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The Last of the Old Leather

"I'm a dinosaur who's survived the Ice Age," says San Francisco's Charlie Krueger, who figures he's spent three lifetimes in the pros

On a night in midsummer Charlie Krueger (left), the San Francisco 49ers' redoubtable defensive tackle, pressed his highball glass fondly to his cheek. He was theoretically on the wagon. For a man who enjoyed a good belt, it was a difficult time. Moreover, Krueger's appetite matched his thirst, and he wasn't supposed to eat either. There were 13 pounds of fat to be sweated off, and the exhibition season was approaching.

It was a senseless fix for a middle-aged man to be in, and Krueger, a gent close to 37, ought to have known better. That's what Krueger was thinking.

He had been at his trade for 14 seasons. Right then it seemed 14 centuries. Since the average life span of a pro is 4.6 years, Krueger figured he had spent the equivalent of three lives playing pro ball. A quarter of a million tackles later, he wondered if he had not had enough.

"In 1958 I came into the NFL and it was purely a game," Krueger said. "Fifteen years later, it is strictly a marketing enterprise. I'm a dinosaur who's survived the Ice Age only to discover I'm caught between hard rock and hot clothes."

"That's the athlete's curse—he is never ready to retire," says Krueger's former 49er teammate Howard (Butchee) Mudd, one of the finest guards of the '60s. Mudd knows the score. He was forced out of the game two years ago, physically incapacitated. "I had a knee that wouldn't work at all," he says. "But still I wasn't ready to give up football. One of our teammates, Dan Colchico, would have played at 50 if transplants and artificial limbs had allowed it.

"For Charlie the situation is impossible. He has played so well so long and now he has to leave the nest; he has to give up the secure well-ordered life of football and begin all over again. Poor Charlie has to be drowning in anxieties. Football is his form of expression."

Around the league Krueger is admired as a pro's pro. Veteran players even go so far as to give him the ultimate accolade: "The last of the old leather." Nonetheless, in each of his eras, Krueger has been overshadowed in the press by more flamboyant tackles: Big Daddy Lipscomb, Merlin Olsen, Alex Karras, Bob Lilly and now Alan Page. The 49ers, including coaches, past and present, protest. They contend no defensive tackle grades out as well as Krueger over so long a period. In a way, of course, this is a safe statement: no other defensive tackle has played so long.

But it is not only the partisan 49ers who acknowledge his excellence. Inevitably the opposition double-and triple-teams Krueger, an unadvertised admission of fear and respect. This approach allows the other San Francisco tackle to enjoy easy, brilliant days. For a number of seasons Roland Lakes was a black scourge, roving the field, making tackles and dropping quarterbacks for dramatic losses. Meanwhile, back at the front, Krueger was taking the brunt of reinforced blocking.

In the 1971 NFC championship game, Dallas used discretion. The Cowboys ran 90% of their plays away from Krueger. "No one is able to gain running at Charlie Krueger," explained Cowboy Coach Tom Landry, "and we were not about to experiment."

Bob Brachman contends that his 39 seasons of writing football for the San Francisco Examiner provides him with an elevated perspective from which to rate Krueger. "I've seen them all, the individual and collective best to play the game," says Brachman. "The Wonder Team, the Thunder Team, the Wow Boys, the Now Boys, the Gems of the Generation, the Eleven Iron Men—of whom there were 13—and without hesitation I say Charlie Krueger is an all-time great. He has all the qualities. Krueger will play harder in the fourth quarter than he will in the first and is toughest in key games. He plays in unbelievable pain. To boot, the big lug is an honest man."

Ram Guard Joe Scibelli knows the reason Krueger has missed out on headlines. Silence. In 36 bloody head-to-head engagements over a period of 13 years, Krueger has yet to say more to Scibelli than "Good game, Joe" and walk into the dressing room.

