At the beginning of the 1980’s, the San Diego Chargers had one of the greatest passing attacks of all time. Overshadowed by their powerful offense was a devastating defensive line. Fred Dean, Gary Johnson and Louie Kelcher each played a vital role in the Charger’s defense in those days but could never realize their ultimate dream of winning the Super Bowl. That all changed when each of them reached San Francisco. Together, they would help the 49ers win the franchise’s second Super Bowl. Their quest was one of much heartbreak but in the end, it proved to be triumphant. This is their story.
Gary Lynn “Big Hands” Johnson was born on August 31, 1952 in Shreveport, Louisiana. When he was in the eighth grade, Johnson wanted to play with a basketball when his coach told him to get his big hands off of the basketball. The name stuck and “Big Hands” was born. After starring at Charlotte Mitchell High School, Johnson accepted a scholarship to Grambling State University, yearning to learn from their legendary coach John Robinson. Following his college career, Johnson was drafted eighth overall in the 1975 NFL Draft by the San Diego Chargers.
Louis James Kelcher was born on August 23, 1953 in Beaumont, Texas. After starring at French High School, Kelcher accepted a scholarship to Southern Methodist University. He recorded 22 sacks as a senior and was selected 30th overall in the 1975 NFL Draft by the San Diego Chargers.
Frederick Rudolph Dean was born on February 24, 1952 in Arcadia, Louisiana. Following graduation from Ruston High School, Dean had offers from Grambling State University and Louisiana Tech University. He chose his hometown school and proudly wore the colors of a Bulldog. He excelled as a defensive end and was an all-conference selection four times, twice named conference defensive player of the year and was a second team All America as a senior in 1974. After he finished his college career, Fred Dean was selected 33rd overall of the 1975 NFL Draft by the San Diego Chargers.
Rise in San Diego
The best position groups are typically very close and often have a bond which is thicker than blood. Every day, they sweat together, study together and battle together. Not only have they been brought together for one purpose, the strongest of position groups fight for that purpose with a unity as one unique being. By drafting three defensive linemen high in the same draft, the Chargers had built one of the NFL’s future great defensive lines in a single weekend.
Together, these three rookies would go through the struggles of a 2-12 rookie season and the continued struggles of a franchise trying to find its way. They would eventually be rewarded for their resilience with the arrival of Don Coryell. Though he was an offensive minded coach, his offense gave the defense time to rest, therefore becoming more consistently dominant.
Prior to 1978, the Chargers were at best a .500 franchise, winning as much as they lost. They were going nowhere with Tommy Prothro, who resigned after the fourth week of the 1978 season. San Diego promptly hired Don Coryell who immediately implemented aspects of an eventual dominant aerial assault. Dean, Johnson and Kelcher were pleased with this and immediately wrecked havoc on opposing offenses. Along with fellow defensive lineman Leroy Jones, they formed “the Bruise Brothers”, one of the premier defensive lines in the NFL.
It was a diverse line, featuring both size and speed. Fred Dean only weighed 225 lbs but was a tremendous force as a pass rusher. Louie Kelcher struggled with his weight most of his career and he was one of the first players in the NFL to weigh more than 300 lbs, reaching as high as 345 lbs before one training camp. Gary Johnson’s nickname “Big Hands” proved to be well suited for his ability of collecting fumbles. Emboldened by a suddenly potent offense and a destructive defense, the Chargers fought a clawed their way to a 9-7 finish, their best in years. Kelcher had earned All-Pro honors the year before and received his second straight nod on the All-Pro team in 1978.
The following year, the Chargers earned the AFC’s top seed in the playoffs. Both Gary Johnson and Fred Dean made the Pro Bowl while Johnson was named an All-Pro. Kelcher was lost for most of the year with a knee injury. Despite their success in the regular season, they floundered in the playoffs as quarterback Dan Fouts threw five interceptions against the Houston Oilers in the first round.
