Fred Dean, fearsome pass rusher of 49ers’ dynasty, dies battling COVID-19

Fred Dean, the fearsome pass rusher who helped the San Francisco 49ers twice reach the Super Bowl.
(Associated Press)

Fred Dean, the fearsome pass rusher who was a key part of the launch of the San Francisco 49ers’ dynasty, has died in his native Louisiana while battling COVID-19.

His death Wednesday was confirmed 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. He was 68.

Dean was an undersized pass rusher 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 once said.

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.”

Fred Dean in 1981 at Anaheim Stadium.
(Focus On Sport / Getty Images)

The Niners 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 Niners 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 the Niners just days after arriving.

“Bill Walsh told me they hadn’t beat ’em in a while,” Dean recalled of that game against the Dallas Cowboys. “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.”


The win gave San Francisco home-field advantage in the playoffs.

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 Niners 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 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 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.”

Survivors include his wife, Pam.