In the mid-1950s, the San Francisco 49ers had the best backfield in pro football.
Quarterback Y.A. Tittle and backs John Henry Johnson, Hugh McElhenny, and Joe “The Jet” Perry formed what became the “Million Dollar Backfield.”
Perry was a sight to behold and more than lived up to his nickname.
During his 16-year career, “The Jet” flew past defenses and led both the NFL and All-America Football Conference in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, or both in four different seasons.
— Niners History (@NinersHistory) January 16, 2023
Perry twice rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a Niner, a total that was nearly unattainable at the time.
Having to endure racism and constant threats from opponents, Perry stiff-armed them all and retired as the NFL’s all-time rushing leader at the time.
Then, in his first year of eligibility, voters inducted Perry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Eventually, all the members of the “Million Dollar Backfield” would become members of the Hall, and they remain the only backfield that has been enshrined in its entirety.
This is the story of Joe “The Jet” Perry.
Growing Up in Los Angeles
Fletcher Joseph Perry was born on January 22, 1927, in Stephens, Arkansas.
The Perrys didn’t stay long in Arkansas.
During the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl forced the family out of Stephens, and they moved west to Los Angeles.
Growing up in LA exposed Perry to some of the finest athletes in the area.
He read about the exploits of Jackie Robinson, Woody Strode, and Kenny Washington with wonder.
Perry wanted to play football like his heroes, but his mother wouldn’t sign the forms necessary to let him participate.
When he was only 13, Perry decided to take matters into his own hands and circumvent his mother’s fears.
“Without her knowledge, I signed it for her,” said Perry in 2011. “Ironically, the first day of practice, I broke my ankle. Later, I was confronted by my mother with the forgery, but I later convinced her to let me play after the injury healed. I started for the varsity football team as a 13-year-old.”
Perry proved a natural not only at football but in three other sports as well at David Starr Jordan High School.
Whether he was on the diamond, track, gridiron, or hardwood, Perry excelled as an athlete, but he also applied himself in the classroom.
With an aptitude in several subjects, especially Math, Perry eventually skipped a grade and graduated high school when he was only 16.
Compton Junior College
When he played football at Jordan High School, Perry was a jack-of-all-trades.
He was a speedy running back who could also throw, pass, and kick.
After his freshman season alone, Perry was named third-team All-City as a running back.
All the area colleges knew who he was, but Perry had set his sights on attending UCLA, the same school where Robinson, Strode, and Washington played.
However, despite the fact that Perry had the athletic and academic bona fides, the school didn’t accept him.
Perry then made his way to Compton Junior College.
Today's BfHM post features Hall of Fame RB, Joe "The Jet" Perry. From the Navy to Compton JC to the 49ers Million Dolllar Backfield which saw all 4 backs enter the HOF, Perry retired as the NFL All-Time Leading Rusher.
— Paul Sheehy (@ProStarSports) February 15, 2021
During his one year at the school, 1944, Perry played every sport he could, including football, baseball, softball, track and field, and even bowling.
On the football field, Perry set a program record by scoring 22 touchdowns.
He nearly set a world record that same year while competing in the 100-yard dash.
“I won the 100-yard dash in 9.7 seconds at Compton,” recalled Perry. “And I finished second to Mel Patton, the former Olympian, in 9.4.”
As Perry was wrapping up the 1944–45 school year, UCLA expressed interest in giving him a scholarship.
Still upset over being snubbed the previous year, Perry told the school it was the “last place on earth” he would attend.
Instead, Perry decided to join the Navy.
Perry’s Life Changes
At the time Perry enlisted in the Navy, World War II was nearing its end.
Perry was a coxswain serving in the Pacific when the war ended.
He was then switched to help decommission ships at Alameda Naval Air Station in the San Francisco area.
While he was in the Navy, Perry continued playing football and also pitched for the softball team.
It was common knowledge for pro teams at the time that many good athletes had put their athletic careers on hold to help the war effort.
Perry’s play was noticed by college and professional teams alike, and a number of schools such as USC, Oregon, and Washington reached out to him.
Players and scouts from the nearby LA Rams and the AAFC’s San Francisco 49ers also took an interest in Perry.
John Woudenberg, who played tackle for the Niners at the time, witnessed Perry blowing by opponents during a game and reported what he saw to San Francisco coach Buck Shaw and owner Tony Morabito.
