Bruise Brothers (San Diego Chargers)

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The Bruise Brothers were a group of American football players who played on the defensive line for the San Diego Chargers (now known as the Los Angeles Chargers) in the National Football League (NFL). The foursome, consisting of Fred Dean, Gary Johnson, Louie Kelcher, and Leroy Jones, formed one of the most dominant lines of their era.[1] The Chargers selected Johnson, Kelcher, and Dean in the first two rounds of the 1975 NFL Draft, and they traded for Jones the following year. They helped San Diego lead the league in sacks in 1980.


In the 1975 draft, the core of the Bruise Brothers was formed when the Chargers drafted Johnson (first round, 8th overall pick), Kelcher (second round, 30th overall), and Dean (second round, 33rd overall) with three of their first four picks.[2][3] Each of the three became an All-Pro player during his career.[3] ESPN in 2009 ranked San Diego's 1975 draft class as the team's best draft ever,[2] and it is widely considered one of the best drafts for any franchise.[4][5] The Chargers acquired Jones from the Los Angeles Rams in 1976 for a future draft choice.[6] Dean and Johnson became the primary pass rushers, while Kelcher and Jones developed into strong defenders against the run.[7]

In 1978, they were considered the strength of the Chargers' defense.[8][9] Sports Illustrated lauded their pass rushing ability, calling them an "awesome young front four" that was "better than average against the run, and its pass rush has clearly helped an unheralded secondary rank among the league's best."[8] Don Coryell became San Diego's head coach in the middle of 1978, and they won three consecutive AFC West titles starting in 1979.[10]

Those Chargers teams were known for their potent Air Coryell offense. Coryell's teams were criticized for their defense, but they allowed an NFL-low 246 points in 1979.[10] That year, the Chargers' defensive line was given the name "Bruise Brothers",[7][11][12] coined from a popular act at the time, The Blues Brothers.[13] Kelcher, however, was sidelined for all but three minutes after a knee operation, but Wilbur Young filled in and was named All-Pro by Sports Illustrated.[14][15] Led by their defensive line and Johnson's team-record ​17 12 sacks, San Diego in 1980 led the NFL with 60 sacks.[10][16] Johnson, Kelcher, and Dean were all named starters in that season's Pro Bowl, a rarity for three defensive lineman from the same team;[17] Jones, whose 11 sacks were second on the team behind Johnson,[18] was also named an alternate for the Pro Bowl.[19] Dean held out in 1981,[20] and he was traded to the San Francisco 49ers in October.[21][22] U-T San Diego in 2013 called the trade "perhaps the biggest blunder in franchise history."[23]


Dean in 1981 played on division winners for both San Diego and San Francisco.[24] He was named the UPI NFC Defensive Player of the Year after recording 12 sacks in 11 games for the 49ers, and San Francisco won Super Bowl XVI that season.[21][24] Kelcher retired in November 1983, but remained on the Chargers reserve list. The Chargers traded him to San Francisco in March 1984. Kelcher had wanted to play again, but not with San Diego.[25] Johnson was also traded to San Francisco later that year, and he teamed with Dean and Kelcher to win Super Bowl XIX.[21] He had been unproductive in the Chargers new 3-4 defensive scheme. While the 49ers' basic defense was a 3-4, they made Johnson comfortable by utilizing him whenever they switched to the 4-3.[1][26] Sports Illustrated called Johnson the Super Bowl's "unofficial defensive MVP" after he recorded one sack, flushed Miami quarterback Dan Marino out of the pocket numerous times, and had four unassisted tackles.[26]

Dean, Johnson, and Kelcher all finished their careers with San Francisco.[5] They were each named to both the Chargers' 40th and 50th anniversary teams, and they were inducted into the Chargers Hall of Fame.[27][28] Dean was also inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.[29] After they traded Dean, the Chargers defense did not return to the upper half of the NFL rankings until the late 1980s.[3]

Chargers career sacks[edit]

The following table lists the Bruise Brothers members' sack totals during their Chargers career.

Rank Chargers all-time rank through 1984
Player Player name
Career Years with Chargers
Sacks Career sacks with Chargers
Honors Notable honors won during Chargers career[a]
Rank[30] Player Career[30] Sacks[30] Honors[31]
1 Gary Johnson 1975–1984 67.0 All-Pro (1980–1982), 4× Pro Bowl (1979–1982)
2 Fred Dean 1975–1981 53.5 All-Pro (1980), 2× Pro Bowl (1979–1980)
3 Leroy Jones 1976–1983 43.5 N/A
4 Louie Kelcher 1975–1983 39.0 4× All-Pro (1977–1978, 1980–1981), 3× Pro Bowl (1977–1978, 1980)
  1. ^ All-Pro includes years selected either first or second team by Associated Press (AP) or Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA). Pro Bowl year corresponds to the NFL season the honor was earned not the following year which the Pro Bowl was played.


