If the buildupwas to be believed, the matchup of the Bears and 49ers for the NFC championshipwas really a game of life-styles—rugged, city-of-big-shoulders Chicago againstsupposedly effete San Francisco. The teams themselves seemed to advance thestereotype: Chicago played defense, San Francisco played offense. Tough guysversus fancy Dans. A matter of sociology.
Well, as anybodywho lives there knows, San Francisco is far from effete. And now the worldknows that its football team assuredly isn't, either. In that epochalsociological encounter, those quiche eaters devoured the hog butchers 23-0. Andthey didn't do it so much with finesse as with sheer brute force. The greatblitzers from Chicago were flattened by 49er linemen, and the Chicago offensegave up nine sacks. After the game, the San Francisco defense was justlyapplauded for pitching its shutout, and coach Bill Walsh was, as usual,trumpeted as a genius. But, in truth, this game was won by the 49ers' offensiveline, the heart of which is on the right side, where Randy Cross at guard andKeith Fahnhorst at tackle have played shoulder to shoulder for six seasons.
"They've beentogether so long, they see things other linemen don't," says 49er offensiveline coach Bobb McKittrick. "It's rare that you have that kind ofcontinuity. They know each other's reactions, and so many things happen in agame that you can't practice them. Things will happen that just don't show upon film. Randy and Keith react to those things." Against the Bears, it wasdetermined that the 49ers should shut off the middle of the Chicago defense,while quarterback Joe Montana would take a shorter—three steps rather thanfive—drop back and throw quick, short passes under the zone. In this scheme,Fahnhorst would take as his blocking assignment the defender oppositeCross—usually Steve McMichael—and Cross would pick up the middle blitzers. Whenthe Bears went more to an outside blitz in the second half, the 49ers switchedto a running game with equally devastating results. Not that they hadn't runeffectively in the first half. On one play in the first quarter, Wendell Tylerran untouched for 25 yards until he was forced out of bounds at the Bears' two,a play made possible when the 273-pound Fahnhorst dropped the blitzing Chicagosafety, 205-pound Dave Duerson. "When he blitzed, he was right there,"said Fahnhorst. "I wish every play could be that simple."
Both Fahnhorstand Cross have been elected by their peers and the NFL coaches to this year'sPro Bowl game in Honolulu, and Fahnhorst, getting overdue recognition, ismaking various media All-Pro teams. The Pro Bowl will be his first. Hisomission heretofore has been an egregious oversight, in the opinion of histeammates, for a man who has played so well and so consistently for 11 longyears.
January 21, 1985
Cross andFahnhorst are imposing physical specimens, Fahnhorst's bulk distributed over a6'6" frame, Cross's 265 pounds over a more guardlike 6'3". Fahnhorst issimply a big man, the sort once called rawboned. Cross has the thick limbs andmassive chest of a weightlifter, which is certainly ironic because if there isany one activity he would happily abandon, it's weightlifting. He hardly didany at all until he became a pro, and he finds it nothing but drudgery. "Itis a necessary evil," he says. "I can tell you that I won't do it whenI quit playing."
Oddly, bothplayers began their careers as comparative weaklings, and both began atdifferent positions. Both are fiercely mustached, but for all their ominousmien, they are, beyond argument, two of the brightest and nicest guys you'dever want to meet—in football or out.
Cross is eating aham sandwich with the crew and some of his fellow panelists before taping theSportstalk television show on channel 36-KICU in San Jose, Calif. The formatcalls for the 49er guard to chew the fat with some fans on a set made to looksomewhat like a neighborhood bar. Cross is the voice of reason on these shows,his massive presence tempering the 49er fanaticism of the other guests. He's anatural on the air, recognized throughout the Bay Area as a media star. Duringthe players' strike of 1982, when he was recuperating from a freak leg injurysuffered in a charity appearance at an amusement park, he had a morning spot onlocal radio, glibly unburdening himself on a variety of topics. He did both aradio show and the KICU Sportstalk program this season.
