After the SanFrancisco 49ers won their second straight game of the season at Kezar Stadium,the team repaired to a dining room atop a nearby brewery for a postgame dinner.This kind of togetherness is not unusual elsewhere in the league, but ingenteel San Francisco, where the fraternal roar of Lions is greeted with painedshudders, it is practically unheard of. Remarkably, it was the playersthemselves who arranged the party. In earlier times they finished their gameand went their separate ways. The dinner marked a first for the 49ers and wasevidence of a new and burgeoning spirit.
"We were nevertogether as a team," says John Brodie, the quarterback. "At practicethe offensive and defensive units are separate. After practice everyone wentoff in different directions—across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County, overthe Bay Bridge to Oakland, out the Bayshore Freeway to Redwood City or Athertonor Palo Alto. We never had a kind of team feeling, so some of us thought that adinner like this would help."
He paused for amoment.
"Ofcourse," he said cautiously, "we don't want to overdo it. I think threeor four times a year will be enough."
October 10, 1965
This sophisticatedattitude toward team spirit is as much a reflection of San Francisco as it isof the players. The 49er fan is probably the best mannered, least excitable inpro football. In most NFL parks you will see banners flying with fulsomephrases such as "We Love Our Colts" (with the O's in the form of aheart), or you will be deafened by the blast of air horns celebrating ahome-team touchdown, but in Kezar Stadium a crayoned bed sheet is frowned upon,and a man who dares tootle a raucous horn is promptly escorted from thepremises to the polite applause of his neighbors.
The press box inKezar Stadium has the air of a country club; it is the only one in pro footballwhere women are not only allowed, but welcomed. It is populated in large partby civic officials and their wives, with working sports-writers spotted hereand there like raisins in a poundcake.
In recent years,as the 49er fortunes ebbed, there have been times when there were as manypeople in the press box as in the stands. Their combined total often wasexceeded by the squadrons of gulls which appear about the middle of the fourthperiod looking for rare bits of popcorn and creating an understandablenervousness in punt receivers, who must look up for the ball.
Unfortunately? thesophistication that makes San Francisco a delightful city has made the 49ers,over the years, a less than frightening football team. One coach, quittingafter a couple of years of despairing effort, explained that too many of theplayers owned convertibles and that there were too many distractions in the Bayarea.
Red Hickey, atough coach of the blood-and-guts school, tried to whip the 49ers into anappropriate frenzy by the free application of an abrasive tongue, but hesucceeded only in creating a mood of sullen rebellion. Under Hickey, the 49erssubsided after one lone year near the top—they tied Detroit for the WesternConference lead in 1957 but lost the title in a playoff game—to the bottom ofthe Western Division and stayed there two more years under his successor, JackChristiansen. But Christiansen, a tough, aggressive player on a recklessDetroit team in the 50s, now seems to have discovered how to get the most outof his team. The 49ers are on the move, as they proved in a rip-roaring secondhalf in Sunday's 27-24 loss to the powerful Colts, and the fans are becomingenthusiastic.
"No one thingstarted us back," says Lou Spadia, the general manager. "A lot of smallthings started us down, and a lot of small things have contributed to ourcomeback, too."
Spadia is onlypartially correct. The 49ers' rise can be traced, as Spadia says, to a numberof things, but none of them is very small. The most important is Christiansen.Another is Brodie, a handsome whilom golf pro, who has suddenly learned tocontrol his approach shots. Then there is Ken Willard (see cover), a powerfullybuilt outfielder who turned down $80,000 from the Boston Red Sox—and probablymore than that from the American Football League—to play in the NFL. Andfinally there is John David Crow, the injury-ridden halfback who is one of thebest runners in football when a) he is allowed to play, and b) he remembers totake the ball with him on his runs.
Put them alltogether and add a good, experienced offensive line, exceptional receivers anda quick and opportunistic defense and you get the most improved football teamin the league.
It may also be theNFL's happiest and most relaxed team, an excellent State of affairs broughtabout by Christiansen, who came to the 49ers in 1959 as an assistant coachafter eight years with the Lions. There he was the leader of Chris's Crewwhich, for four or five years, was the best secondary defense in football, andhe still holds the league record for scoring on punt returns. He startedworking on the rudiments of this achievement as a rookie, when he shared safetyon punts with Doak Walker. In a game against the Los Angeles Rams, JoeStydahar, the Ram head coach, told Norman Van Brocklin, "Punt away fromWalker. Punt it to that skinny rookie." The spindly-legged Christiansen ranthe ensuing punt back 69 yards for a touchdown. Later in the game Stydahar,believing the run to have been an accident, again instructed Van Brocklin topunt to the skinny rookie. This time Christiansen ran the punt back 47 yardsfor another touchdown.
