It’s funny how events can juxtapose themselves decades later.
On Tuesday, the Chargers announced one of their all-time thoroughbreds, Fred Dean, would be inducted into the franchise’s hall of fame on Oct. 12 during halftime of a game against the New England Patriots at Qualcomm Stadium.
Last Wednesday, the thoroughbreds began running for another season at Del Mar.
The two events made me think of Gene Klein — the late Chargers owner, who later a major figure in thoroughbred horse racing after he had sold the Chargers in 1984 to Alex Spanos.
If Klein didn’t get locked into a stubborn contract dispute with Dean, prompting the owner to virtually give his star player away in a 1981 trade with the San Francisco 49ers (a second-round pick and the right to swap first-round picks), maybe the Chargers would have finally won that elusive Super Bowl that escaped them during a run of four straight playoff trips from 1979 to 1982.
Klein would be remembered as a Super Bowl champion first and a horse owner second.
Dean was the key to the Chargers’ fearsome pass rush in the 1979 and 1980 seasons, but it was with the 49ers under the late Bill Walsh that he established his credentials to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2009 on Aug. 2 in Canton, Ohio.
It wasn’t the first time the Klein gave away a player in a contract dispute. Remember when John Jefferson was sent to the Green Bay Packers?
Yes, I know, the Chargers replaced Jefferson by stealing Wes Chandler from the New Orleans Saints. But Jefferson was such a popular figure in San Diego — it took some time for the franchise to recover after losing him. Jefferson might have ended up in the Hall of Fame — like his teammate, Charlie Joiner — if he had remained in the Air Coryell offense.
Dean was the kind of player off the field that needed direction in his life. He gained stability with the 49ers and ended up helping the franchise win two Super Bowls in the 1981 and 1984 seasons.
Dean didn’t need a stubborn owner that wasn’t going to budge. Jim Lazlavic, a Chargers player at the time and now a Channel 7 sportscaster, described it as the Chargers’ biggest mistake when he asked Dean about it Tuesday at his hall of fame announcement.
Klein later earned the respect of sportswriters for his snappy quotes, once saying that he liked horse racing better than owning a football team because the horses don’t ask to renegotiate.
But he never explained how he ripped apart key pieces from the Chargers so that he could continue to pay the equivalent of a bale of hay.
It’s sad to think back on what might have been as the thoroughbreds run at Del Mar the next few weeks and the Chargers prepare to open training camp for the 2009 season.