And though heplays a position lacking any semblance of glamour, Cross is easily themost-quoted 49er in the press and on the air. And if he isn't, Fahnhorst, whois wry and self-deprecating, is. Montana, the team's star, is a veritablesphinx compared with these two engaging rhetoricians.
Cross, who wasraised in the Los Angeles suburb of Tarzana, comes by his theatricalitynaturally. His father, Dennis Cross, now 60, was an actor in movies and ontelevision for nearly three decades, playing heavies because of his swarthyIrish—Blackfoot Indian countenance. He did, however, star as a good guy in a1960 television series, The Blue Angels. In the early '70s, the elder Crossbecame disillusioned with the erratic and frequently idle life of an actor andretired into the insurance business, where he is now contentedly employed inSouthern California. Cross's mother, Rita, also has a show-business history.She was Rosalind Russell's personal secretary for a time and then secretary tothe head scriptwriter for the cultish Star Trek series. "The kids in ourfamily [seven, all told] knew all the Star Trek stories before they came on theair," Cross says, "so we were much in demand." Still, life on thestage or before the camera had no appeal for him at first. Quite the opposite,in fact. "I developed a real aversion for the business," he says."I'd see my dad, with seven kids to support, sitting around waiting forthat phone to ring. That seemed to me to be his job."
Cross isbeginning to recognize that his own performing gifts are not insignificant, andis contemplating a career after football as a television commentator. On theevidence of his KICU appearances, he would seem a good bet.
He is the centerof attention this night, both during the pretaping meal and on the air,unloading opinions on everything from horror movies—Wolfen struck him asespecially unsettling—to John Madden. "He's really not as big in person ashe looks on the screen," which is all very easy for Cross to say. Whenasked before the taping by one of the crew what team he would advise betting onin the Chicago game, Cross cautioned, "You should never bet on footballplayers. We're smaller, slower and we smell worse than horses." It is aline he likes so much he will repeat it in a radio interview several days afterthe Niner victory.
On the air, Crossquickly deflects questions about the supposedly impregnable Chicago defense byadvising viewers that the 49ers actually allowed fewer points this season thanthe Bears. Asked about the Chicago blitz, he replies, smiling, "A lot ofpeople think that when a team blitzes you have to beat it with the bomb. Wehave a little different philosophy. What's wrong, we say, with beating it witha bunch of five-yard gains?" When panelist Mitch Juricich complains thatthe 49ers don't seem to get their due in the Eastern press and on networktelevision, Cross, an avid and eclectic reader, asks him if he has ever seenthe famous Saul Steinberg illustration of a New-Yorker's view of the world, aview that reduces the map of the United States beyond the Hudson River to a fewisolated outposts, such as Kansas City and Nebraska. He bristles properly atsuggestions that the 49ers are, as they have been called all week, a"finesse team," presumably lacking muscle.
"I thinkbeing considered a finesse player is a compliment," he says, "althoughI'm not quite sure what is meant by it. Maybe it was a kind of finesse when Ihit Lawrence Taylor in the stomach during the playoff game with the Giants. Idon't know. But the word has a nice ring, and I know that when I'm retired Iwouldn't want my kid to come up to me and ask, 'Daddy, were you a Hog?'"
Fahnhorst iswaiting in his suburban San Carlos town house for his wife, Susan, to returnfrom a San Francisco shopping adventure. Since she is already two weeks overduedelivering their third child, any of her absences are cause for anxiety.Fahnhorst's brother, Jim, a 49er linebacker whose first season with the team(after two years in the USFL) was ended in early December by a knee injury, iskeeping him company. There is a six-year age gap between the brothers."Keith used to walk me in my stroller," says Jim, 26, "and leave meon street corners." The younger Fahnhorst's injured right leg rests on acoffee table. Brother Keith busies himself tracking down the two frolickingFahnhorst daughters, Tiffany Dawn, 5, and Brittney Brook, 3. "I think mywife reads too many romantic novels," he has said of his daughters'bruised-petal names. He looks anxiously at his watch. "Sue ought to be backby now, unless she's delivering," he says. "We usually plan our babiesso that I can miss minicamp. This one was obviously a miscalculation. Happenedon a free cruise to Mexico, a free cruise that will cost me plenty."
