Perhaps even more surprising to Krueger was Nolan's sense of proportion. There was a reason to be late for practice or miss a game other than the fact of your own death. Nolan placed family, God and country before football.
" Charlie Krueger is such a pure guy, he has no enemies," Butchee Mudd was saying the other day. "But he is an incredibly complex man. I always felt he cared too much about football."
Krueger once belonged to a group of 49ers who were so deeply involved that they got exceptionally uptight at the approach of a game. With the approval of the coach they would arrive at the stadium an hour or two before the team bus. Then, without the added pressure of hurrying, they would leisurely go about the ritual of getting ready to play. The Early Birds, as they were called, would chain-smoke their way through the jitters while they indulged the athlete's small superstitions—taping a certain way and the right sock always before the left.
With the ebb and flow of football, trades and cuts, the group changed. At the beginning it included Krueger, Billy Kilmer, Linebacker Mike Dowdle and Half back John David Crow. There were always at least five Early Birds. Then, two years ago, there were none, except for Krueger. "As usual, I went out to the Coliseum for a Ram game an hour before the team arrived," he recalls. "They have these small two-man dressing cubicles, and I kept waiting for another Early Bird. But none came. They were all gone. Then I realized that my era was over. That was when I discovered I was a dinosaur and that I had outlived my time."
Since then Krueger has been in three playoffs, and recently he began to think ahead to another shot at a championship. "Then they'll have seen the last of Old Charlie," he said.
Old Charlie was feeling expansive. His weight was down—in fact, he was at 255 pounds, a recent pro low. Through the heat of preseason camp he had played well, and Wiggin thought he had got his second wind. "No telling how long Krueger will be around," he said.
Although he was still preoccupied with a graceful exit, Krueger was euphoric now that weight was no longer a problem. He was out on the town of Redwood City, ready for a calorie-rich meal at L'Auberge with Kris. In the off-season, he said, he and Kris had toured the Pacific. In Bora Bora he spotted Lou Spadia, the 49ers' general manager, in a hotel lobby. Tapping him on the shoulder, Krueger said, "My God, Mr. Spadia, I know I have had a weight problem, but isn't this carrying things too far?"
The anecdote was a nice light touch for the start of a hopeful season and a big night on the town. Ah, life was good! L'Auberge piled deference upon deference. The owner sent over rounds of drinks, and the maitre d' waited an hour after closing to present the bill. If you do your job the way it's supposed to be done and live long enough, someone may notice you. Robert Mitchum is now a great actor. Mistair Kruegair is a hero in the best French restaurant in Redwood City.