As the leader ofChris's Crew, Christiansen created a feeling of insouciant daring and animmense pride on the Detroit defensive team, and he did this without thebravura that generally accompanies such deeds. Just as quietly he has instilledthe same qualities this season in the entire San Francisco team; if, as someclaim, a team reflects the personality of its coach, this is nowhere more truethan with the 49ers.
"He's theeasiest coach I ever played for," says Crow, who has played for many andwho came to San Francisco from the St. Louis Cardinals in the off season in atrade for Defensive Back Abe Woodson. "Oh, he may get mad and chew you outif you need it, but he's been a player recently and he knows how to treatplayers. He doesn't humiliate you, and he doesn't talk it up too much. This isa game for professionals and we don't need pep talks, and here we don't getthem."
Crow, who has beenone of the best running backs in the league for seven years, helps the 49ersnot only as a ballcarrier but as a stabilizing influence on the rest of the SanFrancisco backfield, which is composed of rookies and second-year men.
"I'm the oldhead with a bunch of kids," he says, "but I learn a lot from them, too.Of course, I don't help them so much that one of them will take my job away.That's too much."
Crow fitted easilyinto the 49er offense.
"It's simplerthan the Cardinal offense," he says. "We have fewer plays, but we hitevery hole and we hit them all in several different ways. Only trouble I hadwas getting used to the offensive line. You'd be surprised how different itlooks to a running back behind a new line. I had to get my timing worked outwith the guards and tackles; I played behind Ken Gray at St. Louis for sevenyears and I knew what he was thinking, and then Charley Johnson and I used totalk things over a lot; he was a young quarterback and I could talk to him.Brodie is a veteran, and he knows his own mind and what he is going to do. Wedon't have to talk so much."
It has been onlyrecently that Brodie, despite his eight years in the league, has known his ownmind. The former Stanford star started the season by completing anextraordinary 75% of his passes in the first two 49er games against Chicago andPittsburgh. On at least one occasion last year (against the Baltimore Colts ina 14-3 loss) he was so far off target that he sat in the dressing room and weptafter the game.
"I wasconfused," he said the other day, "and because of that I didn't throwwell. Now everything has been simplified. Our line blocking has beenstandardized. Our pass patterns are simpler, and the receivers run themexactly. Dave Parks, for instance, has made the biggest improvement of anyplayer I have ever seen, primarily because he runs his patterns exactly thisyear. A lot of that is due to Christiansen, but a lot comes from Y. A. Tittle,too. You have to have a quarterback coach who used to be a quarterback. Ifyou've never played the position, you can't think like a quarterback. You watchwhat happens with Charley Johnson, now that the Cardinals have Bobby Layneworking with him. He's bound to improve. What did he throw against the Browns?Six touchdowns? And Layne had been working with him for only a week!"
Although Brodie isreluctant to talk about it, his improvement as a quarterback stems from thedeparture of Red Hickey, who quit as head coach of the 49ers after the thirdgame of the 1963 season. Hickey's scarifying tongue had wounded but did notinspire Brodie.
"We used tolearn a new offense every week," Brodie said. "We had the shotgun for along time, with me at tailback if we were going to throw and Kilmer at tailbackif we were going to run. We were telegraphing our punches. Then in one gameagainst the Rams, we tried to fool them. I was going to do the running, andKilmer would pass. We got clobbered, and I nearly got both ankles broken tryingto run. I'm not valuable to the team running; I'm valuable throwing the ball.Tittle knows that and so does Jack."
Unfortunately, in1964, Christiansen's first full season as the San Francisco head coach, Brodiewas about as good a runner as the 49ers had. J. D. Smith and Don Lisbon wereinjured, and by the end of the season the top ballcarrier on the club was arookie free agent named Dave Kopay. He gained an anemic 271 yards in 75carries. Kopay is improved this year, but he has the club to thank for this asmuch as his own hard work. The 49ers went after the best running back availablein this year's draft—the 230-pound Ken Willard, an All-America at NorthCarolina—and they signed him. Willard's pro debut was spectacular. After hisfirst two games he was second only to Jim Brown in rushing.
"It feelsgood," Brodie says. "It's comforting to look back and see those goodrunners and know that the defense isn't stacking against your passes."
Willard is athickly built, crew-cut blond with the heavy thighs and strong buttocks of apower runner. He also has surprising speed and he is intelligent, which doesnot hurt his running either. He averaged B as an undergraduate at NorthCarolina and is now studying law at Santa Clara.