Dressed intattered jeans and scurrying in his stocking feet after his children, Fahnhorstis scarcely a menacing presence. His photographs give him the leathery look ofa Western gunfighter; in person, he has a boyish, crooked smile that beliesthat harsh image. Fahnhorst, like his line mate, is a man of considerablepersonal charm. "Was I a great athlete as a kid?" he asks, repeating aquestion. "I don't know if I'm even an athlete now. I still look clumsy outthere. I played football in the seventh and eighth grades and quit both years.I was tall and skinny, skinnier than skinny—6'6", 180. When I went outagain my sophomore year in high school, my main goal was not to quit. I didn'tbecome a starter until my junior year. And I tried other things. I threw thediscus pretty well, and I played a little basketball. I was pitiful inbasketball. I could catch an oblong ball, but never a round one. I was worsethan terrible. Minnesota was the only major school that offered me ascholarship. I decided to take advantage of their mistake and get a goodeducation."
Fahnhorst wasborn and raised in St. Cloud, Minn., 70 miles northwest of Minneapolis. "Wewere three boys and a sister, and I was the oldest boy," he says. "Mysister is older. My dad was a truck driver until I got into the first grade;then he slipped a disk, and suddenly we had a lot of financial problems. Weweren't starving, but we didn't have a car, and my mom had to work pretty hardto keep things going. Still, St. Cloud was a great place to grow up. There were35,000 to 40,000 people there, and it was the type of community where you couldkeep your door open at night. It was a nice, clean place to live."
At the Universityof Minnesota, Fahnhorst was a gangly tight end who, since the Golden Gophersrarely threw the ball, caught only 28 passes in his three-year varsity career."And his feet were so bad," said a Minnesota administrator, "thathe usually fell down as soon as he caught the ball." Nevertheless, he washis team's leading receiver his senior year, 1973, with 10 catches for 102yards. The Gophers were a respectable 7-4 that season, but they were capable oflosing big. After a particularly humiliating 48-7 loss to Nebraska inMinneapolis, the Gopher head coach at the time, Cal Stoll, told his players,"The losers in this room will probably go out and party tonight. Thewinners will stay home and think about what happened here today." Fahnhorstwent home to his Beta Theta Pi fraternity house with every intention ofbrooding over the melancholy events of the day. But the more he thought aboutit, the more like a loser he felt. "So, what the hell," he said tohimself, "I might as well go out and have a good time." He went to aparty at another fraternity house and met the young dental assistant who wouldbecome his wife. Stoll obviously didn't know what he was talking about.
Susan, wearing alavender sweater and black slacks, is back from shopping. She is dark hairedand, despite her precarious condition, bubbly. When she watches the 49ers play,she watches only the right tackle, preparing her critique for the moment Keithwill ask her how he's done. "She's my worst critic," he says."She's really into it, although she doesn't know as much as she thinks shedoes. But she's kept me going during the bad times."
"Keithintroduced himself to me at that frat party," she says. "He wasn't mytype at all. He was a hippie, and I was a Nordie, a sheltered kid of 19 fromthe conservative northeast section of Minneapolis. So here was this hippie withhis hair down to here...."
"It wasn'tthat long...."
"With hishair down to here. A hippie, and a 6'6" hippie at that. He was not my typeat all. But he was such a nice guy. He was the nicest person I'd evermet."
