The judge must have been referring to another Charlie Krueger, surely not the All-America with the crew cut who learned about football and life from Bear Bryant at Texas A & M. No, the judge couldn't have meant the rookie defensive tackle who joined the San Francisco 49ers as a first-round draft pick in 1958 and then stuck around until '73. No, not the man whose talent once prompted Tom Landry" to say, "No one is able to gain running at Charlie Krueger."
The judge must have got it wrong. This couldn't be the same Charlie Krueger, the All-Pro with the gnarled features who inspired such headlines as THE LAST OF THE OLD LEATHER and STRONG AND SILENT: THAT'S KRUEGER....
It just couldn't be—but it was.
The Kruegers of this world are supposed to follow football's unwritten code and walk away from the game quietly, hiding any bitterness behind the rosy words of their teams' public relations departments. And Krueger, now 51, might have done just that, had it not been for an operation in 1979 on his left knee. After the surgery it was discovered that for years the 49ers had allowed the sturdy tackle to play though they knew, following an operation on the knee to repair medial collateral ligament damage in '63, that Krueger was missing the anterior cruciate ligament in that knee.
On May 27, Judge John Dearman of the California Superior Court in San Francisco, in a civil case brought by Krueger against the 49ers, handed down a decision citing "fraudulent concealment." Dearman's decision said, in part, "Today [Krueger]...cannot climb, squat, kneel, lift, stoop, run, jog, or even walk or stand for prolonged periods of time. He is in constant pain.
"In 1979 [Krueger] underwent a difficult and unsuccessful knee surgery.... He came to realize the root causes of his unnecessary anguish. Since then [he] has been forced to live not only with the physical pain, but also with the grievous knowledge that he was betrayed by the very people for whom he sacrificed so much. He suffers from depressive neurosis and its accompanying symptoms—insomnia, restlessness, low self-esteem and morbidity." Judge Dearman ordered the 49ers to pay Krueger $66,000 in special damages and $2.3 million in general damages.
In remanding the case to the Superior Court last year, the California Court of Appeals, First District, held, "...in its desire to keep [Krueger] on the playing field, [the 49ers] consciously failed to make full, meaningful disclosure to him respecting the magnitude of the risk he took in continuing to play.... Krueger was in acute pain from 1963 on...he was regularly anesthetized between and during games, and endured repeated, questionable steroid treatments administered by the team physician."
The legal maneuvering in this eight-year-old case may continue, and while money is a big issue, questions of equal importance have been raised not only for the NFL and its players, but for players, coaches and parents at all levels of football and other sports. The questions are about trust; about playing in pain; about attitudes imposed on high school, college and even some professional athletes; about the meaning of words like "honor" and "courage" and what is and isn't "manly" behavior.
"Football doesn't have much meaning to me anymore," Krueger told The Boston Globe last year. "It's like I worked 20 years in a slaughterhouse.... The environment in pro football is such that you play with injuries. If I had an injury, I always went to the doctors.... If they said I could play, I played. I played because it was my job. I relied on them to tell me not to play. I relied on the wrong people. [The 49ers' current management is different from the 1963 group.] Pro football's a hard place to make a living. Maybe that's why they don't send old men to war. Old men know better."
As late as 1970, according to Dearman's decision, Krueger was still willing to sacrifice his body for the 49ers. During a game that year, pieces of Krueger's left femur and tibia broke off. He was given codeine for the pain and finished that game and the season—there were five games remaining—before the fragments were removed from his knee. Krueger had honored the code, and in the eyes of the fans and media, he had honored himself.
"Honor" is a very important word in pro football. Coaches and announcers talk reverently about it all the time. Charlie Krueger exemplified the word, and when he could no longer play, the 49ers gave him the ultimate honor: They retired his jersey number. It was a wonderful, popular gesture.
There was just one problem with all the speechmaking. According to Dearman, the 49ers forgot to tell Krueger a few things about his left knee. By failing to do so, they dishonored themselves and the game.