A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Before The Dynasty

A couple of years ago, a poll of local football fans selected Frank Gore as the greatest 49er running back of all time, which only shows what short memories people have.
With all respect to Gore, who deservedly will be in the Hall of Fame someday, the greatest 49er runner of all was Hugh McElhenny, and it isn't even close. They called him "The King" for the same reason that LeBron James, Clark Gable and Elvis Presley were called "The King" – because his absolute superiority was self-evident.
Like Gale Sayers and Barry Sanders, McElhenny's numbers don't tell the full story. Here's how longtime local sportswriter Dave Newhouse describes him in his fascinating new book, "Founding 49ers: The Dark Days Before The Dynasty":
"McElhenny turned sprawling tacklers into an art form, much like pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm's baffling knuckleball that rendered batters helpless during the same era. Big whiffs, either way."
The King was part of the famous "Million Dollar Backfield" – along with Y.A. Tittle, Joe "The Jet" Perry and John Henry Johnson - the only backfield in NFL history whose all four starters are in the Hall of Fame. But Newhouse reveals that the name was just a publicist's invention; in real life, they never made anywhere close to a million dollars.
"$70,000 for all four of them combined is more like it," he says.
He also reveals that McElhenny got so many payments from boosters under the table when he was playing at the University of Washington, he actually had to take a pay cut when he entered the NFL.
The league was very different back then. The big powerhouses were today's doormats, the Browns and Lions; and the doormats were today's powerhouses, the Packers and Steelers. Player salaries were so low, they had to take jobs during the off-season – and sometimes during the season, too – to make ends meet.
But oh, could they play! And oh, what characters they were! And it's all in the book, including defensive end Dan Colicho, the toughest man who ever played, who played every game one year despite having to take 140 cortisone shots and two operations during the season.
Newhouse has a talent for telling a story and a knack for getting other people to tell their stories to him, and both are on prominent display here. And although he hates to show off, preferring to get out of the way and let a good story tell itself, no one is better at capturing someone in a few well-crafted words. For instance, is there a better description of Al Davis than this?
"Piracy was the game, and Al Davis was impersonating Captain Kidd. After Davis left the Oakland Raiders to become AFL commissioner, he had one devious goal in mind: raid the NFL's elite quarterbacks. That's what Raiders do; they raid."
Newhouse will be signing books from 1 to 5 p.m. this Saturday, August 15, at the Warehouse in Oakland; and as a bonus, he's bringing the great defensive tackle Charlie Krueger with him.
Unfortunately, six of the people he interviewed for the book died before it came out.
"What I'm happy about is that I was the last public voice for some of these great early 49ers," he says. "What I'm sad about is that they never got to read the book."

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