His locker room conversation with the press is loquacious by comparison, but is never about his own deeds. John Unitas and Bart Starr, not exactly talk-show guests themselves, attempted to strike up conversations with Krueger during games. They, too, failed. "Starr and Unitas were as wily as they were good, and from my standpoint they could be the best," says Krueger. "It's an old trick trying to distract a rusher. They'll say, "Good move,' or 'How did you get here?' Sometimes they'll fiat-out hit you with a compliment. Then you go away thinking what good folks they are and lose your concentration."

According to the 49ers' defensive line coach, Paul Wiggin, Krueger's performance is technically faultless. Even when Wiggin played at Cleveland in the long, long ago, the Browns would use films of Krueger as visual aids for defensive tackle technique.

Krueger listens to the testimonials and shakes his head. "I've never been a star," he says, "but I've always done my job." He has never fallen prey to the athlete's enormous vanity, the need for acclaim and recognition.

Now he will not have it. Instead, Krueger chooses to finish his career as it began—unnoticed. His teammates and other NFL players suggest Krueger is true to the code of the West; like a Zane Grey hero, he will ride off into the sunset as quiet and modest as the day he broke into the game.

Charlie Krueger has been playing football 25 years. Since age 12 he has waited for the next season to begin. He remembers his first step toward professionalism. It was on a dusty, rutted field in his hometown of Caldwell, Texas. "It was hot and it hurt, and the coach yelled a lot," says Krueger. At that unpleasant point, Krueger was engaged by football and he has never let go.

He contends there were no better alternatives. "I can't say I saw any spectral lights leading me to dedicate my life to science," says Krueger. In Caldwell football was it. Either that or farm or run off and work an oil rig. "Where we came from, if you were Krueger-size people, you better not do anything else but play football," says brother Rolf, 10 years his junior. "My God," says Charlie, "I left home for Texas A&M when Rolf was entering the third grade. I helped raise the kid, and now he's on the 49ers playing the same position I do. It isn't right. And behind him at A&M is Buster, the baby, only a few years away from the pros. Biologically I'm old enough to be the kid's father. That's indecent."

Caldwell remains true to Charlie's childhood image. The farmers of Czech and German descent still come in on a Saturday, park facing the sidewalk and watch the crowds go by. The only difference is there are fewer folks on the sidewalk and fewer farmers to observe the scene. Caldwell's golden age was reached at the turn of the century when the population peaked at 2,500.

"If you have Krueger genes you either go out for football or you defend your manhood," says Baby Buster, testifying that the town's outlook on football is constant, too.

"Rolf and I are the closest in attitudes, but now I'm not sure I know what he's about," says Charlie. "We just don't make connections. I know his difficulties on the field. He's been petted and pampered and he never learned self-control. And I have my own problems."

Although the coaches are high on him, Rolf's problem is Charlie. "Charlie has played well, and some people call him a legend," says Rolf. "That doesn't help me. I'm struggling to make it, fighting to survive, and Charlie's reputation gets in my way."

As if to emphasize the time span, Rolf and Buster lift weights. The old pro scorns it. "I never saw a player worth his salt push that iron around," he says.

Charlie's mass and muscle came from pushing steel on Santa Fe track gangs and on oil rigs beginning at age 13. Before that he labored in the family's mattress works, immodestly called a factory when it was no more than a cottage industry. By the time Charlie was 11 he could stuff and stitch a neat ticking.

Krueger singles out Bear Bryant, his coach at A&M, as having been his most profound influence, the man who made Charlie Krueger. The Bear certainly seasoned him, but when Krueger arrived at A&M he already had the qualities Bryant most admired and put to use: loyalty, obedience and a calloused approach to hard work. When Bryant was through with him, Charlie Krueger was a prime Texas-seasoned football player, and the 49ers drafted him No. 1. San Francisco got what it expected, a very special professional.

"I discovered that in my class the ones who survived were alike in attitude and background," says Krueger. They were, for the most part, good old boys from Texas and Southern towns where spectral lights did not shine on their farms and factories. "I guess we were the last completely goal-directed group to enter the pros, and I tell you, we were scared to death to fail. For four years in college I jumped, afraid the Bear would send me home," says Krueger, who was one of 10 prize prospects to survive out of a freshman class of 115. " 'Please let me last another day' was my daily prayer."