  1. ^ a b Jenkins, Chris (November 18, 1984). "Niners hope to bag another crown". The San Diego Union. p. H-12. Dean, Johnson and Louie Kelcher teamed with Leroy Jones to give San Diego one of the most overpowering defensive lines in recent NFL history. 
  2. ^ a b "No. 16: Chargers' best draft class". March 28, 2009. Retrieved March 7, 2013. The 2001 class was good, but the 1975 class ranks the best. San Diego had four of the first 33 picks in the draft, and the Chargers selected three defensive linemen that would form the nucleus of "The Bruise Brothers" and once formed three-fourths of the AFC Pro Bowl defensive line. (subscription required)
  3. ^ a b c Brown, Eddie (April 25, 2014). "Best and worst of the draft". U-T San Diego. Archived from the original on February 4, 2015. 
  4. ^ Canepa, Nick (August 4, 2010). "Gary 'Big Hands' Johnson dead at 57". The San Diego Union-Tribune. Archived from the original on March 7, 2013. 
  5. ^ a b Magee, Jerry (February 12, 2007). "You gotta hand it to legendary Johnson". The San Diego Union-Tribune. Archived from the original on March 7, 2013. 
  6. ^ "Vet Snow Waived By Ram Squad". The Press-Courier. Associated Press. September 7, 1976. p. 12. Retrieved March 7, 2013. 
  7. ^ a b Clayton, John (January 18, 1985). "49ers Dean-fense Hopes to Pressure Marino". Pittsburgh Press. pp. D1, D12. Retrieved March 7, 2013. 
  8. ^ a b Marshall, Joe (September 4, 1978). "Afc West". Sports Illustrated. Archived from the original on March 7, 2013. 
  9. ^ "SD countdown for Seahawks". The Spokesman-Review. July 31, 1978. p. 16. Retrieved March 7, 2013. 
  10. ^ a b c Center, Bill. "Don Coryell, ex-Chargers, Aztecs coach dies at 85". The San Diego Union-Tribune. Archived from the original on March 7, 2013. 
  11. ^ "Grambling community remembers three Tiger legends". The Gramblinite. July 15, 2010. Archived from the original on March 7, 2013. 
  12. ^ "GRAMBLING STATE UNIVERSITY LOSES TWO FOOTBALL LEGENDS" (Press release). Grambling State University. August 11, 2010. Retrieved March 7, 2013. (subscription required)
  13. ^ "Countdown to Enshrinement Spotlight: Fred Dean". College Football Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on July 13, 2011. 
  14. ^ Zimmerman, Paul (September 8, 1980). "Afc West". Sports Illustrated. Archived from the original on January 30, 2014. 
  15. ^ Zimmerman, Paul (December 24, 1979). "The Gospel According To Paul". Sports Illustrated. Archived from the original on January 30, 2014. 
  16. ^ Smith, Christopher (April 25, 2012). "Draft History: Defensive Tackles". Archived from the original on March 7, 2013. 
  17. ^ Ross, Allan (2005). I Remember Reggie White: Friends, Teammates, And Coaches Talk About the NFL's "Minister of Defense". Cumberland House Publishing. p. 64. ISBN 9781581824643. Retrieved March 7, 2013. 
  18. ^ Smith, Rick (1981). 1981 San Diego Chargers Facts Book. San Diego Chargers. pp. 44–5. 
  19. ^ "Ex-Kempsville star among hall of fame inductees". The Virginian-Pilot. August 25, 2013. Archived from the original on January 27, 2014. 
  20. ^ "Disgruntled Dean Ends two-Day Walkout". The Post. Palm Beach. September 27, 1981. p. E9. Retrieved March 7, 2013. 
  21. ^ a b c "Say It Ain't So". January 28, 2001. Archived from the original on March 7, 2013. 
  22. ^ "Sports People; Dean Goes to Chargers". The New York Times. October 3, 1981. Retrieved March 7, 2013. (subscription required)
  23. ^ Krasovic, Tom (June 5, 2013). "Chargers had a Fearsome Foursome, too". U-T San Diego. Archived from the original on January 27, 2014. 
  24. ^ a b Magee, Jerry (July 15, 2008). "Pass-rush specialist Dean named to Bolts' hall". The San Diego Union-Tribune. Archived from the original on March 7, 2013. 
  25. ^ Brown, Brian (March 29, 1984). "Chargers deal Kelcher to 49ers for low picks". The San Diego Union. p. C1. Kelcher also told Charger linebacker Cliff Thrift, a friend, that he wanted to return to football but did not want to play again for the Chargers. 
  26. ^ a b Zimmerman, Paul (January 28, 1985). "The Niners Were Never Finer". Sports Illustrated. Archived from the original on March 7, 2013. 
  27. ^ "Chargers 50th anniversary team". The Press-Enterprise. Archived from the original on August 26, 2011. 
  28. ^ "Chargers Honor Lincoln". Lewiston Tribune. October 24, 2000. Archived from the original on July 31, 2012. 
  29. ^ "Fred Dean". Retrieved March 8, 2013. 
  30. ^ a b c "2012 San Diego Chargers Media Guide" (PDF). San Diego Chargers. 2012. p. 155. Archived (PDF) from the original on March 8, 2013. 
  31. ^ San Diego Chargers 2012, p. 244–45.