Both the Rams and the Niners knew they had a gem in Perry and LA offered a contract amount that was $5,000 more than San Fran.
Joe Perry signed w/the @49ers of the AAFC instead of twice the cash w/the @NFL’s #LosAngelesRams. Joe thought playing for SF owner Tony Morabito was a smarter choice. For the whole story SFH now https://t.co/AYPwQGYtDj or anywhere u get podcasts. @ProFootballHOF @FootballHistory pic.twitter.com/DfxyehGVBn
— Sports4gottenHeroes (@SportsFHeroes) October 19, 2018
However, Perry chose the 49ers for one specific reason.
“I chose the 49ers because of my immediate bond with owner Tony Morabito,” said Perry. “He was like a second father to me.”
Perry Becomes “The Jet”
After signing with San Francisco, Perry’s new teammates were stunned by how fast he was.
The coaching staff envisioned him at fullback, but at 6’0”, 200 pounds, Perry played like a tailback.
During one of his first practices with the team, Perry sprinted past quarterback Frankie Albert so quickly that Albert didn’t have time to give him the handoff.
“Perry is just like one of those big jets that come by here,” said Albert to the press after practice.
Shortly after, Perry’s new nickname took hold, and he became “The Jet.”
— Niners History (@NinersHistory) November 1, 2022
While Perry was gaining a new moniker and the respect of his teammates, he still had to play against opponents who didn’t care for him because he was black.
“I was the first Black to play football here (in San Francisco),” Perry said. “It was rough as hell. There were a lot of unpleasant things that happened. Lots of nasty things were said on the field. You could imagine what they were.”
Thankfully, Perry’s teammates had his back.
“The 49ers were great though,” recalled Perry. “If one person was in a fight, the whole team was in a fight. We were like a big family. “
On his first carry as a pro, Perry took a handoff from Albert and proceeded to burst 58 yards for a touchdown.
He continued slicing his way through defenses in 1948 and ended the season with 562 yards (a 7.3 yards per carry average) and an AAFC-best 10 touchdowns and another score as a receiver.
San Fran Reaches the AAFC Title Game
In 1949, The Jet continued outracing defenders for huge chunks of yardage and touchdowns.
While the 49ers were putting together a 9-3 record, Perry led the league in rushing yards (783), yards per carry (6.8), yards per game (71.2), and rushing touchdowns (eight) while also snagging three scores as a receiver.
He was named first-team All-AAFC after the year.
Perry continued to pound away against opponents who called him every name in the book. He didn’t back down an inch.
“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.'”
San Francisco met the New York (football) Yankees in the first round of the playoffs and beat the Yanks 17-7.
— ᑭᖇO ᖴOOTᗷᗩᒪᒪ ᒍOᑌᖇᑎᗩᒪ 🏈 (@NFL_Journal) June 9, 2016
The following week, the Niners lost to the Cleveland Browns and running back Marion Motley, 21-7, in the AAFC Championship game.
49ers Become NFL Members
After the 1949 season, the AAFC folded and a few teams, such as the 49ers and Browns, became new members of the NFL in 1950.
It took a few years for San Francisco to become NFL playoff contenders, but it wasn’t for a lack of talented personnel.
Perry rushed for more than 600 yards and six total touchdowns in 1950.
Joe "the Jet" Perry carrying the rock against the Packers at Kezar on December 10, 1950. Perry's 135 rushing yards and 2 TDs and Frankie Albert's 197 passing yards led the 49ers to a 30-14 victory in the final game of their first season in the NFL. #sfhistory #OnThisDay pic.twitter.com/UK8wFtNctW
— Western Neighborhoods Project (@outsidelandz) December 10, 2020
A year later, quarterback Y.A. Tittle was brought over from the Baltimore Colts and would split time behind center with Albert for the next two years.
That same season, Perry went over 600 yards again and scored four total touchdowns.
Then, in 1952, Perry rushed for 725 yards and eight scores and was voted to his first Pro Bowl.
He was joined in the backfield that year by Hugh McElhenny, who arrived by way of Compton Junior College and the University of Washington.
McElhenny ran for more than 600 yards himself and went to the Pro Bowl with Perry.
1953 & 1954
In 1953, the 49ers were one of the best teams in the NFL.
With Tittle calling the shots behind center, and McElhenny and Perry running circles around opponents, the Niners went 9-3.
Although San Fran missed the postseason, the team led the NFL in points scored with 372.
