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Reflecting on Leo Nomellini and other San Francisco 49ers greats

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Leo Nomellini

Posted: Saturday, January 19, 2013 12:00 am

Like most Lodi football fans, come Sunday I'll be rooting hard for the San Francisco 49ers and local hero Colin Kaepernick. This may be more surprising to readers than they suspect. I'm a native Californian and thus a seemingly obvious 49ers booster. But once in my life the 49ers, named after the 1849 prospectors who mined Northern California, were the team I loved to hate.

I grew up in Los Angeles, addicted to the Rams. In the early 1950s, the Rams were the only professional sports franchise in town. The Dodgers were still in Brooklyn, the Lakers in Minneapolis and the Kings — well, the Kings were beyond anyone's wildest imagination. In Los Angeles, ice was unknown to locals except as something used to cool down beverages.

Until the Rams moved to St. Louis (via Anaheim) in 1994, the Rams-49ers cross-state rivalry was one of the most intense in sports. In a 1957 game against the 49ers, the Rams set what was then the all-time attendance record for a National Football League game. Nearly 103,000 fans jammed into the Los Angeles Coliseum.

But as I look back on the 49ers through an adult's eyes, I see those early teams that I once despised differently. While the Rams had their full share of future Hall of Famers like Bob Waterfield, Norm Van Brocklin and El Roy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch, the 49ers of the era were more, for want of a better word, interesting.

Playing in San Francisco's old Kezar Stadium, the 49ers started four eventual Hall of Famers in their backfield: quarterback Y.A. Title and running backs John Henry Johnson, Hugh McElhenny and Joe "the Jet" Perry. The foursome is the only full-house backfield inducted into the Hall.

To three generations of Guzzardis who attended Rams-49ers games — my Italian-born grandfather and father and me, a first-generation American — the most beloved player on the field was San Francisco's Leo Nomellini, the mellifluously named lineman born in Lucca, Italy.

In 1924, Nomellini came to Chicago as an infant. Because he needed to help support his family, Leo couldn't play high school football and instead worked when his classes ended. The first game Nomellini ever saw was one he played in as a member of the Cherry Point, N.C., Marines team.

Nomellini was the 49ers' first-ever 1950 NFL draft choice and a two-time All-American from the University of Minnesota, where he started as a freshman. Nomellini's on-field record is so remarkable that it's hard to believe its scope in this era of dozens of players on the disabled list who miss whole seasons.

For 14 seasons, Nomellini played every 49ers game — 174 consecutive regular-season games, and 266 pro games in all. During his career he played both defensive and offensive tackle, winning all-pro honors at both positions, unheard of even in football's one platoon system where the same players were on the field for offense and defense. Nomellini, blessed with speed, size, aggressiveness and determination, was a 10-time Pro Bowl selection, a nine-time All Pro and a member of the 49ers' 1950 All Decade team, as well as an inductee into the Canton and Marine Corps Sports Halls of Fame.

During the off season, Nomellini wrestled professionally under the name Leo the Lion. Not surprisingly, given his massive 6-foot, 3-inch, 260-pound frame, Nomellini won four National Wresting Alliance world championships.

When he retired at 39 after 14 dominant years, Nomellini's teammates and opponents remembered him as indestructible. Long before Nomellini died at Stanford in 2000, the 49ers retired his number 73. As the old cliche goes, they don't make football players like they used to.

Here's my fearless prediction: 49ers 31-Falcons 13.

Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pa., where Steelers fans prefer not to talk about the 2012 season. Contact him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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