One of the better receivers in the 49ers long, storied history is Gene Washington. Hailing from nearby Stanford, he became the favorite target of both Jim Plunkett and John Brodie while leading the 49ers to three straight playoff appearances in the early 1970s.
The Early Years
Gene Washington was born on January 14, 1947 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. After moving to Southern California when he was young, Washington attended Long Beach Poly High School where he starred for the storied football program as a quarterback. But despite his natural talent, colleges in that era often digressed at the sight of a Black quarterback, preferring that he switch positions, often to either receiver or defensive back.
That included nearby USC, a program that Gene, like many of his peers desperately wanted to play for. However, Stanford was one of the few schools that recruited him as a quarterback so he went to the Farm, hoping to prove himself at a higher level.
After two years with limited success under center, two events would occur that would change Gene Washington's life. First, he hurt his throwing shoulder near the end of his sophomore year, in a tough 7-3 loss at Oregon. Then midway through camp as a junior, the starting flanker, Bill Shoemaker, went down with an injury, opening the door for Washington to learn a new position on the fly.
He proved to be a quick study, ending the year catching 10 passes for 102 yards in the annual Big Game against Cal. The following year, Jim Plunkett began to rise to prominence and Gene Washington quickly became his favorite receiver. As a senior, Washington set single season school records for receptions (71) and touchdowns (eight).
His collegiate career climaxed in the Big Game against Cal's vaunted Bear Minimum Defense. The Golden Bears had been absolutely dominant on that side of the ball that year, having shut out three opponents that year, including a surprising 43-0 demolition of then tenth ranked Syracuse. Stanford flipped the script on that afternoon, shutting out the Golden Bears 20-0. And with that, Gene Washington's college career came to an end. Having set numerous school records, including career catches (122) and yards (1,785), he had earned recognition as one of the best receivers in school history.
After a prolific college career, Gene Washington was drafted by the 49ers in the first round of the 1969 NFL Draft. He immediately made an impact for the Red & Gold, catching six passes for 92 yards in a 24-12 loss to the Falcons in his first game as a pro. Three weeks later, Gene Washington would announce his presence to the NFL against the Rams.
In the first quarter, he caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from fellow Stanford product John Brodie, his first in. the National Football League. Two quarters later, Washington caught a 33-yard scoring pass. Even though the 49ers lost by six, two of Gene Washington's three receptions for 61 yards went for a touchdown. A statement game, indeed.
Still, he had yet to attract a national audience. That moment came in the form of a 19-yard touchdown reception on Thanksgiving of his rookie year at Dallas, a team destined to dominate the next decade. After ending the year with 711 yards and three touchdowns, Gene Washington made his first Pro Bowl.
After years of suffering through losing seasons, the 49ers were ready to make a push for the playoffs. Armed with one of the most talented defensive lines in the league and a passing game to envy, the 49ers dominated the NFL for the next three years, making the playoffs in each.
John Brodie won the league MVP in 1970 partly due to Gene Washington's league leading 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns. The first-team All Pro followed up that dominant regular season by catching six passes for 88 yards in an NFC Championship Game loss to the Cowboys in the final game at Kezar Stadium.
After another Pro Bowl season the following year, Gene Washington lit a fire underneath his teammates in the first playoffs game in Candlestick Park's history, catching a 78-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter against the Redskins. The 49ers won by four and marched on to their second straight NFC Championship Game, this time in Dallas. In a low-scoring affair, Gene almost proved to be heroic, catching four passes for 88 yards. But alas, the 49ers were felled 14-3 to the eventual Super Bowl champions.
Infuriated at another heartbreaking loss so close to the Super Bowl, Gene Washington shredded defenses on a weekly basis in 1972, striking fear in defensive backs from across the league. After leading the league with 12 touchdown catches and earning his fourth Pro Bowl and second first-team All Pro honors, Washington stepped onto Candlestick's soggy field for yet another playoff game against the Cowboys. Despite a three reception, 76-yard performance from Gene and a 15-point fourth quarter lead, the 49ers couldn't deny the Cowboys another victory.
From there, the 49ers met a slow demise that would ultimately push them into the gutter of the league. But while the franchise sagged, Gene Washington continued to thrive, putting up back to back 600 yard seasons in 1973 and 1974 as well as posting a 735 yard, nine touchdown stat line in 1975.
After gaining 638 yards and scoring five touchdowns in 1977, Washington was released from the 49ers and sat out the year, waiting for one last chance from an NFL team. His hopes were answered when Detroit called in 1979, but he was used sparingly and only gained 192 yards and scored a single touchdown before retiring.
After his retirement as a player, Gene Washington stayed in the game as a commentator for both NBC and KABC-TV. He also served as the director of football operations from 1994 through 2009 and also served as a board member of the National Park Foundation, forever keeping his feet in the soil.