The Jet led the league in several categories including 1,018 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns, and 192 carries. They also averaged 84.8 yards per game.
Perry also added three more scores as a receiver and became a first-team All-Pro and second-time Pro Bowler.
San Francisco’s embarrassment of offensive riches continued by way of Canada in 1954.
That’s when John Henry Johnson arrived from the Calgary Stampeders and joined Perry, Tittle, and McElhenny to become the “Million Dollar Backfield.”
The #49ers "Million Dollar Backfield" of the 1950s, all enshrined in the PFHOF
Hugh "The King" McElhenny
Joe "The Jet" Perry
John Henry Johnson pic.twitter.com/Rs5VNQ9cFZ
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) June 24, 2022
As great as that quartet was, the Niners missed the playoffs again with a 7-4-1 record.
However, The Jet surpassed his previous year’s total when he rumbled for 1,049 yards on 173 carries (6.1 yards per tote average, one of only four players in the modern era to have such an average) and a career-best 87.4 yards per game average.
“Tittle would try to divide the ball between us back there as much as possible,” Perry said with a laugh. “He kept me satisfied anyway.”
All three categories led the NFL, and Perry added eight scores on the ground.
“Joe was lightning out of his stance,” Bob St. Clair, the 49ers’ offensive tackle, once said. “People don’t realize how fast he was or how tough he was. When he’d get going, he didn’t care who was in his way. He’d hit whoever was in front of him.”
What made Perry’s two-year rushing totals even more remarkable was that no one in NFL history had run for more than 1,000 yards in two consecutive seasons.
Furthermore, his rushing totals were the second and third most in a season in NFL history.
That helped Perry get to his third Pro Bowl along with another first-team All-Pro nod.
One of the 1st African-American stars in the NFL. Nicknamed “The jet” for his power and speed, Perry was one of the most dominating and electrifying runners of his time. In 1954, he became the 1st African American to be named MVP of the NFL.#BlackHistoryMonth pic.twitter.com/0PSjXLPyxP
— CCSU FOOTBALL (@CCSUfootball) February 26, 2022
He was honored further when the UPI named Perry the NFL’s MVP, the first black player and San Francisco player to receive the award.
San Francisco Makes the Playoffs
Before the 1955 season began, 49ers owner Morabito honored his star back with “Joe Perry Day” and lavished The Jet with gifts and words of encouragement.
“There never was anybody like Perry. He keeps doing his job better than anybody I’ve ever seen. He always wears the same sized hat. I insist he’s the finest man I’ve ever met.”
Perry continued his assault on the league record books.
However, even though he was one of the best players in the NFL, people continued to treat him like a second-class citizen whenever the 49ers traveled.
One incident in particular in Baltimore was later recalled by several San Francisco coaches and players.
The team was in town to play the Colts and were about to eat dinner at the Lord Baltimore Hotel when racism reared its ugly head again.
“Joe went into the dining room to eat with his teammates and the staff wouldn’t serve him,” Perry’s wife recalled years later. “He just lost it. He tore the place apart, turned over a table. He had some harsh words for the staff and they finally fed him.”
Oftentimes, Morabito would find separate accommodations for Perry and help him avoid such confrontations.
On the field, The Jet continued to pile up yards and would help the Niners reach the playoffs for the first time as an NFL team in 1957.
That year, the team drafted receiver R.C. Owens from the College of Idaho, and he became a frequent target for Tittle.
The duo would make the term “alley-oop” fashionable.
Long before T.O. hit the Bay Area, there was another pass-catching Owens- R.C.- to star for the Niners. Here he is, reeling in another "Alley Oop" from Y.A. Tittle. #GoNiners pic.twitter.com/WCMddnLGNI
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) March 12, 2019
During games, Tittle would occasionally throw a jump ball for Owens who would use his tall frame to outleap defenders for the pigskin.
Perry was limited to five starts that season and contributed 454 yards and three touchdowns as the Niners went 8-4.
The Detroit Lions ended the year with a similar record, and the two teams faced each other in a playoff game.
San Fran was comfortably ahead, 27-7, at halftime only to see their lead evaporate in a 31-27 loss.
Perry Leaves San Francisco
During the 1957 season, Morabito died of a heart attack, leaving Perry and the team devastated.
On this day in 1957, #49ers founder/owner Tony Morabito, 47, collapses of a heart attack and dies during a game.