The 1958 College All-Stars demonstrated their goal direction by beating the Detroit Lions 35-19. For Krueger the game was an augury. Although he started and played extremely well, stopping Quarterback Bobby Layne on several key plays, even setting up an interception that led to an All-Star score, Krueger went all but unnoticed in the newspaper reports of the game. The hero was an A&M teammate, Bobby Joe Conrad, who kicked four field goals even though he had never attempted one in college.

Seldom had there been a more enthusiastic pro than Krueger. In 1958, when he joined San Francisco, all the factors came together—his background, his family training and four years of Bryant coaching—and Krueger became a 49er in a state of rapture. "I never really enjoyed football until I came into the NFL," he says.

However, in time the joy wore thin. That is when Krueger became aware of the encroachment of commercialism, the takeover by TV. "The television money changed the game completely," he says. "You could see it in the organizations. Suddenly they became all business—sharp and efficient. The ledger and the bottom line became the favorite topics."

From a practical viewpoint, it was for the players a great leap forward. Until then there were no benefits but a limited insurance policy. Krueger realizes that the business takeover was to his advantage. Indeed, it transformed pro football into a profession and reduced the fear, the rampant insecurities.

But it was no longer Charlie Krueger's game. His ended in the early 1960s. "Technically, it is now a much better game—or should I call it a product," he says bleakly.

Sour grapes should not be ruled out. A certain amount of disillusionment followed trades and cuts of good friends. To Krueger, it appeared his buddies were being made the scapegoats for the 49ers' persistent failure. And failure weighed heavily on the teams of the early to mid-'60s. How can failure be explained? Why do teams of comparative skills differ in results? This subject was exhausted by Krueger and his teammates.

"I remember a time, it must have been 1962, when we sat around and figured out that there were 32 ex-49ers on active rosters," says Krueger. "Then 36 men were the limit, so to me it indicated someone in authority had terrible judgment."

After a 42-10 exhibition victory over the Giants, a bunch of the 49ers gathered in Del Vecchio's, a North Beach restaurant, glorying in the triumph. "We tried to analyze New York's problems and ended up figuring that the Giants were hopeless," says Krueger. "As I recall we won all except one of our exhibitions but lost the division race. Meanwhile, the hopeless Giants took the Eastern championship." Besides being an obvious lesson in humility, the incident taught Krueger never to look back. Football games, he claims, should be played, enjoyed and forgotten.

It is only in retrospect that Charlie Krueger can be philosophical. "One night our frustration just boiled over into a bad scene, at least it frightened our wives and neighbors," says Butchee Mudd, now the long-haired freak of the University of California coaching staff but still the goal-oriented competitor of those disappointing 49er seasons. All night and into the morning Krueger and Mudd sat in Butchee's kitchen drinking beer and screaming: "Why? Why? Why?" They played the devil's advocate, one against the other, arguing, thumping about, banging on walls. "We ended up in the backyard, still screaming as daylight broke," says Mudd. "I can't recall we came to any conclusion that mattered, but it helped relieve the frustrations."

Disappointed in his first marriage and in the lack of a family, Krueger, a man of powerful familial impulses, involved himself more completely with his team. He was the catalyst for the disparate personalities on the squad, the surrogate father for many, like Mudd, and for others a concerned big brother. The role came easy. "Charlie was and is the center of reality for the team," says one 49er. "Charlie Krueger makes you believe in those old-time virtues," says Mudd.

Outside of football, Krueger's interests run from big business to the man on the street. "Charlie collects stray dogs and people," says Mudd, who has never understood his friend's shepherding instincts. The dogs, Charlie Krueger vetted, fed and generally rehabilitated before passing them on to worthy homes. The people, he kept as friends, and they are as mixed as his pack of street hounds. "Charlie's an unusual man, and so are his friends," says Bob Brachman. They include several millionaires, particularly a young paper magnate, Jim Benton, who is sufficiently impressed with Krueger's abilities to offer him a choice position in a new paper concern. However, hobnobbing with the rich and powerful is not Krueger's developed interest. Most of his spare time is spent at the Monterey Garage jawing with Bill Butler, a mechanic and favorite companion on mountain-lion hunts in the High Sierras, or at Harry's Hof Brau in Redwood City, where the cook is a friend of 15 years' standing.

