Bob St. Clair has great respect for Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, but he’ll be rooting for the New Orleans Saints in today’s Super Bowl.
“I’d like to see the Saints win because they’re an NFC team,” he said.
Can you blame him? After all, this is a guy who played a half-century ago for the San Francisco 49ers before there was a Super Bowl and before the old NFL teams became NFC teams.
A Pro Football Hall of Fame tackle, St. Clair shows loyalty not only to the NFC, but also to the 49ers, his hometown of San Francisco and to the place where he played all of his high school and professional home games and three-quarters of his college home games — Kezar Stadium.
In recent telephone interviews, St. Clair, who will celebrate his 79th birthday on Feb. 18, talked about his colorful playing days, linemen today, the 49ers’ plans for a new stadium and Kezar.
Right across the street
Kezar Stadium, built in 1925 in the southeast corner of Golden Gate Park, was right across the street from Polytechnic High, where St. Clair was a member of the the class of 1948.
“I was never in a losing football game in high school,” he said.
Kezar’s field was heavily used by high school and college teams during the week and on Saturdays, and by the new professional team (“the 49ers were an afterthought at that time,” St. Clair said) that played on Sundays.
“There wasn’t much left of the field when it rained — just the grass on the sides and the end zones” he recalled.
St. Clair went on to play for the University of San Francisco, whose 1951 team is considered one of the greatest college teams of all time. Ten of its starters became NFL draft picks, and three — St. Clair, Ollie Matson and Gino Marchetti — were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Dons were unbeaten in 1951 and hoping for an Orange Bowl bid.
But Orange Bowl organizers had one condition: If invited, USF would have to leave its two African American players, Matson and Burl Toler, home.
How did the team react to the Orange Bowl organizers?
“We told them to go to hell,” St. Clair said.
For lack of funding, USF dropped football the next season and never brought it back.
The 1951 team has not been forgotten, however.
It was subject of a book titled, “Undefeated, Untied and Uninvited” by Kristine Clark. A movie based on the book is in the works, St. Clair said.
The team’s publicist, Pete Rozelle, went on to become commissioner of the NFL. Rozelle hired Toler, who had a career-ending knee injury before his first NFL game, as a referee. The first African American ref in the NFL, Toler worked games for 25 seasons.
In May 2006, USF awarded honorary doctorates to members of the 1951 team.
In 1952, St. Clair finished his final year of college eligibility at Tulsa. It was the only season he didn’t play home games at Kezar.
‘I insisted on $6,000’
St. Clair was drafted by the 49ers in the third round (there were only 12 picks in each round) in 1953, and the rookie held firm in salary talks.
“They offered only $5,500 and I insisted on $6,000, he said. “I had to hold out for a whole week.”
In his final season, St. Clair made just $20,000, a pittance compared to the millions that top NFL players earn today.
“We were the pioneers,” he said. “The only thing that’s upsetting is the older players aren’t getting any benefits from the health and pension programs. We’re pretty much ignored.”
Head injuries were a big problem.
In his early years with the 49ers, players wore flimsy helmets with three-eighths of an inch of foam padding.
“We called concussions ‘dings,’ ” said St. Clair, who had his share of them.
“A coach would say, ‘St. Clair, nice blocks,’ and I wouldn’t remember any of that because I got whacked pretty hard in the first quarter.”
The Pro Football Hall of Fame bio on St. Clair notes that he “had size, speed, intelligence, love of hitting.”
He was one of the best run and pass blockers in the league. And he protected his quarterbacks, including his first-year roommate Y.A. Tittle and later Billy Kilmer and John Brodie.
“I’d pull out and lead plays around the end,” St. Clair said. “I was pretty fast. I could do the 100 in 11 flat.”
He played in five Pro Bowls and received nine All-NFL honors.
‘We never lifted weights’
How is it different for linemen now compared to the years St. Clair played?
“We couldn’t use our hands,” he said. “You had to hold your hands together on your chest.”
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Linemen also weigh a lot more now. At 6-foot-9, St. Clair was the tallest player in the league, but he was a relatively lean 263 pounds. Linemen today typically top the scale at 300 pounds, and they lift weights.
“We never lifted weights,” he said. “The only thing I lifted was beer.”
St. Clair played offensive tackle and defensive end during his first three seasons with the 49ers.
“It’s a whole different game now,” he said. “Players today can’t go two ways.”
Who was the toughest guy he faced in the NFL?
“My ex-college buddy (Marchetti, a defensive end for the Baltimore Colts). I had to go up against him.”
St. Clair never got to play in a NFL championship game, but came close during the 1957 season.
The 49ers faced the Detroit Lions in a semifinal that year.
“We were ahead by 17 points at the half,” he said. “But our defensive backs got hurt and we got killed.”
Detroit went on to beat Cleveland for the title.
St. Clair retired after the 1964 season, which he sat out with an Achilles tendon injury.
He has never stopped watching his team. He attends all the Niners home games at Candlestick Park.
St. Clair is a popular celebrity at pregame tailgaters, where he enjoys his meat (particularly porterhouse steaks) raw, the way he has liked it since he was a kid. It’s one of his traits that earned him the nickname “Geek” during his playing days. And it’s in the title of the 2005 biography by Kristine Clark: “Bob St. Clair: I’ll Take It Raw.”
The 49ers would like to build a new stadium south of San Francisco in Santa Clara. Another idea is to build a new stadium at Hunter’s Point close to Candlestick Park.
St. Clair hopes the team stays in San Francisco, but says a new stadium is needed for the 49ers to keep up with the Joneses and players’ salaries.
“Candlestick has had it,” he said. “It’s ready to be retired.”
Life after football
St. Clair was 33 when he retired from football.
Players of his generation knew they had to work, and he prepared himself with a degree in business.
For years he owned and operated St. Clair Liquors stores in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Franciso and the Westlake district of Daly City. He sold the business in 1978, but it still bears his name
St. Clair also got into politics. He served from 1958-64 on the city council of Daly City. He was the city’s mayor for three of those years. From 1966-74, he was a member of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.
He and his first wife Ann had six children. They divorced in 1974 and he married Marsha Bonfigli in 1983. Today, the couple live in Santa Rosa, Calif., and spend a lot of time visiting his 18 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
And St. Clair continues to work. For the past 20 years, he has been a sales and public relations rep for Clover Stornetta Farms, an organic milk company based in Petaluma, Calif. He makes three work trips a week to his hometown.
‘A great little stadium’
St. Clair also gets back to his favorite stadium, Kezar, at least once a year.
“I come out and flip the coin (before high school games) and stuff like that,” he said.
Kezar never had luxury boxes. Its bleachers had a capacity of about 60,000.
The 49ers played their final game there on Jan. 3, 1971, losing to the Dallas Cowboys 17-10 in the NFC championship game. The team moved to Candlestick Park the next season.
Kezar was demolished in 1989 and rebuilt. It now seats about 10,000 and is used for football, lacrosse and soccer games and track meets.
“It’s a great little stadium,” St. Clair said. “They keep it up so well. It certainly looks better than it used to.”
St. Clair has received a number of honors over the years, including his 1990 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
For him, no honor was greater than the one he received on Jan. 19, 2001, at the stadium where he played 189 of his high school, college and professional games.
On that day the city of San Francisco renamed Kezar’s playing field “Bob St. Clair Field.”
On hand for the ceremony, were a number of St. Clair’s 49ers teammates, including Tittle, Charlie Krueger, Joe Perry and Dan Colchico.
St. Clair cherishes that moment and the plaque that hangs at Kezar with his name and image.
“When you’re still alive and they name the field after you,” he said, “it doesn’t get any better than that.”