In the spring of 1953 I received a call from Pete Rozelle who, at that time, was the public relations director for the Los Angeles Rams. He told me that the Rams were looking at me and to hang tight. As it turned out, L.A. selected a 6'4", 235-pound offensive tackle out of Kentucky (in the third round) by the name of Bob Fry.
Before the Rams could select again, I had already been drafted by the 49ers and would be returning to my hometown of San Francisco. Owner Tony Morabito offered me $5,500. I told him no. I wanted $6,000 because a former teammate of mine at Tulsa, lineman Marv Matuszak, signed with Pittsburgh for that amount. Mr. Morabito hung up the phone. A week later he called back and agreed to the $6,000 per year contract. I just may have been the league’s first hold out!
When I reported to the 49ers as a rookie in 1953, I immediately was matched one-on-one against Leo Nomellini. Leo was an All-Pro tackle. He weighed 265 pounds and was counted on to give me my initiation into the NFL.
One of the major problems that we faced in those days was that we only had 33 players on a team. This meant playing both offense, defense, and all special teams.
In my first three years I not only played both offense and defense, but rarely left the field throughout the entire four quarters. And as far as playing on special teams, that was an automatic. There wasn’t really any room for a guy who could only play one position. The “specialist” had not yet come of age.
The game back then was built around roughness. I used to leg-whip in those days—and it was legal! But I was handicapped by the way I had to block. Offensive linemen couldn’t use their hands. I would have loved to have played the way they do today.
There was also a personal high about knocking a man down—really hitting him hard. It was the only satisfaction an offensive lineman had. It gave you a jolt of the ol’ adrenaline.
I consider myself very fortunate to have played in the 1950s and to have been a part of a team with some of the greatest football players of all time. Our quarterback was Y.A. Tittle, our halfback was Hugh “The King” McElhenny, and our fullbacks were Joe “The Jet” Perry and John Henry Johnson. They were known as the “Million Dollar Backfield,” and they are the only complete backfield enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
I also had the opportunity to play with some of the other 49er legends—R.C. Owens, the receiving half of the alley-oop pass; Billy Wilson, a Hall of Fame–caliber end; defensive back Jimmy Johnson and defensive lineman Leo Nomellini, both in the Hall of Fame. There were others—John David Crow, Ed Henke, Dicky Moegle, Ted Connolly, Bruce Bosley, Gordy Soltau, Abe Woodson, Joe Arenas, Clay Matthews, Charlie Krueger, John Brodie, J.D. Smith, Eddie Dove, Billy Kilmer, Don Burke, Roland Lakes, Bob Toniff, Clyde Connor, Visco Grgich, and Bruno Banducci (now there’s a name that goes way back)—just to name a few.
I was a member of the 49ers from 1953 to 1964, and I wouldn’t change playing in my era for any other. But every so often I get questions from people wondering how my era would have fared in today’s era. Well, let’s look at it this way: I played both offense and defense predominately the whole game. We didn’t have facemasks the first three years, our helmets were leather, and we had numerous injuries where we had to play through. Now, I don’t think the question should be whether or not we could play in today’s league. I think the question should be whether or not these “candy asses” of today could play with us!
Bob St. Clair
Pro Football Hall of Fame 1990
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism