49ers Year-by-Year: 1959

If you don't usually read through these, I highly recommend at least skipping to the short profile on Leo Nomellini toward the end. Four months ago, I didn't even know this guy's name. Even after Fooch did a front page profile on him for our All-Time Team, I still didn't realize just how good he was. Turns out he's just one of the greatest players in NFL History.

Date:

Opponent:

Score:

Record:

Opponent's Record:

Sept. 27

Philadelphia Eagles

W: 14-24

1-0

0-1

Oct. 4

Los Angeles Rams

W: 0-34

2-0

0-2

Oct. 11

@ Green Bay Packers

L: 20-21

2-1

3-0

Oct. 18

@ Detroit Lions

W: 34-13

3-1

0-4

Oct. 25

Chicago Bears

W: 17-20

4-1

1-4

Nov. 1

Detroit Lions

W: 7-33

5-1

1-5

Nov. 8

@ Los Angeles Rams

W: 24-16

6-1

2-5

Nov. 15

@ Chicago Bears

L: 3-14

6-2

4-4

Nov. 22

@ Baltimore Colts

L: 14-45

6-3

6-3

Nov. 29

@ Cleveland Brown

W: 21-20

7-3

6-4

Dec. 5

Baltimore Colts

L: 34-14

7-4

8-3

Dec. 13

Green Bay Packers

L: 36-14

7-5

7-5

Head Coach: Red Hickey

Key Losses: HC Frankie Albert, TE Gordie Soltau (Retire)

Key Additions: No Key Additions

Discussion:

Leo Nomellini is a legend in the history of the NFL, but he's also a bit of a forgotten name among modern fans. For a guy who was named the top defensive tackle in the first 50 years of the entire NFL, I don't really know many people who would even recognize his name.

So, in honor of "The Lion," we're going in two directions with this one: 1) Toughest player you've ever seen play the game, and 2) Most underrated or unfortunately forgotten player.

Following the 1958 season, 49ers head coach Frankie Albert resigned from his position due to what he said was fan abuse directed not only at him, but also at his family. He was replaced by Red Hickey, who had been hired as an assistant with the team during Red Strader's only season as head coach in 1955, and who had been integral in developing the fan favorite Alley-Oop pass to R. C. Owens that had been so successful the year before.

Going into 1959, the 49ers had only had one winning season since 1954, and, except for a thrilling playoff run in 1957, hadn't been the same since Buck Shaw was fired at the end of that same season. Red Hickey had been with the team through each of these lean years, but whether or not he had what it would take to return this talented team to its winning way was a question that had yet to be answered.

And for any fans who needed convincing, he gave the reason to believe with red hot opening to the new season. Opening the season at home against Philadelphia, the 49ers went up 0-21 in the third quarter before coasting to a 14-24 final score. That was just a warm up, though, as the next week the Rams came to town and San Francisco really turned up the heat. Behind 265 yards of rushing offense, including 2 TDs from first year starter and fourth year player J. D. Smith, who had also scored the week before, the 49ers dismantled the Rams to the tune of 0-34. It was a game that marked the real emergence of J. D. Smith, who had long been a background player behind Joe Perry, Hugh McElhenny, and John Henry Johnson. It would also be the biggest win of the whole season for the 49ers, who were looking great after two games.

San Francisco went on the road after that win, and even though they lost to Green Bay on October 11th, the result was overshadowed by tragic news for the league when Commissioner Bert Bell died of a heart attack. He was replaced on an interim basis by Austin Gunsel, who had been serving as the league's treasurer. Bell had been Commissioner since 1946, and had seen the NFL through the AAFC's challenge (and subsequent merger), as well as through a gambling controversy and number of difficult legal battles with the Canadian Football League. His tenure was also marked by the advent of revenue sharing in the NFL, as well as the creation of local blackout rules for television broadcasts.

The games must go on, though, and the 49ers started up again on October 18 in Detroit to take on a winless Lions team. J. D. Smith and Joe Perry singlehandedly combined for 297 of the 49ers 299 rushing yards in this game, and Smith tacked two more TDs onto his quickly escalating season total. San Francisco controlled this game offensively and defensively, and the outcome was decided long before the game was over. It was the best rushing game the team would have all year, and brought all of the momentum that had been lost the week before rushing back.

