Researchers to study 49ers RBs

Updated: June 9, 2011, 1:02 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

Two members of the San Francisco 49ers' famed "Million Dollar Backfield" who died within months of each other this year will have their brains examined by researchers at Boston University who are studying head injuries in sports.

Joe "the Jet" Perry died in April at the age of 84, and John Henry Johnson died last week at the age of 81. Their families have agreed to let the former players' brains be examined by the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

[+] EnlargeJoe Perry
Frank Rippon/Getty ImagesPro Football Hall of Famer Joe Perry, left, still leads the 49ers in career rushing yards (7,344) and rushing touchdowns (50).

CSTE is a collaboration between Boston University Medical School and the Sports Legacy Institute to address what it calls the "concussion crisis" in sports.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a disorder linked to repeated brain trauma. The brain of former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, who committed suicide in February, also was examined by the researchers and it was determined he suffered from the disease.

There is no treatment for CTE and research is being done to find ways to identify it in people while they are alive.

CSTE has been at the forefront of research into head trauma in sports and has received a $1 million gift from the NFL, which CTSE has pushed for better treatment of concussions.

The CSTE Brain Bank has the brains of more than 70 athletes and military veterans, with football players comprising more than half of the athletes.

Perry's widow, Donna, told the Chronicle that she believes her husband suffered from CTE.

"When Joe was playing, they'd give them smelling salts and put them back in," she told the newspaper. "Now the equipment is better, and they're looking into ways to protect them. We have to look at what this is doing to our children."

Johnson couldn't talk or swallow in the final year of his life and also was in a wheelchair, his daughter, Kathy Moppin, told the Chronicle. She told the newspaper that she hopes by donating her father's brain, it will "help with a cure."

The "Million Dollar Backfield" included four future Pro Football Hall of Famers: Perry, Johnson, Hugh McElhenny and Y.A. Tittle. The group remains the only full-house backfield to have all four of its members enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Perry, inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1969, still stands as San Francisco's all-time leader in yards rushing (7,344) and touchdowns rushing (50). He led the 49ers in rushing on eight occasions, including seven consecutive seasons from 1949 to 1955.

Johnson, inducted into the Hall in 1987, played three seasons for the 49ers (1954-56). A four-time Pro Bowler (1954, 1962-64), Johnson's 6,803 career yards rushing trailed only Jim Brown, Jim Taylor and Perry upon his retirement in 1966.

Johnson was also a productive receiver, catching 186 passes for 1,478 yards. He scored 55 touchdowns during his career.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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