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Joe 'The Jet' Perry: Fast and powerful full-back who became one of American football's first black stars

Michael Carlson
Saturday 30 April 2011 00:00 BST
(Getty Images)

Joe "The Jet" Perry was one of the greatest runners of post-war American football, and one of its first black stars.

British fans drawn togridiron by the glamour of the Joe Montana-led San Francisco 49ers would not realise that the team boasted an equally exciting attack 30years earlier, creating the so-called "million-dollar backfield" of which Perry was the key part, and which remains the only backfield with all four of its members elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Perry was a world-class sprinter, but powerful enough to play full-back on the gridiron despite weighing just over 200lb, light for the blocking duties the position required. This strength enabled him to keep playing for 16 years, the longest career of any running back in NFL history. He retired as the league's all-time leading rusher, a record next surpassed by the future actor Jim Brown. He was the first man to run for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons, and one of the few to average over six yards per carry doing it. And his career achievements in the NFL don't include the two years he played in the rival All-America Football Conference.

During the Depression, Perry's parents left dust-bowl-ravaged Stephens, Arkansas, where he was born in 1927, and settled in Los Angeles. As a four-sport star in high school Perry wanted to attend UCLA, home to star black athletes like Jackie Robinson, who integrated Major League baseball in 1947, Woody Strode, another future actor, and Kenny Washington. But when UCLA rejected him he went to Compton Junior College and starred in their 1944 football team. UCLA then recruited him, but telling them it was the "last place on earth" he would go, he joined the Navy.

Playing football for a naval air base outside San Francisco, he was spotted by scouts, but turned down the NFL's Los Angeles Rams and after his discharge signed with the 49ers, in the rival AAFC, because he trusted their owner Tony Morabito. He got his nickname in his first practices, when he exploded out of his stance so quickly the star quarterback Frankie Albert couldn't hand him the ball in time. "You're like a jet, Joe," Albert said, and he became "Joe the Jet".

Paul Brown's Cleveland Browns had integrated the AAFC from its start in 1946, but as the Niners' first black player Perry still encountered racial abuse on the field and discrimination off it.

"It was no picnic," he said. "I can't remember a season when I didn't hear a racial slur." On the field he dealt with it directly. "Someone would say, 'Nigger, don't come through here again, and I'd say, 'I'm coming through again, and you better bring your family.'"

Off the field he wasn't much different. While playing for the Baltimore Colts, Perry was refused service in the dining room of the segregated Lord Baltimore Hotel. "There were black people working in the dining room, but black people couldn't eat there," he recalled. "If they were like me, they had fought for their country. So I started turning over tables until I got my way."

When the AAFC folded, the Niners were absorbed into the NFL, and began putting together the million-dollar backfield. After Albert retired, YA Tittle joined the team; the white southerner soon became one of Perry's closest friends. Hugh "the King" McElhenny, like Perry a former Compton star, was an elusive scatback [an offensive back who's fast with the ball]. The key addition was John Henry Johnson at full-back, freeing Perry to move to half-back, where his speed could be better utilised. With Tittle passing to RC "Alley-Oop" Owens, San Francisco's offense was arguably the league's best, but they never won a championship.

Perry became a San Francisco fixture. In 1955 the team staged "Joe Perry Day" at Kezar Stadium, and fans honoured him with gifts including a new car. In 1961 he was traded to the Colts, played two seasons, then returned for a final year with the 49ers. His decision to sign with the team had indeed paid off. Morabito's partner Frank Mieuli landed him a spot as a radio host, and he proved remarkably good on air. After retirement he scouted, coached, and broadcast for the team. A professional ten-pin bowler good enough to play on the Pro Bowlers Tour, he also ran a bowling supply store, and later worked as a sales executive for Gallo wines.

Perry died suffering from dementia – a result, his family believes, of concussions suffered playing football; they have donated his brain to Boston University, the centre for research into the effects of concussion on sportsmen's brains. As his team-mate, blocker, and fellow Hall-of-Famer Bob St Clair said, "When Joe got going, he didn't care who was in his way. He'd hit whoever was in front of him."

Fletcher Joseph Perry, American footballer and broadcaster; born Stephens, Arkansas 22 January 1927; married Donna (one son, three daughters, one stepdaughter); died Tempe, Arizona 25 April 2011.

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