It was a wave of momentum that the 49ers would ride comfortable for the next three weeks. Taking on struggling opponents in the Bears, the Lions, and the Rams, the 49ers won their next three games without too much trouble. Only the Bears gave them a scare, beating Chicago in the 4th quarter on a 46 yard Alley-Oop TD to R. C. Owens. Then, on November 15, the two teams met in Chicago for a rematch. Chicago had won each of their games since the last meeting, and had some momentum of their own, which they rode in this game to a 3-14 victory over San Francisco.

Things would only get worse the next week against the Colts, as the 49ers suffered their worst loss of the season to their conference rivals, tying the two teams for first in the conference. Things didn't look good for the 49ers the next week in Cleveland, when they left the game in the hands of young John Brodie and got behind in the first quarter. Brodie and the 49ers exploded in the second, quarter. He threw two TD passes (to Billy Wilson and J. D. Smith), and McElhenny rushed for a third before the scoring went silent for the second half. Luckily, 21 was enough in this game as Cleveland inched back for the rest of the game, but could only get to 20, putting the Niners at 7-3, and still tied for first.

Despite their record, though, the 49ers had only won a single game all year against a team with a winning record, and they were about to be challenged again, as the Colts looked to take sole possession of first in the next to last week of the year. The game was never really close, and the 49ers lost 34-14. They would need a Baltimore loss in the final week to even have a chance at the playoffs, but the Colts wouldn't oblige them. As if to add insult to injury, the 49ers lost that week, too.

Player Profile: Leo Nomellini

I think that Nomellini might be the last of the Hall of Fame players from these teams that I haven't profiled yet.

An offensive and a defensive tackle, Nomellini holds the distinguished honor of having been the very first draft pick in the history of the San Francisco 49ers,, and played his entire 14 year career with the team - during which time, he played in every single game, many of which he played on both offense and defense.

He was elected to ten Pro Bowls, and is the only player in the NFL since offensive and defensive specialists became the standard to be elected to the Pro Bowl for his play on either side of the ball. Nomellini had just about every tool that a player could need: size, speed, strength, agility, and remarkable conditioning. Remarking on Nomellini's athletic prowess, fellow Hall of Famer and physical marvel Bob St. Clair said "There wasn't anybody stronger than Leo, I guarantee it."

As a defensive tackle, Nomellini was known as a superior pass rusher, and as an offensive tackle he was recognized as an unstoppable offensive blocker. He was named to six All-NFL teams, twice on offense and once on defense. He was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1969, just six years after he retired. He was elected into the Football Foundation Hall of Fame in 1977 and the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 1985. He was later recognized as the single top defensive tackle in the NFL's entire first fifty years.

During the offseason, he would sometimes wrestle professionally under the name Leo "The Lion" Nomellini. During the regular season, he would sometimes wrestle unofficially in the clubhouse. Bob St. Clair remembered such moments:"We'd be in the room and I'd be watching some John Wayne movie, and all of a sudden he'd jump me from behind and grab my neck and do a strangle hold, He'd say, 'Hey Bob, try to get out of this one.' We broke a lot of furniture.''

When he retired at the age of 39 in 1963, he'd long since been recognized by his peers as "indestructible." Leo Nomellini: an all-time great 49er.

Musings:

There's some things about this season that pop out at me, things like the emergence of J. D. Smith, or the positively misleading 7-5 record, or the new coach and his impact, or the old coach and the somewhat less than pleasant circumstances behind his departure, or the death of the commissioner, or the continued emergence of John Brodie. I think this was a pretty intriguing season, and I'd love to talk about Smith or Albert or Brodie, but we've talked about Brodie and we've talked about coaches, and I'm planning to do a profile on Smith later, anyway - and I'm just far too taken by the mere fact of Leo Nomellini and the fact that not long ago, I had no idea who this guy was.

When you look up Leo Nomellini, the first thing that any reference mentions is that for 14 seasons, he played in every single game, and that he played many of them for 60 full minutes. He's legendary for his toughness. But he's also a bit of a forgotten name. For a guy who was named the top defensive tackle in the first 50 years of the entire NFL, I don't really know many people who would even recognize his name.

So we're going in two directions with this one: 1) Toughest player you've ever seen play the game, and 2) Most underrated or unfortunately forgotten player.

Primary References:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Hickey
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1959_NFL_season
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bert_Bell
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Nomellini
http://www.profootballhof.com/hof/member.jsp?player_id=167
http://www.suntimes.com/sports/1053478,CST-SPT-great13.article
http://www.bashof.org/Hall_of_Fame_1985.html
http://www.sportsecyclopedia.com/nfl/sf49/49ers.html
http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/sfo/1959.htm
http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/sfo/1959_roster.htm
http://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/sfo/1959_games.htm

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