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Remembering Fred Dean: A smoke at halftime and big sacks ignited 49ers dynasty

Sacramento Bee logoSacramento Bee 10/16/2020 By Joe Davidson, The Sacramento Bee

Fred Dean arrived in San Francisco in 1981 with the force of a twister hitting a Midwest farmhouse.

Debris everywhere and an empty sense of, “what was that?”

Dean was the difference-maker defender for a 49ers franchise that changed its image from also-ran to powerhouse in quick order, leading to their first two Super Bowl championships following the 1981 and ‘84 seasons. Dean was in the trenches on those title teams. He died Wednesday night from COVID-19 after a lengthy hospital stay. He was 68.

The stories of his legend live on.

At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds and blessed with an explosive first step off the snap of the ball, Dean ransacked backfields and amazed his new 49ers teammates with his personality and performance. They marveled at his strength, though Dean disdained the weight room.

He was Fred, deemed one cool dude who smoked Kool cigarettes whenever the urge hit, which was often. He was a Dean of quarterback pressure, setting NFL records for sacks in a game, since broken, leading to his 2008 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Dean was two men in one, relentlessly unkind in pads and charming outside the arena. He liked to sing, play the piano, strum a guitar, cook, write poetry and hunt.

In his first game with the 49ers, six weeks into the 1981 season after a trade with the San Diego Chargers, Dean unleashed on the Dallas Cowboys and Danny White to set an emphatic tone. With just two days of practice, Dean didn’t expect to play more than 15 snaps. Coach Bill Walsh wanted to see what sort of game shape Dean was in.

He was fit enough and plenty ready. Dean recorded three sacks, had two quarterback hurries and knocked down two White passes to ignite a 45-14 crusher. That was the turning point for the franchise, which had an offensive leader already in place in third-year quarterback Joe Montana and a young secondary anchored by rookie Ronnie Lott.

What they lacked was a Fred Dean. The 49ers went 12-1 the rest of the season after the demolition of Dallas. Dean had 12 sacks, and the 49ers beat the Cowboys in an NFC Championship thriller with “The Catch,” leading to a victory over Cincinnati in Super Bowl XVI. Three years later and with Dean still in the trenches, the 49ers beat Miami in Super Bowl XIX to finish 18-1 with a ranking as one of football’s all-time greatest teams.

Fred Kool: Smokes at halftime

The real eye-opener moment against Dallas in his first action with the 49ers played out at half time. The image included Dean in the locker room at Candlestick Park, a man in his relaxed element.

”He was such an impressive player, so dominant, that you just wanted to be near him to see what he was all about,” Lott recalled years ago. “So you know what Fred does at the half of that Dallas game? Pulls out a package of Kool cigarettes and started smoking. Who does that? Fred Dean does that. Fred Dean cool!”

Lott recalled that everyone stopped and stared at Dean as he savored his smokes. Players, staffers, Walsh and general manager John McVay, who worked with Walsh to acquire the disgruntled Dean from the Chargers. Dean came to San Francisco because he was mired in a contract dispute with the Chargers, insisting his brother made more money as a truck driver than he did crashing into others in the NFL. The 49ers got him for a second-round pick.

That halftime scene, Mr. McVay?

“Saw him smoking and wondered, ‘What are you doing?’” McVay recalled to The Bee on Thursday from his Granite Bay home, laughing. “We just let Fred be Fred. Sad news. Fred was a great player, a great guy. Bill Walsh had a magic sense about him and thought Fred would help us. He sure did. Put us over the top.”

Walsh used Dean as a situational pass rusher, the first such ploy in the NFL. Combined with a strong secondary, the 49ers defense went from porous to great during those Super Bowl seasons. Said Walsh before Dean’s Hall of Fame induction, “We didn’t know it then, but he turned it around for us. It all started in that first game (against Dallas). He did things that shocked everybody.”

Said Eddie DeBartolo, Jr., the 49ers owner then, in a statement, “The greatness of the 49ers truly began with Fred’s arrival in San Francisco. I am heartbroken.”

DeBartolo Jr. was Dean’s presenter at the Hall of Fame. Dean said during his speech that Walsh, McVay and DeBartolo Jr., “saved me.”

“He never said very much, but when our defense needed him to make a big play, we looked to Fred and he never let us down,” DeBartolo Jr. said in the statement. “He leaves behind a Hall of Fame legacy both on and off the field and will be greatly missed.”

No weights, country strong

Dean was a good practice player, including summer camp sessions at Sierra College in Rocklin, but he had no interest in the weight room. He was country strong, and he won his share of arm-wrestling contests with teammates, sometimes during a slow drag of a Kool.

Dean was also known to sneak a cigarette smoke in a film meeting and to stash his packs of Kools in the ceiling of rooms. When asked once his view of weight lifting, Dean said, “Every now and then, I get the urge to lift weights, and I just go somewhere and lie down until I get over it.”

Dean regularly invited teammates over for dinner. He told KNBR radio last year of hosting in a sparsely furnished apartment, “I don’t know if I always had enough chairs for all of them, but they all had a plate.”

Dean grew up in Louisiana, where he discovered football. He was so dominant in high school practices, cracking helmets and snapping chin straps, that coaches would sideline him to spare his teammates.

Dean once hit an opposing player so hard the game had to be stopped.

“There was a chain link fence running alongside Rushton High Stadium, and Fred hit that running back so hard, the guy actually got caught underneath that fence,” Buddy Davis, sports editor of Rushton Daily Leader, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008. “They had to get wire cutters and everything to get this kid out”

A bullet through midsection, practice and enduring legacy

At Louisiana Tech, Dean turned heads for what he did as a player, helping the Bulldogs win the 1973 Division II national championship, and what he did with a gun.

While cleaning a hunting rifle, Dean accidentally dropped it. The gun fired. The bullet tore through his midsection and exited. No vital organs were struck, not that Dean would admit to it.

Dean did not want to alarm his coaches or his mother, so, “I put some gauze on it,” Dean said years later. He marched off to practice.

Dean was a second-round pick by the Chargers in 1975. He is in the Chargers Hall of Fame and made their 50th Anniversary team. He retired following the 1985 season, with four Pro Bowl nods, two All-Pro selections and the NFC Defensive Player of the Year honor in 1981. He led the NFL in sacks with 17.5 in 1983, including a then-NFL record six against New Orleans.

After his 1985 retirement, Dean gave up smoking and drinking and became a youth minister in his native Rushton, where he raised a family with wife Pam.

Said Dean during his Hall of Fame speech, “I could consider it being born by the Chargers but having a renewal life with the 49ers,” Dean said in his Hall of Fame speech. “And being with the 49ers, I found that on the other side of that bridge, on the other side was my rainbow, the true ending of a rainbow.”

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