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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.
"He's the 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 them."
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.
"It's simpler 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.