|Several years ago, the book "Golden Years of Pro Football" used former 49ers linebacker Dave Wilcox as the poster boy for great NFL players who seemingly disappear from everyone's radar screen as soon as they hang up their Bikes and Nikes. The author lamented that "no one player better and was forgotten sooner than the long-armed, sharp-elbowed Wilcox."
The ex-Oregon Duck retired after an 11-year career, all with San Francisco, at the end of the 1974 season -- and it seemed nary a peep was heard about or from Wilcox in the intervening years.
Oh yeah, when NFL insiders got together and the subject of underrated and underappreciated players came up, Wilcox, Tommy Nobis, Jack Butler, Walt Sweeney and Al Wistert were mentioned. But the general public took an Abe Lincoln stance: "The world will little note, nor long remember..."
Well, all that began to change last summer. The Pro Football Hall of Fame old-timers' committee met in Canton, Ohio, and advanced the name of Dave Wilcox as the "veteran" selection. There's no guarantee (just ask Jerry Kramer) an old-timer candidate will make the final cut when the Hall of Fame selection committee meets the Saturday morning before the Super Bowl -- only that that player will be a finalist, along with a dozen or more gridiron greats.
While those who cared about Wilcox were elated to learn that he was the "veteran" selection and was going to be at least a finalist, there was an ominous cloud hovering above Wilcox's chances.
Also eligible for induction with the Hall's Class of 2000 were a pair of 49ers legends -- Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott. Would Hall selectors think Cardinal and Forty Niners Gold were monopolizing the Class colors if all three were voted into a group of about five? If so, Wilcox's chances of ever entering Canton's shrine would shrink to two -- slim and none. It's highly unlikely that an unsuccessful veteran nominee would ever be tapped again.
To their credit, the selectors did the right thing. Montana and Lott were elected. So, too, was Howie Long of the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders. Fans in the Bay Area could never cry, "Taxation without representation." The highly respected president of the Steelers, Dan Rooney, also was named. And as the Class of '00 was announced by Hall director John Bankert, Dave Wilcox was included too.
Why did some believe so long and passionately in Wilcox's worthiness when much of the world was so indifferent? Paul Wiggin, a 49ers defensive assistant for a significant portion of Wilcox's career and no average NFL player himself, had this to say about the seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker: "He may have been the best man at his position that I have ever seen in pro football." At the time Wiggin gave such a ringing endorsement, Wilcox was at the peak of his considerable prowess and recognized as a unanimous All-Pro. While the Lawrence Taylors would come along a generation later and benefit from different defensive tactics and systems, keep in mind that Wilcox contended with such burly tight ends as Hall of Famers Mike Ditka and John Mackey, among others. Wilcox seldom had the luxury of playing "in space" or "against air."
Vince Costello, also a standout linebacker with the Browns and Giants and later an NFL defensive coordinator, was somewhat in awe of Wilcox. Recently, Costello said, "Wilcox was a great player, obviously. He was as good as any linebacker, not just outside linebacker, who ever played the game -- including Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke." Butkus and Nitschke were two of Wilcox's contemporaries who received the bulk of the linebacking laurels at the time.
Costello isn't the only knowledgeable speaker on the subject of Wilcox's ability and credentials. Pro Football Hall of Famer Jack Ham, the yardstick some still use to measure all outside 'backers, said, "When I was with the Steelers (1971-1982), Andy Russell (another gentleman who knew a thing or two about the rudiments and intricacies of outside linebacking) and I would look at film of Dave. We were both amazed at what he could do and the plays he could make. He truly was awesome!"
Wilcox was born in Ontario, Ore., on Sept. 29, 1942, and was drafted in the third round by the 49ers in '64.
||While the Lawrence Taylors would
come along a generation later and benefit from
different defensive tactics and systems, keep in
mind that Wilcox contended with such burly tight
ends as Hall of Famers Mike Ditka and John
Mackey, among others. Wilcox seldom had the
luxury of playing 'in space' or 'against
Once during his playing days, Wilcox gave his assessment and outlook on the game to author/artist Murray Olderman. Starting off by sounding like a true product of the '60s, Wilcox related, "I really dig the game. Where else can you get 40 people working their butts off toward one goal? It's kind of a unity thing, and it's part of being something good. Athletics teaches an individual. The first thing it teaches you is that you're never going to win at everything.
"Look, I want to be the best linebacker ever to play the game. It'll never happen, of course.
"When I came into the pros, I was just some guy from the University of Oregon. I was teed off. All you heard about from Oregon was Terry Baker (the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Oregon State), who never made it with the Rams. I don't think I've really gotten rid of my teed-off attitude. Some of the superguy All-Pros you see in all the stories, they really shouldn't be there. They don't put out.
"I arrived with the same feeling of awe as any rookie. Five years before that I had watched the Baltimore Colts on TV. They were the best. Then I intercepted a pass against the Colts in a game, and I remember that Johnny Unitas tackled me on the runback. All I could think of was, 'He knocked me down, the SOB.? "
Known for his toughness, Wilcox later reminisced about his playing days: "What I did best was not let people block me. I hated to get blocked. I didn't give a (bleep) if the play went the other way -- I didn't want to be off my feet. (Ex-Cowboys RB) Walt Garrison knocked me down three times in one game -- that got me really mad."
He concluded by saying, "I was told you should play every play like it's your last one. It really helped me -- I tried to do that."
Not only did Dave Wilcox try -- he succeeded.
Material from Pro Football Weekly.
||What I did best was not let people
block me. I hated to get blocked. I didn't give a (bleep) if the play went the other way
-- I didn't want to be off my feet. ”
||— Dave Wilcox, Hall of Fame linebacker
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Dave Wilcox's career highlights
Golden weekend in Canton