Roger Craig: Still Running
“I’ve been running marathons,” he said, “three in the last year. My best time is three hours, 49 minutes. I’m hoping to get my time down so I can qualify for the Boston Marathon. That’s the Super Bowl of marathons.”
Not surprisingly, he’s as fit as he was in his 49er days, though he follows a different exercise regime, more running, less weigh training. And, he says proudly, “I’m only five pounds over my high school weight!”
Roger pioneered an off-season fitness program with the 49ers that only Jerry Rice was capable of emulating. Several other players tried it but gave it up as too painful, but it kept Craig going during his career and it’s one of the reasons Rice has been able to continue his career into his 40s, though it seems likely it will end this year because no NFL team will offer him a contract.
I’ve always admired Craig because he epitomized the best of pro athletes from a prior era, never complaining, always doing his job to the best of his ability. He played through pain, although nobody knew until after the fact because he never talked about it.
He adapted to whatever changes were asked of him. Though it seems remarkable now, the question about him when he was drafted in the second round in 1983 was his pass catching ability, because he had played in a run-oriented offense at Nebraska. He improved his receiving skills by having quarterbacks throw to him after practice, and he became the first back to gain more than 1000 yards rushing and receiving in a season. A running back in college, he became the fullback in Bill Walsh’s offense because Wendell Tyler was the running back. When Tyler left, Craig moved to his more natural position, with Tom Rathman becoming the fullback.
THROUGH IT all, Craig was the ultimate 49er, which made it all the more shocking when he left after the 1990 season.
At the time, the NFL was trying to ward off full-fledged free agency, so they had adopted what they called Plan B: Teams could protect only a certain number of players, 35 as I recall, and the others were able to become free agents.
The 49ers put both Craig and Ronnie Lott on the unprotected list, hoping to re-sign them for less money. They also thought both players had only about a year left.
Both left for the Raiders, who were then in Los Angeles. Lott played two seasons there and a final one with the New York Jets. Craig played one season with the Raiders and a final two years with the Minnesota Vikings.
Lott’s decision was based on pride; he felt he had more left than the 49ers thought, and he was right. For Craig, the decision was financial, because the Raiders offered him more money.
“If I had it to do all over again, I’d have kept my butt right here,” Craig told me in an interview for my 1995 book, “San Francisco 49ers: The First 50 Years.”
“At the time, I thought it was important for me to do the best thing for my family, but playing for the Raiders and Vikings was just a blur for me. My memories are all here. I'm a 49er."
After those meaningless Raiders/Vikings years, Craig signed a contract with the 49ers in training camp in 1994 and retired as a 49er, one day later. Then, he moved back to the Bay Area with his family. For the last six years, he’s been working for TIBCO Software on the peninsula, and is now director for business development. The company, which was started in the mid-80s, has several high-profile clients, including major league baseball (mlb.com) and NASDAQ.
He’s become integrated into the 49er family again, sometimes hosting parties in luxury suites before games.
He’s also been reconciled with former owner Eddie DeBartolo, who had trouble forgiving Craig for leaving the 49ers in 1990. Last month, DeBartolo hosted a party in Tampa, which also benefited the DeBartolo Family Foundation, and invited many of the people with whom he had feuded over the years. The invitation list was long – Eddie is notorious for his volatility, which has cost him long-time friends like Carmen Policy – and included Walsh, Craig and Dwight Clark, among many former 49ers. The wine flowed freely, and many happy times were remembered.
THOSE WERE indeed happy times, as the 49ers won three Super Bowls during Craig’s years and narrowly missed another one after the 1990 season, which would have been three in a row.
Sadly, it was Craig’s fumble in the closing minutes of the NFC Championship game which set up a game-winning field goal by the New York Giants kicker, Matt Barr.
“I was never a fumbler,” Craig told me for my book. “I had a clause in my contract that I’d get a bonus if I fumbled fewer than three times in a season, and I always reached that.”
The fumble was devastating to Craig. “That put a black cloud over me for months,” he said. “I always felt that, if I did something wrong, I had to do something right to make up for it right away, but I didn’t have a chance this time. That’s the last thing 49er fans had to remember about me.”
Craig is probably too hard on himself. When I talked to 49er fans at the time, they were very disappointed about the missed Super Bowl chance but they certainly appreciated Craig’s contributions over the years. Now, with the passage of 15 years, we can all concentrate on what Craig meant to the 49ers during their great run.
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