SAN DIEGO -- It was a trade that defined a career.
|Fred Dean spent his final 4 1/2 seasons with the Niners, notching a career-high 17 1/2 sacks in 1983 (Getty Images)|
Nearly three decades later, he has made it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He'll be inducted on Saturday.
It has been a long time since Dean, one of the NFL's first situational pass rushers, has had this kind of attention.
"I never cared for all the spotlight and stuff," he said. "It's OK for the purpose at hand."
Although he spent his first six-plus seasons with the Chargers, Dean is best-remembered as a Niner.
After all, he won two Super Bowl titles with the 49ers. The Chargers, by comparison, have been to only one Super Bowl, when they were embarrassed by San Francisco after the 1994 season.
Dean picked former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo to introduce him at Canton, Ohio. DeBartolo also introduced Joe Montana and the late Bill Walsh.
Asked about his pick, Dean said: "When I start to explain that to you, you'll be messing with my speech. So, you know, I can only say that Mr. D., Eddie D., he's instrumental in my life in more ways than one, some ways probably more than Mr. D. even knows himself.
"But he gave me a lot of inspiration, and so did coach Walsh. To me, it was one of the lower moments in my life. I was kind of depressed because I was leaving the Chargers. Coach Bill Walsh, he brought me in. Mr. Eddie, he accepted me. You know, there's so much inside of me that it's really difficult for me to explain right now."
Dean was with the Chargers during the Air Coryell years, when Dan Fouts and the rest of the offense lit up the scoreboard. The defense tended to be overlooked, but Dean was already establishing himself as a fierce pass rusher.
"The pressure he could apply from the outside, and the push we got on the inside, really, people forget how good of a defense it was," said former linebacker Jim Laslavic, now a San Diego sportscaster. "He was the 'Freak' before the 'Freak.' He was like Jevon Kearse in that he wasn't especially big. He was barely bigger than a linebacker, at that. I probably weighed more than him. Fred was quick and he was strong. He had natural strength."
Contract issues eventually led to him being traded.
"Well, No. 1, the pay," Dean said. "Being paid less than a truck driver at that time, you know, that makes a difference in life for me. When my brother-in-law would tell me, 'Hey, I make that much driving a truck,' you know, things like that."
The Chargers, coincidentally, waited until this summer to announce that Dean will go into their Hall of Fame during the regular season.
"When he was traded in '81, that really changed things for our defense. It put a lot more strain on the front and the linebackers. It affected our effectiveness," Laslavic said with a laugh. "Obviously he had great success in San Francisco. I'm happy for him."
Dean said his career changed dramatically once he arrived in San Francisco.
"I actually stepped on the other side for a minute, breathed in the air, looked at it as a rainbow. I made it to the other side of the rainbow. For me, that was the pot of gold. It was a different lifestyle for me altogether. I felt free to perform once I got there."
Dean said one of the most memorable moments of his career was his first game with the 49ers.
"At that time they were playing the Dallas Cowboys. Bill Walsh told me they hadn't beat 'em in a while. It was in the paper and everything about how they had not. For me, it was a platform for me to prove a point, that I still had it and could do it."
That was when Walsh transformed him.
"I started for the Chargers, was a down lineman, played every down. With coach Walsh, he said, 'I'm going to use you sparingly for rushing the passer.' He said he didn't know what my condition was.
"The first game, he said I'd only play like 10 or 12 plays. What was really good about it is he didn't want me to feel bad if I wasn't starting. Instead of just naming 11 people, I was the 12th man. He made me really feel from the jump really good. Ten or 12 plays turned into a whole game against the Dallas Cowboys. I asked him about that after the game. He laughed and said, 'Your condition was good.'"
Dean became one of the first defensive ends to play only on passing downs.
"Yes, I take a great deal of pride in that because," he said. "To be the person that does something, regardless of what it is, if it's anything out of the ordinary, it makes you real good, it makes you proud of it."
Dean had seven sacks, 93 tackles and four fumble recoveries in his rookie year. His career sacks total near 100, but the number is unofficial because sacks were not an official NFL statistic until 1982.
Unofficially, he had 15½ sacks in 1978. He contributed 12 sacks in 11 games with the 49ers in 1981. His career best was 17½ in 1983, including a then-NFL record six in one game, Nov. 13 against New Orleans.
Dean doesn't like singling out the attributes that made him a Hall of Famer.
"I never really looked at it from that standpoint. The thing for me was I loved the game. I played it to win and I was a team player. I love competition. Even among my own teammates, I liked the thing about challenging my teammates so we could all step up another level."