Fahnhorst came tothe 49ers in 1974 as a tight end, Cross in '76 as a center. Fahnhorst's careeras a receiver lasted two preseason games and parts of other games in '74 and'75. That was long enough. "If I'd stayed at tight end," he says,"I'd have been out of the league in five years." In his firstexhibition season, he was moved to tackle. "I was at left tackle, aposition I don't like because if your man gets by you there, he's on thequarterback's blind side and you've probably given up a sack," he says."In that Ram game, Fred Dryer ran around me so fast I never touched him. Hehit [quarterback Steve] Spurrier right in the back. The ball popped up, and itwas returned for a touchdown. It was obvious I was not ready to play."
Fahnhorst'sproblems with the new position were further complicated by a mysterious loss ofweight. He had started the year at nearly 250 pounds, but before the season wasover he had dropped to 220, making him a Lilliputian among Brobdingnagians."I'd arrive for practice, and my pulse would be at 115-120," he says."That's before a workout. They looked at me funny in the trainer's room, asif I'd been on drugs." His condition was finally diagnosed as a hyperactivethyroid gland. Medication controlled the problem at first, but when Fahnhorstdiscovered in his third season that he was again feeling weak and that he wasunable to gain weight, he underwent surgery to remove half of the gland. Whenhe recovered, head coach Monte Clark moved him to right tackle, where he hasprospered ever since.
Recognition comesslowly, if at all, to an offensive tackle. Fahnhorst didn't get his until this,his 11th, season. In the '81 Super Bowl season he played superbly, and in '83he allowed only two verifiable sacks. He did not give up his first sack thispast season until the 11th game. "I think I've improved every year," hesays. "When Bill [Walsh] first got here [in 1979], I started playing mybest, mostly because excellence was demanded. In the years before, we'd go intoa game and give up a sack and say, 'Hey, the quarterback should be able to takeit. He's getting paid to.' And with the running backs, you could just hearthose hits behind you. Fortunately, we had a guy like Paul Hofer who never wentdown on the first hit. I tell him now that we were just practicing on his bodyso we could get where we are today. If Bill hadn't come here, I think I'd stillbe playing mediocre football." He laughs. "Of course, I have mediocreability, but I play better than that. Now I take it as a personal affront ifthe quarterback is sacked or even hit late. That sort of thing can wreck mywhole day."
Cross was born inBrooklyn but was taken to Tarzana when he was a babe in arms. Although he is aSouthern Californian by upbringing, he has always been a 49er fan, anattachment inherited from his father, who was discharged from the Marine Corpsin the Bay Area a year after World War II ended and became an instant rooterfor San Francisco's new team in the All-America Conference. "My dad hatesthe Rams and USC," he says. "It's no accident that I ended up playingfor teams that are their arch-rivals. Dad would root like crazy for the 49ersagainst the Rams. He was always a frustrated athlete who never had theopportunity to play. He was raised in an orphanage with his brother. The two ofthem escaped." Cross's father joined the Marines, his uncle joined theArmy. "He and my mom drive up to San Francisco for every home game now.They love it," Cross says.
Cross himself hasdeveloped a typical San Franciscan's distaste for Southern California. "Inever want to go back there," he says. His wife, Patrice, is asixth-generation San Franciscan, the Irish side of her Irish-Italian familydates back to the gold rush era, a time when her ancestor Michael Kelly Hayesmade a fortune in the liquor trade. Hayes lived long enough to suffer throughthe great earthquake and fire of 1906, which he regarded as a personal rebukefrom the Almighty for his trafficking in demon rum. He dedicated himselfthereafter to good works.
Cross didn'tstart playing football until he was in the ninth grade. "I was a baseballplayer, a catcher and pitcher, and a pretty good one," he said. "When Istarted the ninth grade I was about 5'7", 170 pounds, a little fat kid. Bythe end of that year I was 6'1", 185." Besides football, Cross went outfor track, in the conviction, regrettably mistaken, that shotputters didn'thave to run as much as baseball players. "I was wrong about that. We ranall the time," he says. At Crespi High, a Catholic boys school with anenrollment then of 600, Cross blossomed in both sports. He was All-CaliforniaInterscholastic Federation in football, and he won the state high school trackmeet in the shot with a best of 67'6½". The state meet represented the endof his track career, although he did do some shotputting in practice as afreshman at UCLA, "throwing around 60 feet." Terry Donahue, then anassistant coach, now the Bruins' head coach, persuaded Cross that his futurewas in football, not tossing a big iron ball around. At UCLA, Cross played bothguard and center, often in the same game, so he was prepared to play eitherposition when the 49ers drafted him. At 245 pounds he was a little light for anoffensive lineman, and since he abhorred the weightlifting routine, he soonfound himself overmatched against the behemoths in the NFL's defensive lines."In college," he said at the time, "I didn't have to worry aboutguys who can lift houses and eat cars."
