Former 49ers offensive tackle Bob St. Clair, a hulking Hall of Famer and colorful San Francisco native who spent nearly his entire playing career in the city, died Monday at 84 in Santa Rosa.
USF, where Mr. St. Clair played on the famed unbeaten 1951 team, confirmed his death in a statement on its website.
“On behalf of the entire USF community, I would like to extend my deepest condolences to the St. Clair family on the passing of one of the greatest Dons of all time,” USF athletic director Scott Sidwell said. “Bob was a great San Franciscan who, along with his ’51 Dons teammates, embodied the character and values of our university by taking a courageous stand against racism in the early ’50s. He will be greatly missed.”
During his 11-year career with the 49ers, Mr. St. Clair, 6-foot-9 and 270 pounds, was known for his toughness, and also for his famous habit of eating raw meat. A five-time Pro Bowl selection who spent the early part of his career playing with a leather helmet, he broke his nose at least six times, played an entire quarter with a broken shoulder, once stayed in a game after a blocked kick resulted in the loss of five teeth and twice had Achilles tendon surgery.
Before he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990, he was asked if the players of his era could have competed in the modern NFL.
Photo: Chris Hardy, SFC
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Bob St. Clair leans on the goal post at Kezar Stadium, where the field on which he played 189 games was named for him.
“I don’t think the question should be “Could we play today?’” he said. “The question is, “Could these candy-asses have played with us?’”
Kezar was a 2nd home
Mr. St. Clair, who grew up in the Mission District and Ingleside, spent all but one season of his 18-year high school, college and NFL career playing at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco. The field was named after him in 2001.
After graduating from Polytechnic High School, he attended USF and was a member of one of the best college teams in Bay Area history. The 1951 Dons went 9-0 and had more than half a dozen future NFL players; three of whom — Mr. St. Clair, running back Ollie Matson and defensive end Gino Marchetti — are in the Hall of Fame. But they are best known for a game they declined to play: They chose not to go to a bowl game because their two African American players, Matson and Burl Toler, would not have been permitted to play
After USF dropped its football program following the 1951 season, Mr. St. Clair transferred to the University of Tulsa for his senior year. His heart, however, remained in San Francisco. Tulsa went 8-1-1 and received an invitation to the Gator Bowl, but St. Clair had been invited to play in the East-West Shrine Game at Kezar, which was a boyhood dream.
“The team voted 51-1 to accept the Gator Bowl bid,” he said. “Everyone was wondering who the hell voted no.”
A third-round pick of the 49ers in 1953, Mr. St. Clair spent the early part of his career opening holes for the “Million Dollar Backfield,” a quartet of quarterback Y.A. Tittle and running backs John Henry Johnson, Hugh McElhenny and Joe Perry. Each member of the foursome was inducted into the Hall of Fame by 1987. Mr. St. Clair often joked that he eventually joined them because hall voters finally realized someone had to be blocking the 49ers’ host of skill-position stars.
McElhenny, his teammate from 1953 to 1960, said Mr. St. Clair’s unique blend of size and speed made him a dominant blocker. McElhenny recalled that the only player who weighed as much as Mr. St. Clair was Les Bingaman, and the Lions defensive tackle “was just a big fat guy.”
Bigger than the rest
“I do recall sitting in my position in the backfield, and about all I would be looking at was Bob’s big ass because he was just so tall and high,” McElhenny said. “He was just so much bigger than the rest of the offensive line. And the defensive line, too. He had great speed for his size. He would have made a great tight end today. Many times, I know he gave me a lot of daylight.”
During his career, Mr. St. Clair also played defense in goal-line situations, and his height made him a special-teams force: He blocked 10 field-goal and extra-point attempts in 1956. Mr. St. Clair was a team captain and a nine-time first- or second-team all-NFL selection. He is one 12 players to have his jersey retired by the 49ers.
Off the field, his raw-meat-eating habit earned him the nickname “The Geek,” inspired by a character who was fed live chickens in the 1947 movie “Nightmare Alley.”
“My grandmother used to feed me raw meat off the kitchen table,” Mr. St. Clair once explained of his habit. “I grew to love raw liver and hearts, bird hearts, dove and quail.”
Said McElhenny: “He’d order a steak and have it thrown on the grill to take the chill off. Have it turned over and have it served. That’s how he did it. He also ate raw liver. Sometimes when you were sitting with him and he was eating that … it was kind of gross. But, no, we didn’t think anything was wrong with him. That was just how he was raised.”
Daly City’s mayor
During the latter part of his career, he served as the mayor of Daly City (1958-64). After he retired, he was an elected member of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors (1966-74) and a paid lobbyist for Orange County (1979-80).
Mr. St. Clair, who earned a business degree from Tulsa and never earned more than a $20,000 salary in the NFL, also worked in insurance, air freight and in marketing for Clover Stornetta Farms in Petaluma. He bought and sold four liquor stores, and one in Noe Valley still bears his name. Fittingly, Mr. St. Clair also served as a marketing coordinator for a San Francisco meat distributor.
Mr. St. Clair settled in Santa Rosa but retained his strong connection to the 49ers and his native city. He was a longtime season-ticket holder and fumed in 2006 when the 49ers first floated the idea of playing home games in Santa Clara, a move they finally made last year.
“What a bunch of crap,” Mr. St. Clair said. “It’s not too late for the city to do something. The 49ers are a big part of this city. And if (city officials) don’t get that, they are complete idiots.”