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JOE'S GUARD DOGS
Ron Fimrite
January 21, 1985
In keeping quarterback Joe Montana hale and hearty, Keith Fahnhorst and Randy Cross know all the key moves
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January 21, 1985

Joe's Guard Dogs

In keeping quarterback Joe Montana hale and hearty, Keith Fahnhorst and Randy Cross know all the key moves

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If the buildup was to be believed, the matchup of the Bears and 49ers for the NFC championship was really a game of life-styles—rugged, city-of-big-shoulders Chicago against supposedly effete San Francisco. The teams themselves seemed to advance the stereotype: Chicago played defense, San Francisco played offense. Tough guys versus fancy Dans. A matter of sociology.

Well, as anybody who lives there knows, San Francisco is far from effete. And now the world knows that its football team assuredly isn't, either. In that epochal sociological encounter, those quiche eaters devoured the hog butchers 23-0. And they didn't do it so much with finesse as with sheer brute force. The great blitzers from Chicago were flattened by 49er linemen, and the Chicago offense gave up nine sacks. After the game, the San Francisco defense was justly applauded for pitching its shutout, and coach Bill Walsh was, as usual, trumpeted as a genius. But, in truth, this game was won by the 49ers' offensive line, the heart of which is on the right side, where Randy Cross at guard and Keith Fahnhorst at tackle have played shoulder to shoulder for six seasons.

"They've been together so long, they see things other linemen don't," says 49er offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick. "It's rare that you have that kind of continuity. They know each other's reactions, and so many things happen in a game that you can't practice them. Things will happen that just don't show up on film. Randy and Keith react to those things." Against the Bears, it was determined that the 49ers should shut off the middle of the Chicago defense, while quarterback Joe Montana would take a shorter—three steps rather than five—drop back and throw quick, short passes under the zone. In this scheme, Fahnhorst would take as his blocking assignment the defender opposite Cross—usually Steve McMichael—and Cross would pick up the middle blitzers. When the Bears went more to an outside blitz in the second half, the 49ers switched to a running game with equally devastating results. Not that they hadn't run effectively in the first half. On one play in the first quarter, Wendell Tyler ran untouched for 25 yards until he was forced out of bounds at the Bears' two, a play made possible when the 273-pound Fahnhorst dropped the blitzing Chicago safety, 205-pound Dave Duerson. "When he blitzed, he was right there," said Fahnhorst. "I wish every play could be that simple."

Both Fahnhorst and Cross have been elected by their peers and the NFL coaches to this year's Pro Bowl game in Honolulu, and Fahnhorst, getting overdue recognition, is making various media All-Pro teams. The Pro Bowl will be his first. His omission heretofore has been an egregious oversight, in the opinion of his teammates, for a man who has played so well and so consistently for 11 long years.

Cross and Fahnhorst are imposing physical specimens, Fahnhorst's bulk distributed over a 6'6" frame, Cross's 265 pounds over a more guardlike 6'3". Fahnhorst is simply a big man, the sort once called rawboned. Cross has the thick limbs and massive chest of a weightlifter, which is certainly ironic because if there is any one activity he would happily abandon, it's weightlifting. He hardly did any at all until he became a pro, and he finds it nothing but drudgery. "It is a necessary evil," he says. "I can tell you that I won't do it when I quit playing."

Oddly, both players began their careers as comparative weaklings, and both began at different positions. Both are fiercely mustached, but for all their ominous mien, they are, beyond argument, two of the brightest and nicest guys you'd ever want to meet—in football or out.

Cross is eating a ham sandwich with the crew and some of his fellow panelists before taping the Sportstalk television show on channel 36-KICU in San Jose, Calif. The format calls for the 49er guard to chew the fat with some fans on a set made to look somewhat like a neighborhood bar. Cross is the voice of reason on these shows, his massive presence tempering the 49er fanaticism of the other guests. He's a natural on the air, recognized throughout the Bay Area as a media star. During the players' strike of 1982, when he was recuperating from a freak leg injury suffered in a charity appearance at an amusement park, he had a morning spot on local radio, glibly unburdening himself on a variety of topics. He did both a radio show and the KICU Sportstalk program this season.

And though he plays a position lacking any semblance of glamour, Cross is easily the most-quoted 49er in the press and on the air. And if he isn't, Fahnhorst, who is wry and self-deprecating, is. Montana, the team's star, is a veritable sphinx compared with these two engaging rhetoricians.

Cross, who was raised in the Los Angeles suburb of Tarzana, comes by his theatricality naturally. His father, Dennis Cross, now 60, was an actor in movies and on television for nearly three decades, playing heavies because of his swarthy Irish—Blackfoot Indian countenance. He did, however, star as a good guy in a 1960 television series, The Blue Angels. In the early '70s, the elder Cross became disillusioned with the erratic and frequently idle life of an actor and retired into the insurance business, where he is now contentedly employed in Southern California. Cross's mother, Rita, also has a show-business history. She was Rosalind Russell's personal secretary for a time and then secretary to the head scriptwriter for the cultish Star Trek series. "The kids in our family [seven, all told] knew all the Star Trek stories before they came on the air," Cross says, "so we were much in demand." Still, life on the stage or before the camera had no appeal for him at first. Quite the opposite, in fact. "I developed a real aversion for the business," he says. "I'd see my dad, with seven kids to support, sitting around waiting for that phone to ring. That seemed to me to be his job."

Cross is beginning to recognize that his own performing gifts are not insignificant, and is contemplating a career after football as a television commentator. On the evidence of his KICU appearances, he would seem a good bet.

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