75 for 75: Joe "The Jet" Perry

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"75 for 75" is an article series from the 49ers Museum highlighting legendary moments in 49ers history as part of the team's 75th Anniversary celebrations in 2021.

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December 5, 1954

Joe Perry became the first NFL player to post back-to-back 1,000 yard rushing seasons after busting loose for 137 yards in a 35-0 trouncing of the Green Bay Packers at Kezar Stadium. 

"The Jet" sliced off tackles and plowed over two Packers on his way to a 25-yard gain in the fourth quarter that put him over the 1,000 yard mark. He did it in the 11th game of a 12-game season.

"Joe Perry put out a great effort," head coach Buck Shaw said after the record-breaking performance. "That last 25 yarder was strictly on his own. I have never known a man who wants to win as much as Joe."

Perry ran for 1,049 yards and eight touchdowns in 1954 while averaging 6.1 yards per carry. He earned UPI's NFL Most Valuable Player, the first Black man and the first 49ers player to be named the NFL's MVP. 

Perry's accomplishments were not lost on team owner Tony Morabito, who had a unique bond with his young fullback.  

"Joe trusted Tony," said Perry's widow, Donna Marie Perry. "While Tony was alive, they never had a signed contract. They just shook hands and that was it."

Morabito rewarded Perry after the 1953 campaign with a $5,090 bonus, $5 for every yard (1,018) gained. After Perry's 1954 performance, Morabito went a step further. He recognized his fullback's achievements with "Joe Perry Day" during a 1955 preseason contest at Kezar Stadium.

Prior to the game, Perry was showered with gifts including new kitchen appliances, a television, golf clubs and a complete bedroom set. He celebrated his special day by rushing for 116 yards in a win over the reigning NFL champion Cleveland Browns and then hired a truck to haul away his new cache.

Morabito summed up his regard for Perry when he claimed, "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."

From 1954 to 1956, Perry remained a vital cog in one of the NFL's greatest backfields. He teamed with Y.A. Tittle, John Henry Johnson and Hugh McElhenny in what became known as the Million Dollar Backfield. All four men are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Tittle was a seasoned quarterback when he lined up with Perry for the first time. He found Perry's speed a shocking revelation. 

"He was so quick to hit the hole. If you hesitated on the handoff, Joe would fly right past you," Tittle said. "So we called him Joe the Jet."

During his 16 years of professional football, including 14 with San Francisco, Perry collected an incredible array of awards and records. He ran for 8,378 yards in the NFL and another 1,345 in the All-America Football Conference. His 9,723 rushing yards as a professional were the most in football history, until Jim Brown surpassed Perry as football's career rushing leader in 1963.

Perry was more than an athlete. As the first Black man to wear a 49ers uniform, he played an important role in changing the social fabric of the NFL. 

The NFL recognized Perry's accomplishments by naming him to its 1950s All-Decade team and as a member of its 50th Anniversary All-Time team. He also earned a place in the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame and the Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. 49ers Hall of Fame.

In 1969, Perry received football's ultimate honor when he and Leo Nomellini were the first 49ers enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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