Padding about the High Sierras is the closest Krueger comes to indulging in fun and games. And that, too, has changed. He has given up shooting pumas for the pleasure of tracking them to their lairs. In this, his one recreation, Krueger is a purist. He scorns campers, with their outdoor creature comforts, as motels on wheels, and he does not like them cluttering up his landscape. Instead, Charlie Krueger is a backpacker, but also a chef who delights in whipping up a good sauce and producing a fine bottle of wine on a craggy peak.

"There must be an algebraic formula to express it but I feel best in relation to the thinnest density of air and people," he says.

The qualities that ennoble him among what Krueger calls his "peers" enrage his bride of nine months, Kristin Adler Krueger, the daughter of San Francisco Opera General Director Kurt Herbert Adler. This bright, sophisticated woman, educated in Europe and a serious student of the flute, piccolo and piano, cannot understand her husband's self-effacing attitude toward football. But then she finds it difficult to square the two Charlie Kruegers: the fiercely intense 49er tackle in the battered, antiquated helmet and her witty, bookish husband, a man totally disinterested in games. She is the fan in her house. Kris watches TV football, knows the scores and can identify the players. Much to the shock of his neighbors, Krueger never catches the Monday night game. "Does a butcher watch another butcher carve meat on his day off?" he says.

In ordinary circumstances, Kris Krueger would have tolerantly waited for her husband to complete his career. However, there was a lot at stake for both husband and wife. The Kruegers had decided to delay a family and other connubial events, like building a house, until after Charlie retired from football. He was not sure, but it looked as if 1972 would be his last season. It was one of those "Honey, you'll be the first to know" routines. The issue was still in doubt until mid-season last year, when Kris Krueger learned of her husband's decision to return for his 15th season—he was incapacitated with a broken arm in his rookie year—on her car radio.

Naturally, she was angry. It was small solace that Krueger's intentions were of great moment to the San Francisco area and the 49ers' playoff hopes. Charlie had broken his promise. He had allowed 49er Coach Dick Nolan to convince him to play yet another season.

To his wife's charge that he is under Nolan's spell, Krueger responds heatedly: "It's true, I came back because Dick Nolan asked me. He convinced me that I could play effectively another year, could be of real service. But let's be perfectly candid. I'm back because my divorce was costly, and a business venture with Jim Benton was delayed a year."

Despite his protests and his candor, Krueger is back in pads because of his respect for Nolan. He admits it goes beyond admiration. After all, Nolan rescued him from 10 years of bitterness.

Krueger might well have forgotten what it meant to play for an inspired coach, except that he made the Pro Bowl in 1961, one of the two times that he was so honored. And Vince Lombardi coached the West. As Krueger says, it brought back old times, memories of the Bear. "I was wasting time waiting for practice to begin when I realized that I hadn't brought my football shoes," says Krueger. "In my mind, I bracketed Vince and the Bear together. All I could think of was Vince will send me home if I don't have my shoes. On the other hand, he'll send me home for being late for-practice. That's what the Bear would have done. I had no alternative, so I ran down the street to a sporting goods store. I mean ran. Fortunately, they had my size, and I made practice on time.

"Lombardi was a brilliant coach, and his teams proved it. To miss a chance of playing for him or messing up the experience would have been stupid, tragic."

Krueger believes it is every player's right to work for a great coach. Five years ago he was ready to quit. The disappointment, the frustrations had reached a peak, and at age 31 he was mentally ready, if not totally prepared, to get on with living and without football.

When Nolan took over the 49ers in 1968, Krueger went in to see him and explained he was thinking of retiring. Nolan, after all, would prefer to work with younger men, build for the future. Krueger had heard that expression so often that he almost laughed to hear himself using it. Instead, Nolan asked Krueger to stay on. "We have use for old men of 31," the coach said.

