SI Vault
Robert F. Jones
September 20, 1971
If the San Francisco 49ers make it all the way to the Super Bowl this season, as well they might, then they will owe a long stretch of that journey to the strong right arm of Quarterback John Riley Brodie. Ah, but to what does John Brodie owe his strong right arm? Hold on to your hip flasks, sports fans. If one is to believe Brodie himself, and there is no cause to doubt him, a large part of his success in piloting the 49ers last year to their first title (NFC, Western Division) was due to a gnomish wizard who can wing a pigskin approximately nine yards on the fly, run from scrimmage at minus five yards per carry and block with all the rugged authority of a roll of Charmin.
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September 20, 1971

The Prime Of Mr. John Brodie

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More than that, Brodie's cool self-assurance shored up a club that in the past had been undercut by self-doubt. When the 49ers journeyed to Minnesota for the NFC's interdivisional playoff against the Vikings, few gave them a chance. Bud Grant's Purple People Eaters had the best season record in the league, and they were chomping their ugly jaws in their own frosty backyard. The thermometer read 8� just before kickoff, but a bright, California-style sun shone on the hillocks of snow in the end zones. While the Viking fans warmed themselves with schnapps and visions of Miami, Brodie came on with his own central heating, courtesy of Hubbard. Wearing a short-sleeved jersey and appearing impervious to the cold, he hit on 16 of 32 passes for 201 yards and one touchdown, then ran another in himself for the clincher late in the fourth quarter. Final score: 49ers 17, Vikes 14. "We beat them at their own game," Brodie exulted afterward. "Hard-nosed defense and a balanced offense that never really exploded. But, by gum, we popped loud enough to be heard on the scoreboard at the right times."

During his 14 seasons Brodie has taken more abuse from fans than most quarterbacks. Only in his rookie year, 1957, did the Kezar Cruelty Brigade chant "We want Brodie!" with any real enthusiasm. And even that was suspect, for in those distant days the 49er fans were down on another quarterback, Y. A. Tittle. When Tittle moved east to star for the New York Giants, Brodie inherited both his job and his jeering section. The chants now rang out: "We want Kilmer!" "We want Waters!" "We want Mira!" Goaded to new highs of rancor by fog, sea gulls, defeat and boilermakers, Kezar crowds took to pouring restoratives on Brodie's head as he ran down the ramp to the dressing room after a loss. "Sometimes they didn't bother to take the beer out of the cans," Brodie recalls with an icy chuckle. "Finally we had to put up a Cyclone fence to protect ourselves from their hardware."

Despite all the garbage he was collecting on the field, Brodie accrued plenty of compensation. San Francisco, for all its glamour, is still a pretty small pond, and "Brode," as he came to be known, was one of its biggest athletic fish. What's more, in a town that considers itself to be quite dashing and devil-may-care, he was a born gamesman. Regardless of what the critics might think of his football skills (which have always been considerable), no one could question Brodie's verve or nerve in other games. A fine amateur golfer, he gave the pro tour a whirl for several years. "I learned that as a pro you could only handle one sport at a time if you were to succeed," he says, "and my sport is football." Still, he shoots scratch golf to this day. At cards Brodie is equally dangerous—"poker, gin, bridge, I enjoy them all." Nor is he a piker: he once dropped $3,200 in an evening of gin to a notorious San Francisco player. Tennis, Ping-Pong, paddleball, handball, even dominoes or jacks—Brodie will play them all, and well, given the proper circumstances. "If there's action," he says, "I like it."

The old American Football League learned that to its great dismay in 1966. That was the year of the Big Raids, when the AFL, in a desperate effort to achieve parity with the NFL, was buying up superstars at astronomical prices—or threatening to. Playing the Houston Oilers against Pete Rozelle, with the fear of an antitrust suit as the zinger, Brodie collected a reported $750,000 and helped precipitate the merger of the rival leagues.

