"Roger! Roger Craig! How're you doing, fellow?" A flushed Bill Walsh was greeting a barefoot Roger Craig in the raucous 49ers' locker room at Stanford Stadium after Super Bowl XIX. Walsh, a good actor, looked pleasantly surprised, like a man bumping into a long-lost friend, someone he'd missed. It was reassuring for even a pass fancier like Walsh to know that it still takes a running back to make a football team great.
Walsh's gaze fell on Craig's new T shirt emblazoned with WORLD CHAMPION FORTY-NINERS. "Forty-Niners, eh?" said Walsh, acting impressed. Craig acknowledged the charade with a grin and padded off toward the army of reporters awaiting a fellow who'd scored a record three TDs in a Super Bowl.
"I'm just a spoke in a wheel," Craig, a 6-foot, 222-pound fullback, would say. While he was in college at Nebraska, being a fullback meant playing second banana. Now he was a star. A master of variety. Craig had blocked as well as caught passes and run through the Dolphins for a total of 140 yards. "I decided to put out on every play," he said. "If not now, when?"
Walsh became convinced of Craig's abilities two summers ago. "Roger Craig is going to become a great football player very soon," said Walsh in the summer of '83. Craig was in his first training camp then, a second-round draft choice fresh off a senior year that saw him move from tailback, at which he'd alternated with Mike Rozier, to fullback and relative obscurity in the Cornhuskers' I formation. Rozier would win the Heisman Trophy during Craig's rookie season in San Francisco. "But I learned other things playing fullback at Nebraska," says Craig. "Like blocking. I'm just glad the 49ers saw my ability so I could show everyone that I could play."
Craig, a native of Davenport, Iowa, began playing catch after his final season in Lincoln. "I'd watched the Niners and Joe Montana, and I knew I'd have to catch passes." Craig, who had only 16 receptions at Nebraska, caught workout passes almost constantly. They were thrown by everyone from his college quarterback, Turner Gill, to the quarterback coach at his first 49er minicamp, Paul Hackett. Hackett threw Craig 60 passes the first day of that camp. Craig dropped two. But he might have improved even that percentage to set Walsh to raving about him before he'd played his first NFL game.
The practice paid off. Craig grabbed 71 passes this season, the most among the San Francisco receivers. "In preparing for some games, you'd look at the defense and know Roger was going to catch a lot of balls," says Hackett. "Today, Joe was coming back to his secondary receivers. There were only one or two pass plays in the whole ball game where Roger was the primary receiver."
Craig capped a 47-yard drive early in the second quarter with a curl over the middle, catching a Montana pass for eight yards and the TD that gave the 49ers the lead for good, at 14-10. His second score came on a running play called 11 Leap, which was actually more of a happy fall as the left side of the 49ers' offensive line stove in the Dolphins' goal-line defense from two yards away.
His third TD was the result of a Montana audible from Miami's 16. The secondary receiver was Craig, running right to left across the field. He caught the pass and shifted into overdrive. His long legs impede him in cutback situations, but other than that he's a swift and powerful runner. Now he was heading full tilt to the end zone. Two Dolphins had a shot at him at the goal line. It would have been gratuitous contact. Craig was going to score. The Dolphins chose the better part of valor, and he went in untouched to make the score 38-16.
"People talk about Wendell [Tyler], but if Craig was a featured back, he'd be a 1,500- or 1,600-yard runner," says O.J. Simpson. Craig smiled when he heard about that remark and then padded across the locker room in his bare feet, back to his teammates, where the former second banana was greeted like a hero.