"The Absolutely Great Joe Perry"





By Dr. Ken 


For those of a certain age, our football experience as players and/or fans cuts across the Golden Age of Pro Football of the 1950’s and through the birth and subsequent absorption of the American Football League into the National Football League. By any standard of measure, the fifteen to twenty year period marked by the Fifties and Sixties was truly the very best of times for football. I would argue that the greatest players, the greatest games, the most significant of events that shaped the game and its place in our culture occurred in this time span and both ESPN and The NFL Network be damned. Their “Top X Number” lists are a joke, clearly chosen by individuals whose sense of football history goes back no further than 1965 and only then to pay homage only to the most obvious of great players. Watching these programs and the discussions about great players makes one feel as if their roundtable production meetings follow the path of “Well, we have to include Unitas somewhere on the list so let’s plunk him right about here and then get back to the Marinos and Bradys.” While there are certainly very good and a few great players on today’s field, far too many now entering the Pro Football Hall Of Fame more accurately belong in what the Pro Football Researchers Association refers to as “The Hall Of Very Good.” (allow me to note that the PFRA is definitely an organization you would want to join for a boatload of hard to find, wonderful information, see   http://www.profootballresearchers.org/ ).


Too many of the truly great players of half a century ago have all but been forgotten and for those who witnessed his abilities, his deeds, and his influence Joe Perry certainly was one of these. As a member of The Pro Football Hall Of Fame perhaps most readers would think that he is far from forgotten but the magic that he brought to the field of play is not appreciated even by those who first became fans in the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s. His place in social history is certainly lost. Coincidental to my remarks in the preceding paragraph about the recently constructed “Best” lists, in the excellent book Gridiron Gauntlet; The Story Of The Men Who Integrated Pro Football, author Andy Piascik begins his chapter on Joe Perry with the following words:

“Whenever sports pundits talk about the greatest running backs of all time, it is rare that they mention Joe Perry. That is true even when the field is as large as ten, as in the Ten Best Running Backs or Ten Greatest Running Backs. Usually such lists go something like this: Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Eric Dickerson, O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell, Gale Sayers, Thurman Thomas, and Tony Dorsett. Because Joe is almost never on such lists, younger fans are likely to respond to a call for his inclusion by asking, Who the heck is Joe Perry? Well. Consider a few facts and then consider that the better question is, Why the heck isn’t Joe on these lists?”

An artist’s rendition of the mask worn by Joe Perry to protect a broken jaw sustained in the pre-season of 1954

Needless to add, I could not agree more and as the first Black player on the Forty Niners, he certainly was a ground breaker who represented all the best qualities of an athlete and man. Born in Arkansas but raised in the Compton section of Los Angeles, Fletcher Joseph Perry was an athletic standout at David Starr Jordan High School, starting for the varsity football team as a thirteen year old. Perhaps it could be stated that Perry began a great athletic tradition at what was the relatively small Jordan High School, paving the way for Olympic champions and world record holding track performers Florence Griffith-Joyner and Kevin Young. With his heart set on attending UCLA so that he could follow in the footsteps of his idol Kenny Washington and with the academic and athletic accomplishments to qualify, he was snubbed by his hometown university. As USC did not in Perry’s opinion, seem to be ready for Black football players, he chose local Compton Junior College as his next stop. Future Pro Football Hall Of Fame San Francisco Forty Niner teammate Hugh McElhenny, another Los Angeles product, also played there before embarking on his All American career at Washington. After a fine first season on the field and in the classroom as a math major, Perry enlisted in the Navy in order to serve his country during the Second World War. He later noted that he was not comfortable with the term “African-American” to describe his race. He was clear that he was “an American” who “served America” while in the military. When he returned from overseas he was stationed at the Alameda Naval Air Station where his football exploits attracted both the NFL Los Angeles Rams and the All American Football Conference San Francisco Forty Niners. Though the Rams offered Joe more money, he chose the Niners because of his immediate bond with their owner Tony Morabito, a man he felt was like a second father to him. Despite some racial prejudice shown towards him on the field, Perry always was clear that he was and would be patient with those who spoke badly towards him but would not tolerate any physical punishment because of his race. Though his 49er backfield mate in later years, John Henry Johnson, was known far and wide as perhaps the most intimidating player in the pro ranks, Perry’s reputation as a proud man who would retaliate immediately if he believed his physical well being was being compromised made him very much a highly respected individual among his teammates. Both Perry and other Niners of the team’s early years stressed constantly that they were very much a family and that race relations were quite good. Though the media and NFL folk lore credits Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo as being the first racially mixed NFL teammates, Verl Lillywhite and Perry actually were the ground breakers and the ongoing example Perry set from his entry to pro football in 1948 until his retirement after the ’63 season could have served as a template for others seeking the same type of social success.

On the field, Joe Perry’s unselfish approach to the game stood out as much as his abilities to run the ball for a Pro Football Hall Of Fame total of 8378 rush yards. Though he always believed that his two year AAFC statistics and that of the other league players should have been included with his overall pro/NFL accomplishments, Perry knew his worth and was justly proud of his body of work. He understood that he was a ground breaker as the first NFL running back to have consecutive 1000 yard rushing seasons at a time when that specific statistic truly was a fantastic feat. He also understood that it was his job to block like a demon when sharing the “Million Dollar Backfield” with three other Hall Of Fame players in John Henry Johnson, Hugh McElhenny, and Y.A. Tittle and that ball carrying chores would not fall just to him. In typical fashion, he did his job as well as it could be done. Still, from 1949 through the ’55 season he was the Niners leading rusher and the center of the offensive attack that was always one of the league’s best.

Joe The Jet wearing Lucite face mask

With acceleration and speed that earned him the nickname “The Jet,” no one ever questioned Perry’s speed and elusiveness but his toughness and quiet ruggedness also set an example for Black and white players who followed. His upbringing made him a proud man who won the respect of all through his demeanor and style of play but he had the true toughness exemplified by the players of that era. In the infamous final game of the 1957 season, a 31-27 loss to the Lions marked by one of the best known second half collapses that cost the Forty Niners the divisional championship, Perry fractured his zygomatic bone. “The one side of my face was caved in but I wasn’t coming out of the game.” Despite the pleas of his teammates to seek medical attention, he played on. Through the third and fourth quarters, Perry continued to charge into the Lions as hard as possible in a display that awed his peers on the field. Generating a lot more power and speed than his compact, muscular 6’, 207 physique seemed to allow, Perry was a functional combination of do-it-all ability. He left the game as the NFL’s all time rushing leader, a three-time Pro Bowl choice, and enjoyed selection to both the All AAFC and All Pro teams of the NFL.

My most vivid memories of Joe The Jet were games he played for both the Forty Niners and the Colts. Even in his two-year stay in Baltimore, a period of time near the close of his illustrious career, he ran hard and he ran dependably. It was only much later that I learned or realized that he had left the Niners by his own choice, feeling that he could no longer co-exist with Head Coach Red Hickey who refused to play him in most games in 1960. While Perry was easy to notice due to his ability and fierceness, for those who enjoyed helmet and facemask styles, he was a player who stood out. The 49er’s themselves went through quite a few helmet style changes during Perry’s twelve NFL years with the club and his individual facemask styles seemed to be as numerous and noticeable. From the Marietta style close-fitting mouth and jaw protecting mask to the Lucite bar of the 1954-’55 years, the distinctive arched single tubular B1 bar mask, to conventional single bar and two bar masks, Joe Perry stood out. His passing on April 25, 2011 at the age of eighty-four is a reminder that many of our heroes are in fact, long past their playing days yet the impression of greatness they originally left upon us remains.