Still, when BillReid, the incumbent center, suffered a serious knee injury in training camp inCross's rookie year, he was, as he puts it, "thrown to the wolves. It was aquantum leap for me, at least as big a leap as going from high school tocollege ball. It was a shock, but the wolves didn't get me. I was lucky, too,because Monte Clark was an excellent teacher of line play." When Walsh tookover, he and McKittrick agreed that Cross, now a dedicated weightlifter and 15pounds heavier, should play right guard alongside Fahnhorst and that FredQuillan should be the center. Cross continued to snap from center for punts andplacekicks with, he says, "a gun at my head." At his new position,Cross flourished, making the Pro Bowl squad two years after the move.
"I thinkRandy is the best all-around guard in the league today," says McKittrick."He never takes a false step pulling out. He has good speed, but there arefaster people who won't get there as fast. He has mastered the techniqueabsolutely. There might be better pass blockers at his position and there mightbe better drive blockers, but no one can do it all so consistently. When hepulls, there is no guard more effective at putting the linebacker on theground."
Cross andFahnhorst are among the few 49ers on the current roster who endured the chaosvisited upon the organization by the departure—under pressure—of Clark afterthe '76 season and the arrival of Joe Thomas as general manager. Thomas was afamily friend of new 49er owner Eddie DeBartolo, who bought the team from thefounding Morabito family. One of Thomas's first acts was to alienate 49eralumni by removing their photographs—pictures of the sainted Y.A. Tittle, HughMcElhenny, Joe Perry and Leo Nomellini—from the office walls and cutting offtheir free passes. A bad start. He hired Ken Meyer, a longtime NFL assistantcoach, as his head man, and the team lost its first five games, finishing theseason at 5-9. Meyer was fired. In '78, the team achieved its alltime low, a2-14 record, as two head coaches, Pete McCulley and Fred O'Connor, andcountless players and assistant coaches passed through the 49ers' revolvingdoors.
Thomas, sensingthat his tenure was running short, took to ranting at his players in the lockerroom. He even got into an altercation with a newspaper reporter in a Washingtonhotel disco. Cross had both a broken wrist and a broken ankle that season andconsidered himself fortunate to be home recuperating in "an alcove ofsanity." Things got so bad they got funny. "We'd played a game calledName That Face with the team pictures," Cross recalls. "No one felt anysafer on that team than a political activist in Chile. One time I remembergoing into the trainer's room to have my cast changed after the leg injury.This was a Wednesday, and I was hurt on Sunday. The first five players I raninto in the trainer's room I had never seen before."
"Seven yearsago, I really thought that if I ever had a winning season, it would besomething," says Fahnhorst. "The paychecks were still coming in, butit's tough playing football when you're losing like that. One of the reasonsI've never moved out here permanently [the Fahnhorsts have a home in NewBrighton, Minn. in the off-season] is that I always thought my time was coming.Now, I'm beginning to believe it's safe, so we're thinking of moving here inthe next off-season."
Life on the 49erschanged under Walsh, certainly, but the bad times were not entirely over. Inthe strike-shortened '82 season, the team fell to 3-6 and missed the playoffs,one season after winning the Super Bowl. Cross and Fahnhorst had their ownproblems, the one physical, the other political.