"Now I can say I have played under an exceptional man, a first-rate coach," Krueger says. "It is more work under Nolan, but it has purpose."

Nolan brought an efficiency into the 49ers' preparation that Krueger admired. Everything was set forth in clear detail, even to which foot to put forward in the stance and how far from the line. That was one of the benefits of commercialism and prosperity. No longer did a team copy plays off a blackboard or try to figure out badly mimeographed pages. Everything was neatly drawn, and Nolan used that other artifact of big business, visual aids. But neatness alone did not count. Nolan's insistence on details did. The new coach had a new system for the old pro—he had put in a flex defense that required greater awareness of responsibilities and reactions, and the defense prospered.

"It used to be when we reviewed the game films a player had to be prepared for an ordeal," says Krueger. "I mean it could be painful. First off we would be split into offense and defense, and each unit would watch the breakdown separately. If you goofed, they would take you apart, read you out, tear you down. I mean they left a player nothing. They would strip him, leave him no place to hide, no shred of dignity. It was a terrible experience, and you wondered if you could survive. You were always so busy looking frantically for an escape that often you missed the point. Nolan doesn't work that way. Everything is calm and reasoned, and we all sit together reviewing our performances. He makes his point. He can be forceful but Dick Nolan is never destructive."

Perhaps even more surprising to Krueger was Nolan's sense of proportion. There was a reason to be late for practice or miss a game other than the fact of your own death. Nolan placed family, God and country before football.

"Charlie Krueger is such a pure guy, he has no enemies," Butchee Mudd was saying the other day. "But he is an incredibly complex man. I always felt he cared too much about football."

Krueger once belonged to a group of 49ers who were so deeply involved that they got exceptionally uptight at the approach of a game. With the approval of the coach they would arrive at the stadium an hour or two before the team bus. Then, without the added pressure of hurrying, they would leisurely go about the ritual of getting ready to play. The Early Birds, as they were called, would chain-smoke their way through the jitters while they indulged the athlete's small superstitions—taping a certain way and the right sock always before the left.

With the ebb and flow of football, trades and cuts, the group changed. At the beginning it included Krueger, Billy Kilmer, Linebacker Mike Dowdle and Half back John David Crow. There were always at least five Early Birds. Then, two years ago, there were none, except for Krueger. "As usual, I went out to the Coliseum for a Ram game an hour before the team arrived," he recalls. "They have these small two-man dressing cubicles, and I kept waiting for another Early Bird. But none came. They were all gone. Then I realized that my era was over. That was when I discovered I was a dinosaur and that I had outlived my time."

Since then Krueger has been in three playoffs, and recently he began to think ahead to another shot at a championship. "Then they'll have seen the last of Old Charlie," he said.

Old Charlie was feeling expansive. His weight was down—in fact, he was at 255 pounds, a recent pro low. Through the heat of preseason camp he had played well, and Wiggin thought he had got his second wind. "No telling how long Krueger will be around," he said.

Although he was still preoccupied with a graceful exit, Krueger was euphoric now that weight was no longer a problem. He was out on the town of Redwood City, ready for a calorie-rich meal at L'Auberge with Kris. In the off-season, he said, he and Kris had toured the Pacific. In Bora Bora he spotted Lou Spadia, the 49ers' general manager, in a hotel lobby. Tapping him on the shoulder, Krueger said, "My God, Mr. Spadia, I know I have had a weight problem, but isn't this carrying things too far?"

The anecdote was a nice light touch for the start of a hopeful season and a big night on the town. Ah, life was good! L'Auberge piled deference upon deference. The owner sent over rounds of drinks, and the maitre d' waited an hour after closing to present the bill. If you do your job the way it's supposed to be done and live long enough, someone may notice you. Robert Mitchum is now a great actor. Mistair Kruegair is a hero in the best French restaurant in Redwood City.

Before opening day three Old Pros had a change of status: Ray Nitschke retired, Richie Petithon was waived and Don May-nard was traded to St. Louis.