Like many in the Bay Area, I lost a friend when Gordy Soltau died on Sunday at 89.
We didn’t start as friends. Our first encounter came in the late fall of 1974, when the 49ers were playing the Bears at Chicago’s Soldier Field. My first book, “The Jock Empire,” had been published earlier that year and I was scheduled to talk at halftime with Gordy, who was working on the 49ers broadcasts with Lon Simmons.
Both of us had problems with that. My problem was physical. I had to walk around the rim of the stadium on a brutally cold day. Gordy’s was emotional. He did not like the combative tone of my Chronicle column. Nonetheless, the interview went well and we both came away with respect for the other. From that point, our relationship became a friendly one and we talked often in the years after that. Gordy was very involved in the NFL Alumni group and I was supportive of the group, writing about it when I could.
Our relationship deepened when I was working on the 49ers history for a book commissioned by NFL Properties and published in 1995: “The San Francisco 49ers: The First 50 Years.”
Because I had seen only one 49ers game before being hired by The San Francisco Chronicle in 1963, I leaned heavily on interviews with players from the early days. Y. A. Tittle was the best source because he had seemingly endless stories, very colorful ones. He probably exaggerated for effect but there was no evidence to contradict him, so I went with Y.A.’s memories. Soltau’s memories were less colorful but very important, too, and there are many of them in the book.
Working on the book brought me closer to the older 49ers, including Gordy, and I would join them at pre-game meals and celebrations. Sometimes, they would also invite me to alumni gatherings away from the games, and I would write about their efforts.
That was when Gordy and I truly became friends and were truly happy to see one another when we got together. We would talk about what we had been doing most recently and joke together as friends do.
Still, because of Gordy’s innate modesty, there was much I never knew about his early life. I knew we were both born in Minnesota – I was born in the small town of Virginia, about 75 miles north of his birthplace, Duluth – but I did not know he had joined the Navy, in the equivalent of what is now the Navy Seals, in World War II. Coming out of the Navy, he enrolled in the University of Minnesota and played on a team in 1949 team with Leo Nomellini, who became his teammate with the 49ers, and Bud Grant, who became the coach of the Minnesota Vikings. That part I did know because my dad and I continued to follow the Golden Gophers from afar, bitterly disappointed that the 1949 team didn’t make it to the Rose Bowl.
When he became a star for the 49ers, Gordy moved permanently from Minnesota to the Bay Area, for entirely understandable reasons. He became a very successful businessman while still working very hard without compensation for the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, along with his NFL alumni work.
That was the Gordy Soltau I and so many others knew, a man who accomplished so much and yet was always looking for way to help others. He will be missed.
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