John Brodie: the ‘forgotten one’ in 49ers’ list of QB greats


No pro football franchise is more synonymous with great quarterbacks than the San Francisco 49ers.

The team has reached the Super Bowl six times, and each appearance has coincided with stellar play under center.

But before there was Super Joe, Steve and Kap; before there were five Lombardi trophies at the 49ers’ headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., and expectations for more year in and your out, there was John Brodie.

He was the 49ers’ first star quarterback of the modern era. But because of the franchise’s lack of success during his heydey in comparison to its resounding success thereafter, he is the forgotten one in the 49ers’ illustrious list of star QBs. And it’s a shame.

Who was John Brodie? Only the 50-and-older crowd can recall seeing him in action on television or at old Kezar Stadium, the 49ers’ home from 1946-70.

(Watch this, and you can say you’ve done the same)

A first-round pick in the 1957 draft out of Stanford, where he earned All-America honors, Brodie owns the distinction of being the longest-tenured 49er, having quarterbacked the team from his rookie season to his retirement year in 1973. He threw for 31,548 yards and 214 touchdowns and earned two Pro Bowl invites (1965, 1970) to go with an MVP award and first-team All-Pro honors in 1970. At the time of his retirement, he was ranked third in career passing yards behind Johnny Unitas and Fran Tarkenton.

Like Steve Young, the 6-foot-1 Brodie had big cleats to fill as the successor to a team legend in Y.A. Tittle. And like Young, Brodie rose to the occasion.

Behind Brodie, the 49ers were ahead of their time as a pass-heavy offense — a precursor, some might say, to their years with Bill Walsh and Joe Montana — and Brodie became one the league’s elite passers of the 1960s. He led the league in passing yards (3,112) and touchdowns (30) in 1965.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the rest of the team caught up with Brodie. The 49ers hovered around .500 during Brodie’s first 13 seasons. Under coach Dick Nolan, they won their first-ever division title in 1970 and followed that with another one during a ’71 season in which they reached the NFC Championship game.

(They lost to the Cowboys. Of course they lost to the Cowboys … )

After his retirement from the NFL, Brodie served as a pro football and golf analyst for NBC Sports and played on the Senior PGA Tour. His career as a golfer including 12 top-10 finishes and a win on the Senior Tour to go with two U.S. Open appearances (1959, 1981).

Much of that and his personal life — Brodie, 78, resides in La Quinta, Calif., and survived a massive stroke in 2000 — is documented in this fabulous profile of him written by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Brian Murphy in 2004.

The fact Brodie is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame seems like a crime, considering his body of work and the teams he played for. His number has been retired by the 49ers — backup QB Trent Dilfer wore it in 2006 to stump for Brodie’s enshrinement in Canton, Ohio — and serves as a credo for the most faithful of 49ers fans.

Ask my parents or any white-haired 49ers backers how long they’ve been rooting for the Scarlet and Gold and they’ll probably hear this:

“Since the days of John Brodie.”

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