A victim of Covid-19, an NFL icon’s death brings grief, joy and perspective

By David Haerle

The Daily World

I woke up Thursday morning to a sad headline, though I’m growing rather used to that these days.

NFL Hall-of-Famer Fred Dean had died at age 68, succumbing to Covid-19.

I was crushed. It took me awhile to compose myself.

I thought back to a day that’s still as vivid in my mind as, well, Thursday, for one.

It was just over 39 years ago this month — October 2, 1981.

I was a 22-year-old aspiring sports writer, beginning my final semesters as a journalism major at San Francisco State University. It was a Friday afternoon, and I had made my way from the beach side of San Francisco — where I lived — to my father’s downtown office for our weekly lunch get-together.

Now, understand, my father and I were very different people — especially at that time of our lives. He was a high-powered corporate attorney and GOP operative — very Type A, quite pragmatic and extremely thoughtful. I was a happy-go-lucky kid, very day-to day Type B, who’s favorite pastime was Grateful Dead concerts.

But these lunches were fun. He respected that I wanted to go into the field of journalism,knowing I was a ravenous reader of all the newspapers and periodicals he left piled around his condo — including the Wall Street Journal. When he said to me, “One thing I’ve learned in politics is: Never mess with a guy who has a bucket of ink,” I knew I had found my calling.

Our get-togethers rarely touched politics. It was the Reagan era (thus … the Grateful Dead thing) and I knew better. Instead, dad and I would catch up, talk sports (lots of that!) and movies and plan future events.

I was headed to the elevators in his building that day when I passed a newsstand. (We had lots of those back then.) The blaring headline across the “streets edition” of the San Francisco Examiner read:

“49ers trade draft pick for Fred Dean”

A few minutes later, I sauntered into dad’s office beaming and holding the front page of the sports section.

“Look, dad, the 49ers traded for Fred Dean,” I exclaimed.

He looked up from his desk and calmly asked in a lawyer-like manner, “Who’s Fred Dean?”

In my fledgling sports pundit best, I explained that Dean — at the time — was an elite pass rusher for the San Diego Chargers, stuck in a contract dispute with the team’s cheapskate owner, and we just stole the guy for a second-round pick in 1983.

So my dad and I spent the lion’s share of lunch talking 49ers.

Now understand, this was early in the Bill Walsh era. Prior to this, the 49ers had been a pretty dreadful team for a couple of decades, other than a middling three-year playoff run in the early 1970s. The Niners were coming off a 6-10 season in 1980 that saw a promising young quarterback named Joe Montana take over as starter.

The 49ers were 2-2 at that point, with a road game coming up in two days against what is now known as the Washington Football Team. But dad, a season-ticket holder (12th row, 40 yard line) and I were planning for the next home game and what would be Dean’s first in a Niner uniform — Oct. 11 vs. the vaunted Dallas Cowboys, who had pummeled my 49ers mercilessly — 59-14 — the prior year.

Ouch.

Fast forward nine days.

My dad drove over the Golden Gate Bridge, picked me and we headed toward Candlestick Park. About two minutes into the drive, my dad — ever the realist — turned to me and stated flatly, “You realize, we’re probably going to see a blowout today.”

“Yeah, probably,” I replied. But then I went on to recount that their victory from the week before made it two in a row (something 49ers fans were not used to back then). And the team’s rebuilt secondary, led by veteran safety Dwight Hicks and three rookies —Ronnie Lott, Carlton Williamson and Eric Wright — were starting to show promise, having menaced Washington quarterback Joe Theismann.

We were hoping Fred Dean might make a difference, but earlier in the week head coach and GM Bill Walsh (in retrospect playing possum ) had said to John Madden, who was announcing the game, “Fred (Dean) just got here … If he plays, he won’t play much.”

Dean played the whole game and spent most of it in Dallas quarterback Danny White’s ear hole. He recorded three sacks, batted down two passes at the line of scrimmage and we did see that blowout — 45-14 in favor of the Niners.

But what I remember most wasn’t Dean’s performance.

In the third quarter, with the 49ers leading 38-7, Lott — then a rookie cornerback and future Hall of Famer — intercepted a pass right in front of our seats and returned it 41 yards for a blowout-sealing TD.

During the run-back my dad, the decorum-obsessed lawyer and Republican I thought I knew, leapt to his feet, while pumping both fists feverishly toward the sky like two cotton-covered pistons.

“Go – Go – Go -Go – Go -Go -Go -Go -Go!!!” he bellowed at the top of his lungs as his face turned a red matching Lott’s No. 42 jersey.

My jaw dropped like Danny White did so often that day.

Up in the booth with Madden, play-by-play announcer Pat Summerall stated,” That’s all she wrote” as Lott scored.

But I was watching my dad behave like a high school kid, something I had never witnessed in 22 years. I have cherished that memory ever since, and the question “Who’s Fred Dean?” became a running joke between my dad and I up until his death a couple of years back.

The next day, The Washington Post’s Gary Pomerantz would write:

“For the sellout crowd of 57,574, this was football nirvana, the kind usually located on the East Bay with the Raiders. This was the most points ever scored by the 49ers in Candlestick Park.”

He was right. Dad and I drove home in a daze, both too hoarse to talk much, but beaming smiles from ear to ear.

That game — and the acquisition of Fred Dean — launched a 49er dynasty.

San Francisco went on to win its first Super Bowl that year and four more in the years to come, and Steve Sabol of NFL Films fame was quoted in 2006 as saying that Dean’s acquisition was — up until then — “the last truly meaningful in-season trade, in that it affected the destination of the Lombardi Trophy that year.”

Dean that year won NFC Defensive Player of the Year while playing in 11 games for the 49ers. San Diego’s defense collapsed when he departed. He was the Niners’ human wrecking ball for the next few years and a no-brainer pick for the Hall of Fame.

My dad also saw Dean’s final game as a 49er — the Super Bowl victory over Miami in 1984 at nearby Stanford Stadium.

So what does this all mean today, in the era of Covid-19?

I see this whole story as a microcosm of what should be happening.

In 1981, my dad and I couldn’t have been more different politically. But we found things to agree upon and celebrate and work toward. Despite the fact that we sometimes drove each other absolutely batty back then, we found common ground to cultivate.

We need more of that in this country — and soon. Because Covid-19 does not discriminate based on race, religion, political leanings or your favorite team. We need to band together — apolitically — like we do when rooting on our favorite teams, whether that be the Seahawks, 49ers — or even the Cowboys.

This is a public health emergency, not a political football. And it’s a killer.

Just ask Fred Dean.

Oh, that’s right, we can’t. He’s gone now, a pandemic victim just like Tom Seaver, Nick Cordero, John Prine and almost 218,00 (and counting) other Americans.

If my father were alive today, and oftentimes I am grateful he is not, I know exactly what he would say in his calm, counselor-like manner:

“Son, it did not have to be this way and should not have been.”