"I could havequit high school when I was 17 and signed with Boston to play baseball," hesaid the other day. "I was just about as big then as I am now and I couldhit the long ball often enough. They sent Ted Williams down to Richmond to talkto me and they offered me a lot of money. I thought about it, but I wasn't sureI would be dedicated enough to my education to go back winters to get mydegree. Then I had read somewhere that only about 7% of all baseball rookiesever make it in the major leagues, and I thought about traveling around inbuses in the minors and I hate buses. So I went to North Carolina on a footballscholarship."
Willard, whobecame a strong NFL supporter through watching Washington Redskin telecastsduring his high school and college years, never considered the AFL, althoughBuffalo wanted him. "I was picked by Buffalo in a secret draft a weekbefore the 49ers drafted me, but I wasn't interested in the AFL and I didn'tlike the secret draft. I guess maybe if I had come up to the pros five or 10years from now, when the AFL is better established, I might have beeninterested."
Willard did notreport immediately to the 49ers this summer. Instead he played with the CollegeAll-Stars against the Cleveland Browns, a preparation for pro ball that hewould recommend to any aspiring rookie. "It is a gradualindoctrination," he says. "I started with the All-Star Game in Buffalo,where you play against the best college players. Then I went to the All-Starcamp at Northwestern. We scrimmaged the Chicago Bears, and I got my first tasteof the pros. Then we played the best of the pros—the Cleveland Browns—in theAll-Star Game. So the transition [Willard talks like this] from college toprofessional football was gradual."
Ken and Bonnie,his young, lovely wife from Richmond, live a two-minute drive from the 49erin-season camp at Redwood City with Scott, a 3-month-old son who looks like afuture tackle.
"I learned alot from watching John David," Willard said the other day, while Bonniegave Scott a bottle. "He's a finesse runner. He runs with a low, shufflingstride, like Jim Taylor or Jim Brown. They don't pick their feet up, and theyare always on balance. In college I hit the hole as fast as I could. But Inoticed Taylor takes his first couple of steps very quickly, then hesitates andlooks for an opening. I tried that against the Steelers and it worked outpretty well, I think."
"One thing Ilike about pro football," Willard said, echoing Crow, "is that thecoach doesn't spend any time trying to key you up. These guys are pretty easyabout a game. You'll see someone, just before the start, sitting reading abook. This is an intangible, but it is important. I don't like to be pumped upbefore a game. I'll get myself up and I don't need outside help."
Of hisnoninspirational technique, Christiansen says: "It's all over by Saturday.Nothing I can say just before a game is going to change it. If you are properlyprepared, you'll play well. If you're not, Sunday before a game is toolate."
Christiansen, tallbut no longer spindly, is open and honest about himself. He was surprised whenhe was named head coach of the 49ers, because there were other coaches on thestaff who had more experience. He was selected during a two-hour conferencebetween Spadia and Vic Morabito, the president of the 49ers, who has sincedied. Spadia today cannot remember exactly why they settled onChristiansen.
"I liked himbecause the players liked him, and he always had something to offer inmeetings," Spadia says. "Logically, we should have picked a guy likeMoose Myers, who had coached College of the Pacific, but we picked Jack. We'rehappy about it. It was a complete change from Hickey, who did a good job for usand wasn't fired. Coaches get praised too much for winning and blamed too muchfor losing."
Basically, thedifference between Christiansen and Hickey was in their first approach. WhileHickey was critical and demanding, Christiansen was critical and tolerant.
"You get a lotof young ball players in camp, but always they seem to break down to twokinds," Christiansen says. "There are a few who need to be kicked inthe butt to produce; there are a lot more you have to handle gently and topraise. Our idea is to handle everyone gently at first, not hurting thesensitive ones. Later we can use the needle on the ones who need it."
Christiansenbelieves in delegating responsibility, a factor that many think has helped theteam.
"A head coachdoesn't have time to coach any more," Christiansen says. "He has totake care of public relations and organization. All I do on the practice fieldis supervise. Last year I tried to work with the backs, but I didn't have thetime. So now Tittle works with them. When we're concentrating on defense, he'sover at the side working with Brodie and George Mira and the receivers. Ithelps."
The 49ers workeven after practice, a fact that has impressed Hugh McElhenney, San Francisco'smarvelous halfback of some years ago. "This is the first time in a longwhile I've seen this kind of a 49er club," he said. "I watched thempractice the other day. Used to be when practice was over everyone went in. Nowthey stay out and run pass patterns or plays. They work extra. They think theycan win it."