny Unitas, Perry's teammate for two years. "He was older when we got him, but he did well for us. He was amazing on the screen pass, like McElhenny. And Joe clawed and scratched for every yard."
Perry averaged 4.9 yards per carry for his career and is one of four NFL backs to have averaged 6 yards per carry in a season -- 6.1 in 1954. The others are Brown (6.4 in 1963), Barry Sanders (6.1 in 1997) and O.J. Simpson (6.0 in 1973).
Perry remains the 49ers' all-time leader in rushing yards (7,344) and rushing touchdowns (50). His jersey No. 34 was retired in 1971.
Born in Stephens, Ark., on Jan. 22, 1927, Perry is survived by his wife, Donna, and five children.