SAN FRANCISCO — Fred Dean, the fearsome pass rusher who was a key part of the launch of the San Francisco 49ers’ dynasty, has died. He was 68.
His death on Wednesday night was confirmed Thursday by the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Dean was hospitalized last week with the coronavirus and was on a ventilator and in intensive care, according to former teammate Dwight Hicks.
"The 49ers family is heartbroken to learn of the passing of one of the game’s all-time greats, Fred Dean," the team said in a statement. "Fred not only impacted countless opposing quarterbacks throughout his career, but also the future of the game of football as one of the NFL’s first true pass rushing specialists."
Dean was an undersized defensive end who began his career as a second-round pick with the San Diego Chargers in 1975 and ended it in the Hall of Fame after being named an All-Pro twice and making four Pro Bowls.
Dean was an All-Pro for the Chargers in 1980 but had his biggest impact after being traded to San Francisco during the 1981 season.
"While it cannot be said that Fred Dean’s greatness as an NFL player began when he came to the 49ers in 1981, I can say as the owner of the team that the greatness of the 49ers began with Fred Dean’s arrival in San Francisco," former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo said when he introduced Dean at his Hall of Fame induction.
Dean’s career in San Diego ended in a contract dispute in 1981 and he was traded to San Francisco in October. He credited the trade for reviving his career.
"I actually stepped on the other side for a minute, breathed in the air, looked at it as a rainbow," he said before being inducted into the Hall of Fame. "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."
The 49ers were just starting to take off under coach Bill Walsh and quarterback Joe Montana and Dean was the final piece they needed to become champions. The 49ers were 3-2 when Dean arrived with hopes of ending an eight-year playoff drought. After only a couple of practices, Dean played his first game with them just days after arriving against Dallas.
"Bill Walsh told me they hadn’t beat 'em in a while," Dean recalled. "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."
He did just that, dominating Dallas’ offensive line in a 45-14 win that proved to be the difference in giving San Francisco home-field advantage in the playoffs. Sacks were not an official statistic yet, but Dean reportedly had 2 1/2 in that game, as well as several other pressures and penalties drawn.
San Francisco then won the rematch with the Cowboys three months later in the NFC title game, 28-27, thanks to "The Catch" by Dwight Clark on a pass from Montana. The 49ers won their first Super Bowl two weeks later against Cincinnati.
Dean played four more seasons in San Francisco, winning a second Super Bowl following the 1984 season.
Dean had seven sacks, 93 tackles and four fumble recoveries in his rookie year. His career sacks was 93 1/2, according to the 49ers, but the number is unofficial because sacks were not an official NFL statistic until 1982. Unofficially, he had 15 1/2 sacks in 1978.
He contributed 12 sacks in 11 games with the 49ers in 1981. His career best was 17 1/2 in 1983, including a then-NFL record six in one game against New Orleans.
"He exemplified many of the values learned from this great game — commitment, integrity, courage — over the course of his life," Hall of Fame president and CEO David Baker said.
Dean was inducted into the shrine in 2008.
"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. Not financially, but with all the people there."