— #Random49ers (@Random49ers) October 27, 2021
Two years later, Albert, who had returned to the team as head coach in 1956, left and Red Hickey took his place.
Hickey believed that The Jet was losing steam by 1960, even though Perry had rushed for more than 700 yards in 1958 and 600 yards in 1959.
For the first time since his rookie campaign, Perry failed to start a game during the ’60 season and totaled just 95 rushing yards, his lowest as a pro.
When the season concluded, the Niners traded Perry to the Baltimore Colts.
“I left the 49ers by my own choice in 1961 for the Baltimore Colts,” said Perry. “I felt that I could no longer co-exist with head coach Red Hickey, who refused to play me in most of the games in 1960.”
The Jet Leads the Colts
Baltimore head coach Weeb Ewbank was thrilled to get Perry since the Colts’ starter, Alan Ameche, retired after 1960.
“The Colts can rest assured that when I report, I’ll be in tip-top condition, and I’ll give them my very best because that’s how I play football,” said Perry.
As the Colts’ progressed through an 8-6 season in 1961, Perry led the team with 675 yards and three touchdowns and added a career-high 34 receptions, 322 yards, and another score.
“Joe was the kind of guy you’d love to play your whole career with,” said Colts quarterback, Johnny Unitas. “He was older when we got him, but he did well for us. He was amazing on the screen pass, like McElhenny. And Joe clawed and scratched for every yard.”
The following year, Baltimore won seven games, and Perry started eight times, ran for 359 yards, but failed to score a touchdown for the first time in his career.
After the season, the Colts cut The Jet.
One Last Hurrah with the Niners
Perry was ready to call it a career when Morabito’s son, Vic, reached out.
“Vic Morabito called me and asked me to come home and retire as a 49er,” recalled Perry. “My loyalty to the Morabito family was too powerful a pull. So I returned for one last season.”
The Niners weren’t a very good team in 1963, winning two games while Hickey was fired after three weeks, and Jack Christiansen coached the rest of the season.
Perry started one game that year and ran for 98 total yards.
When the season concluded, so did Perry’s career.
During his 16 years in the AAFC and NFL, Perry ran for 9,723 yards, 71 touchdowns, and caught 260 passes for 2,021 yards and 12 more scores.
He was the NFL’s MVP once, two-time first-team All-Pro, three-time Pro Bowler, NFL rushing yards leader twice, NFL rushing touchdowns leader once, and led the AAFC in rushing yards once and rushing touchdowns twice.
Perry became a member of the NFL’s 1950s All-Decade Team and was added to the San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame, Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, and had his number 34 retired by the Niners.
#49ers RB/FB Joe Perry (1952-63) was part of the Million Dollar Backfield.
He was named to the NFL 1950s All-Decade Team and the team retired his No. 34 jersey.
— #Random49ers (@Random49ers) August 13, 2020
At the time of his retirement, Perry led the NFL all-time in rushing yards.
His total would be surpassed by Jim Brown and several others throughout the years.
Perry’s rushing total with San Francisco remained a franchise-best until Frank Gore surpassed him in 2011.
The Jet’s 68 rushing touchdowns with the 49ers remain at the top of the organization’s all-time list.
In retirement, Perry worked for San Francisco as a coach, scout, and broadcaster.
He also hosted “Both Sides of the Record,” which was an extremely popular music and sports radio program.
When he wasn’t spending time on the radio or with the 49ers, Perry could be found in a bowling alley as a member of the Professional Bowlers Association Tour.
— #Random49ers (@Random49ers) September 13, 2021
In 1969, Perry was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“My only regret is that two people, my mother and Tony Morabito, are not here to accept this for me today,” Perry said.
After Perry’s induction, McElhenny and Tittle would be inducted, respectively, into the Hall.
Then, in 1987, Johnson was added to the Hall of Fame.
That gave the Million Dollar Backfield the distinction of being the only complete backfield in NFL history to be inducted into the Hall.
By 2011, doctors had diagnosed Perry with dementia. He died of complications from the disease on April 25, 2011.
He was 84 years old and survived by his wife, Donna, and their five children who continued to carry Perry’s legacy.
“Joe didn’t think of himself as a social pioneer or a big star, but he was a hero in the Black community,” Mrs. Perry said. “We socialized with a lot of Black athletes—Deacon Jones, Ollie Matson, Joe Morgan. They looked up to Joe. They had a lot of respect for him and what he did.”