by Bob Angelo, Producer
In today’s NFL, free agency is the norm.
But four decades ago, unrestricted player movement was an NFLPA pipe dream. Teams drafted prospective players out of college, signed them to binding contracts of their design, then owned the athlete’s professional rights for as long as the player remained a viable performer. NFL dynasties were built this way – in particular, the 1970’s team of the decade: the Pittsburgh Steelers. From 1969 through 1974, the Steelers drafted 17 eventual starters and nine future Hall of Famers, most of whom retired with multiple Super Bowl sings. Stringing together good draft classes yielded year-to-year consistency. In Pittsburgh’s case, it resulted in four Lombardi trophies in six seasons, the most dominant run of the Super Bowl era.
The San Diego Chargers wished to follow Pittsburgh’s example. The Steelers picked the four down linemen who anchored the legendary “Steel Curtain” over a four year period (1969-72). In the 1975 NFL Draft, the Chargers selected three stud defensive linemen within two hours on the first morning. And Gary “Big Hands” Johnson, Louie Kelcher and “Mean” Fred Dean joined a roster that already included future Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts. All three would make Pro Bowls in San Diego. Later they would celebrate a Super Bowl victory together. But as Fouts sadly points out… NOT in San Diego.
How and why did this happen? In “Caught In The Draft 1975: Agents of Change,” we reveal how a chance and candid conversation between Fred Dean and his brother-in-law forced the future Hall of Famer to issue an ultimatum to the Chargers. When San Diego refused to budge, Dean was traded to San Francisco in an exchange that tipped the balance of power in professional football and reverberated for years to come. And in one final bit of irony, while Dan Fouts and the Chargers never did make it to a Super Bowl, both Kelcher and Johnson joined Dean in San Francisco in time to earn Super Bowl rings with the 49ers’ 1984 championship team.
Though true free agency was still more than a decade away, Dean’s movement exposed its promise and underscored its inevitability to both team owners and “imprisoned” players alike. “Mean” Fred Dean: NFL Hall of Fame defensive end – and a reluctant “Agent of Change.” Hear his story and others in “Caught In The Draft 1975,” premiering exclusively on NFL Network Thursday, April 9th at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.
Caught in the Draft:1975 Agents of Change premieres exclusively on NFL Network Thursday, April 9th at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.
The Caught in the Draft series is produced by David Plaut and Neil Zender
The episode “1975: Agents of Change” was produced by Bob Angelo and Dave Douglas