The Chargers were even better in 1980 and again claimed the top seed in the playoffs. Fred Dean and Gary Johnson were both named first-team All-Pro while Louie Kelcher was named second-team All-Pro; all three made the Pro Bowl in 1980. It was a tremendous year for the three; however, the Charger’s Super Bowl plans were once again foiled at home, this time by the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Championship Game. Little did they know that great changes were soon to come and that their great defensive line would never be the same.
Fred Dean had wrecked havoc on the NFL for years and was due a new contract. What he and the rest of the San Diego Chargers soon found out is that their owner, Gene Klein, was notoriously cheep and would rather part ways with a great player who was due a pay raise. By the end of the decade, this financial strategy would lead him to sell the Chargers and get into horse racing. As with most contentious contract disputes, Fred Dean decided to sit out until he got paid what he thought he was worth. Instead, Klein traded him to the San Francisco 49ers who were a young, contending team that needed a consistent pass rush.
The 49ers immediately doubled his salary and Dean repaid the 49ers by wrecking havoc on the Dallas Cowboys the week he came to San Francisco. He was dynamic in that game; jumping over and running circles around the Dallas offensive line while making a lasting impact on their quarterback Danny White. By halftime, he was smoking a cigarette in the locker room while the rest of the 49ers stared at him in bewilderment. It was apparent to everyone within the organization that they would not just be a playoff contender that year; they would be in serious contention for the Super Bowl. By year’s end, Fred Dean would earn the UPI NFC Defensive Player of the Year award and be invited to the Pro Bowl. Rejuvenated with the presence of Fred Dean, the 49ers stormed their way to the Super Bowl where they would defeat the Cincinnati Bengals.
Meanwhile, Johnson and Kelcher were finding out how much more difficult life could be without their teammate. The Chargers defense was abysmal and led the NFL in most passing yards allowed, but their offense kept them in the title race. One of the highlights of the year was in their playoff game against Miami, the Chargers were down by a touchdown in the fourth quarter and the Dolphins were threatening to score again. Louie Kelcher stripped the ball from the Dolphin’s running back and it was recovered by San Diego. The Chargers rallied to force overtime and won 41-38.
They reached their second straight AFC Championship Game; losing to the Cincinnati Bengals. The next few years were difficult as members of their great offense got older and could not carry the team the way that they used to. The 1982 season was the last year that the Chargers would make the playoffs until 1992 and by the end of the 1983 season, it was well known that the Chargers did not have Johnson and Kelcher in their plans for the future. The two aging defensive linemen signed with the 49ers and were reunited with their teammate and friend, Fred Dean.
After winning the Super Bowl in 1981, the 49er struggled to find their championship formula the next two years. When they lost to Washington in the NFC Championship Game in 1983, they vowed to never have that feeling again. At this point in their careers, Kelcher and Johnson were merely role players. This suited them as they had put up with so many heartbreaking defeats in the playoffs and wanted desperately to win the Super Bowl. Louie Kelcher did not start at all in the year and didn’t put up any statistics but Gary Johnson recovered three fumbles and returned one of them 36-yards for a touchdown.
The 49ers steamrolled through the competition that year and ended up in the Super Bowl. Facing a prolific Miami Dolphins team which featured Dan Marino along with Mark Duper and Mark Clayton. The 49ers refused to fear them and with a great pass rush helped by a deep defensive line, Marino had trouble for most of the game, being sacked four times (including one by Gary "Big Hands" Johnson) and throwing two interceptions. The 49ers won 38-16 and at last, three of the Bruise Brothers had won a Super Bowl together.
After the Super Bowl, Louie Kelcher retired and a year later both Fred Dean and Gary Johnson joined him. Dean was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007 and passed away on October 24, 2020. Johnson passed away on August 4, 2010. All three are members of the Chargers Hall of Fame. While they worked and fought to bring San Diego its first Super Bowl, these three men helped bring San Francisco one of its greatest years.