Explaining what John Riley Brodie has done during his 36 years is not, of course, explaining who John Riley Brodie is, as L. Ron Hubbard would be the first to admit. "The only thing that's real is the moment," Brodie philosophized recently. It was a California statement in a California setting, and to one listener, at least, it brought back memories of the Haight-Ashbury district during the abortive Summer of Love in 1967. In those hopeful days one might hail a hippie wearing a wristwatch and ask him "Hey, man, what time is it?" The hippie would peel back the buckskin fringes covering his watch and display its blank, handless face with a grand gesture of contempt for temporality. "Like, man," he would say, "it's Now."

Brodie would never use such clich�-ridden language, but his meaning was the same. He was sitting in a dark, air-conditioned cocktail lounge on the northern outskirts of Santa Barbara, where the 49ers spend part of their preseason training time. Sipping slowly and alternately at a glass of tomato juice and a Coors beer, taking an occasional drag on a Marlboro, he was surrounded by some of his "translators," as the San Francisco sportswriters call Brodie's closest friends on the team. Dave Wilcox, the outside linebacker now in his eighth season, is a slow-talking Oregonian with a wide, playfully evil grin—nobody's fool and a certified hell raiser in any NFL city, on field or off. Another good buddy is Julian Douglas Cunningham, nicknamed "Goober," the fifth-year rushing back out of Mississippi whose aggressive blocking and sure hands on short patterns more than compensate for his lack of size (6', 192 pounds). Finally, and physically the most impressive, there was Stan Hindman, the massive defensive lineman, with his blond Zapata-style mustache and his off-beat reputation as a painter and sculptor of considerable merit. It was an odd quartet but fully in keeping with Brodie's new breadth: the Quarterback-Philosopher, the Linebacker-Chaser, the Halfback-Man of Action and the Lineman-Artist.

"Yeah," said Brodie, after a double sip of tomato juice and beer, "the moment is what counts. And ever since I took up Scientology, every moment has been important, if not fun. Some were pretty frustrating all right—the losses along the way last year. But I was learning from them, not moping over them or trying to shut them out of my consciousness. And learning how to handle things is the essence of being alive. I've never felt younger since I was 30." Wilcox snorted and leered at a passing waitress. Goober stared at the ceiling, puzzled and embarrassed by the heavy words. Hindman mumbled something about age and pain: perhaps he was contemplating a new sculpture.

"Look," Brodie continued, "I don't want to sound like one of those goody-goodies who are always making it sound so easy, but Elmer Fudd could quarterback many of these NFL teams to a championship. My old lady could do it. Not that Unitas or Morton or Plunkett or Snead—any of them, for that matter—is Elmer Fudd. God forbid they should paste a quote like that on their locker door! What I mean is, the whole overemphasis on the quarterback is misplaced if you really understand what football is about. If you have balance, depth, a strong-willed but sympathetic coach like we have in Dick Nolan, a good stable of assistants, then you have the makings. After that, as a quarterback, you have to be cool and contained, a bit of a stud, perhaps, but not necessarily a scrambler. Not if it's going to hurt you and, through you, your team. No need for pain."

Hindman tugged at his mustache. He knew pain more recently than Brodie. The season before last Hindman had a knee operation. Last year, coming back from the physical and psychological torture of that commonplace surgery, he played backup defensive end as part of Nolan's Awesome Eightsome—the 49ers circulated two whole rush lines for most of the season, keeping fresh pressure on the enemy almost at will. At this particular Scientological moment, however, Hindman was fighting hard to stay in the lineup. The powers that be were considering moving him from end to defensive tackle where, as the coaches put it, his "intelligence and quickness" were bound to pay off in a game that increasingly favors mobility over sheer strength. The trouble is, Hindman has lost much of his quickness to the surgeon's knife. He compensates with even more intelligence. "Pain," he sighed. "No friend of mine." One day he will put it into a sculpture, taking great pains himself with the blowtorch.

Goober Cunningham, reclining in his chair well out of the mainstream of the conversation, sniffed peckishly. He wore a seedy little mustache, nowhere near as luxuriant as Hindman's, and a hard-boiled expression far tougher than Brodie's Irish good-guy mask. Clearly, Goober never heard of pain; he knows not what it is. All of this phony bull—let's talk about football!

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