Cross, ayear-round Bay Area resident, has a deserved reputation as a do-gooder. He is asoft touch for any charity, and he has even organized a few himself. He is, forexample, planning a celebrity golf tournament in June to benefit the RonaldMcDonald House and Stanford's Children's Hospital. On Memorial Day of 1982,Cross was among a number of local athletes participating in a Sports Challengecompetition at an amusement park near the 49ers' headquarters in Redwood City.The challenge would have the grown-up athletes do the children's obstaclecourse. On the Birdie Glide, a ride on a wire across a water bed, Crosslaunched his considerable bulk. He quickly lost his grip and fell from a heightof 10 feet. He landed with his left leg bent beneath him. There was an audiblecrack, and Cross fell back in obvious pain. Willie McCovey, the old Giant firstbaseman, was the first to reach him, and he helped Cross to straighten theinjured ankle. But Cross had suffered a broken fibula in his left leg, tornligaments in his left ankle and a dislocated foot. Surgery was required."My Sports Challenge career is over," he quipped at the time. Hisfootball career might also have been. When Cross awoke in Stanford UniversityMedical Center after surgery, the attending physician looked down at him andinquired what his major had been in college. "I guess he thought I'd betterget out and use it," says Cross. Instead, he recovered in time to play inthe final preseason game that year. He also made the Pro Bowl again—largely, hefeels, on his reputation, because the injured leg slowed him all season.
Fahnhorst'sdifficulties in '82 were in the boardroom, not on the gridiron. As the 49ers'player representative, he had been part of a failed movement the previous yearto depose Players Association executive director Ed Garvey. Relations betweenthe mild-mannered but stubborn player and the union head were obviouslystrained. Fahnhorst said he was opposed to Garvey's leadership. "I justthought we weren't getting results," he says. "Just because Iquestioned the union's policies I was labeled pro-management. Well, I learned alot from all that, enough to know that I never, ever want to go intopolitics."
The termoffensive lineman is really a misnomer. In reality, the men of that ilk arealmost constantly on the defensive—protecting their quarterbacks from mayhem,trying to make room for their running backs. It is the offensive lineman whogets beaten on and hauled about. His only satisfaction is in frustrating histormentors by keeping them from his backs. He is like a mother protecting heryoung. Obviously, it takes a special kind of personality to play this hazardousand largely unrewarding position. Says Cross, "If you have a young son whodoesn't cry when you beat him or ignore him, then you've got an offensivelineman in your family. Defensive linemen are all rags and reaction. I wouldn'tsay that offensive linemen are more cerebral, but we do have to think on therun. Keith and I, for example, have a silent communication. What we'll do topick each other up will happen in half a second. But we'll know what to do, howto help out. We can laugh about it later."
"I don'tthink I'm a real good athlete," says Fahnhorst, "so if I'm not into agame mentally, I'll have a problem. I compensate for my deficiencies withpreparation and by studying my opponent. I've got to be damn near perfect on mysets to succeed. I'm not always looking good, but I'm not giving anything awayand I'm getting the job done. Six years ago, I stopped trying to dance in thebackfield with defensive linemen. Why kid myself? I'm never going to have thefeet to do that. So I started taking guys on at the line of scrimmage, being alot more aggressive. Bobb McKittrick suggested that the whole line do that, sothat if we lose our man, he's still five or six feet from Joe. If you'rebacking up and you lose him, he'll be right in Joe's face."
Cross andFahnhorst. They are at the peak of their profession, earning in non-glamourpositions roughly $300,000 a year. They are unobtrusive men, homebodies both ofthem, and gentle by nature. "If I came home one night and found Keithstabbed in the back," says Susan Fahnhorst, "I know exactly what he'dsay: 'Well, the guy must've had a pretty good reason to do something likethat.' "
But do not bedeceived by such passivity. Cross and Fahnhorst are nice guys, even sweet guys,real family men, proud fathers, but they are also professionals. And theirprofession is punishing trespassers. They may go gently into the night, but,Dolphins beware, they'll tear you apart by twilight.