On a night in midsummer Charlie Krueger (left), the San Francisco 49ers' redoubtable defensive tackle, pressed his highball glass fondly to his cheek. He was theoretically on the wagon. For a man who enjoyed a good belt, it was a difficult time. Moreover, Krueger's appetite matched his thirst, and he wasn't supposed to eat either. There were 13 pounds of fat to be sweated off, and the exhibition season was approaching.
It was a senseless fix for a middle-aged man to be in, and Krueger, a gent close to 37, ought to have known better. That's what Krueger was thinking.
He had been at his trade for 14 seasons. Right then it seemed 14 centuries. Since the average life span of a pro is 4.6 years, Krueger figured he had spent the equivalent of three lives playing pro ball. A quarter of a million tackles later, he wondered if he had not had enough.
"In 1958 I came into the NFL and it was purely a game," Krueger said. "Fifteen years later, it is strictly a marketing enterprise. I'm a dinosaur who's survived the Ice Age only to discover I'm caught between hard rock and hot clothes."
"That's the athlete's curse—he is never ready to retire," says Krueger's former 49er teammate Howard (Butchee) Mudd, one of the finest guards of the '60s. Mudd knows the score. He was forced out of the game two years ago, physically incapacitated. "I had a knee that wouldn't work at all," he says. "But still I wasn't ready to give up football. One of our teammates, Dan Colchico, would have played at 50 if transplants and artificial limbs had allowed it.
"For Charlie the situation is impossible. He has played so well so long and now he has to leave the nest; he has to give up the secure well-ordered life of football and begin all over again. Poor Charlie has to be drowning in anxieties. Football is his form of expression."
Around the league Krueger is admired as a pro's pro. Veteran players even go so far as to give him the ultimate accolade: "The last of the old leather." Nonetheless, in each of his eras, Krueger has been overshadowed in the press by more flamboyant tackles: Big Daddy Lipscomb, Merlin Olsen, Alex Karras, Bob Lilly and now Alan Page. The 49ers, including coaches, past and present, protest. They contend no defensive tackle grades out as well as Krueger over so long a period. In a way, of course, this is a safe statement: no other defensive tackle has played so long.
But it is not only the partisan 49ers who acknowledge his excellence. Inevitably the opposition double-and triple-teams Krueger, an unadvertised admission of fear and respect. This approach allows the other San Francisco tackle to enjoy easy, brilliant days. For a number of seasons Roland Lakes was a black scourge, roving the field, making tackles and dropping quarterbacks for dramatic losses. Meanwhile, back at the front, Krueger was taking the brunt of reinforced blocking.
In the 1971 NFC championship game, Dallas used discretion. The Cowboys ran 90% of their plays away from Krueger. "No one is able to gain running at Charlie Krueger," explained Cowboy Coach Tom Landry, "and we were not about to experiment."
Bob Brachman contends that his 39 seasons of writing football for the San Francisco Examiner provides him with an elevated perspective from which to rate Krueger. "I've seen them all, the individual and collective best to play the game," says Brachman. "The Wonder Team, the Thunder Team, the Wow Boys, the Now Boys, the Gems of the Generation, the Eleven Iron Men—of whom there were 13—and without hesitation I say Charlie Krueger is an all-time great. He has all the qualities. Krueger will play harder in the fourth quarter than he will in the first and is toughest in key games. He plays in unbelievable pain. To boot, the big lug is an honest man."