Spadia is only
partially correct. The 49ers' rise can be traced, as Spadia says, to a number
of 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 to
control his approach shots. Then there is Ken Willard (see cover), a powerfully
built outfielder who turned down $80,000 from the Boston Red Sox—and probably
more than that from the American Football League—to play in the NFL. And
finally there is John David Crow, the injury-ridden halfback who is one of the
best runners in football when a) he is allowed to play, and b) he remembers to
take the ball with him on his runs.
Put them all
together and add a good, experienced offensive line, exceptional receivers and
a quick and opportunistic defense and you get the most improved football team
in the league.
It may also be the
NFL's happiest and most relaxed team, an excellent State of affairs brought
about by Christiansen, who came to the 49ers in 1959 as an assistant coach
after eight years with the Lions. There he was the leader of Chris's Crew
which, for four or five years, was the best secondary defense in football, and
he still holds the league record for scoring on punt returns. He started
working on the rudiments of this achievement as a rookie, when he shared safety
on punts with Doak Walker. In a game against the Los Angeles Rams, Joe
Stydahar, the Ram head coach, told Norman Van Brocklin, "Punt away from
Walker. Punt it to that skinny rookie." The spindly-legged Christiansen ran
the 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 to
punt to the skinny rookie. This time Christiansen ran the punt back 47 yards
for another touchdown.
As the leader of
Chris's Crew, Christiansen created a feeling of insouciant daring and an
immense pride on the Detroit defensive team, and he did this without the
bravura that generally accompanies such deeds. Just as quietly he has instilled
the same qualities this season in the entire San Francisco team; if, as some
claim, a team reflects the personality of its coach, this is nowhere more true
than with the 49ers.
easiest coach I ever played for," says Crow, who has played for many and
who came to San Francisco from the St. Louis Cardinals in the off season in a
trade for Defensive Back Abe Woodson. "Oh, he may get mad and chew you out
if you need it, but he's been a player recently and he knows how to treat
players. He doesn't humiliate you, and he doesn't talk it up too much. This is
a game for professionals and we don't need pep talks, and here we don't get
Crow, who has been
one of the best running backs in the league for seven years, helps the 49ers
not only as a ballcarrier but as a stabilizing influence on the rest of the San
Francisco backfield, which is composed of rookies and second-year men.
"I'm the old
head 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 easily
into the 49er offense.
than the Cardinal offense," he says. "We have fewer plays, but we hit
every hole and we hit them all in several different ways. Only trouble I had
was getting used to the offensive line. You'd be surprised how different it
looks to a running back behind a new line. I had to get my timing worked out
with the guards and tackles; I played behind Ken Gray at St. Louis for seven
years and I knew what he was thinking, and then Charley Johnson and I used to
talk 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. We
don't have to talk so much."
It has been only
recently that Brodie, despite his eight years in the league, has known his own
mind. The former Stanford star started the season by completing an
extraordinary 75% of his passes in the first two 49er games against Chicago and
Pittsburgh. On at least one occasion last year (against the Baltimore Colts in
a 14-3 loss) he was so far off target that he sat in the dressing room and wept
after the game.