John Brodie: His Fight for Respect
John Brodie had a colorful career in the Bay Area. He was raised in Oakland and made a name for himself at Stanford University. He waited years behind Y.A. Tittle before finally getting his chance to start for the 49ers. The 49ers Faithful initially hated him for replacing their beloved quarterback but eventually he earned the love and admiration of the 49ers fans. His career was not always pretty and surely had a number of bumps along the way but in the end he became a legend in the City by the Bay. This is his story.
John Riley Brodie was born on August 14, 1935 in Menlo Park, California. He grew up in the Monclair district of Oakland, California and starred at Oakland Technical High School. Following his graduation in 1953, Brodie earned a scholarship to Stanford University.
He initially hoped to play for the Stanford basketball team but changed his mind after separating his shoulder in a game his freshman year. He walked on to the football team and eventually earned the starting spot. As a junior in 1955, Brodie sat behind senior Jerry Gustafson as he led the team to a #16 national ranking and wins over USC and Ohio State. Finally a starter in his senior season, Brodie led the nation in pass completions (139), completion percentage (57.9%), passing yards (1,633) and passing touchdowns (12). While he did throw more interceptions than touchdowns with 14, this was a different era where the running game was much more prevalent than today. He led Stanford to a victory over USC that year and was awarded consensus All-American honors for his accomplishments on the gridiron.
His final game in college was one of the greatest upsets in the history of the Big Game between Stanford and Cal. That game was the final contest of Cal’s legendary coach Pappy Waldorf and also featured a sophomore quarterback named Joe Kapp. Kapp would go on to great success in Canada and would lead the Minnesota Vikings to the 1969 Super Bowl where they would lose to the Kansas City Chiefs. While Stanford was 14 point favorites, Cal came out inspired and crushed John Brodie’s dream of finishing his collegiate career with a win. One highlight of the game was Stanford’s running back Lou Valli who would run for a Stanford Big Game record 206 yards. That record wouldn’t be broken for nearly 50 years when Cal’s Joe Igber broke it in 2002. Brodie was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1986.
The 1957 NFL Draft was a legendary one with Hall of Famers Paul Hornung, Len Dawson, Jim Brown and Jim Parker all selected in the first round. John Brodie was selected by the San Francisco 49ers with the third overall pick. That was truly a special year for the 49ers who made the postseason for the first time since joining the NFL in 1950. Brodie learned patience the hard way by sitting behind Y.A. Tittle until Tittle was ultimately traded to the New York Giants in 1961.
The 49ers had a lot of talent when Brodie was drafted, but when he became their starting quarterback that talent was gone. The 1960’s was not a kind decade for him or for the 49ers as the team never made the playoffs and the fans constantly booed him for not winning enough. Items such as full beer cans were thrown down upon him while he exited the tunnel at Kezar Stadium. The vandalism became so much that the 49ers built a cage with chicken wire above the tunnel to protect Brodie and the rest of the team from the projectiles which were sure to fall from the sky.
The 1961 season was statistically a pretty decent year for John Brodie. He completed 54.8% of his passes for 2,588 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He was even better the following year, completing 57.6% of his passes with 18 touchdowns. Though he threw more touchdowns than interceptions, something which Tittle rarely did, the 49ers fans could not bring themselves to except him as their quarterback simply because he was not Y.A. Tittle. To make matters worse for Brodie, the 49ers were barely winning as many as they lost in those first two years with him under center.
He was hurt for much of the 1963 season and only appeared in three games. It could have derailed his career but he came back stronger in 1964, throwing for 14 touchdowns against 16 interceptions in a dismal 4-10 campaign. He was invited to his first Pro Bowl in 1965 while leading the NFL in attempts (391), completions (242), completion percentage (61.9%), yards (3,112) and touchdown passes (30).
The next four years were much the same, Brodie played well but the team failed to make the playoffs each year to end the decade. The fans were growing restless and when Dick Nolan was hired as the head coach, it appeared that Brodie’s days in San Francisco were numbered. Nolan stuck with Brodie who proceeded to have a career year in 1970. He completed 59% of his passes for 2,941 yards and 24 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions. He earned the NFL MVP that year and the 49ers went all the way to the NFC Championship Game where they would lose to the Dallas Cowboys 17-10. Despite the final results, John Brodie achieved something more than a Super Bowl championship, he gained love and adoration in San Francisco.
He wasn’t nearly as good in 1971, throwing more interceptions (24) than touchdowns (18), but he still managed to lead the 49ers back to the NFC Championship Game where they would once again lose to the Cowboys. He only started five games in an injury riddled 1972 campaign but under the guidance of longtime backup Steve Spurrier, the 49ers reached the playoffs. They would once again lose to the Cowboys, this time in the first round. Brodie spent one more injury riddled season with the 49ers before retiring at the age of 38. When he began his career the citizens of San Francisco found it hard to accept him; when he ended his career, the citizens of San Francisco were madly in love with him. For his courage under fire as well as for his accomplishments, the 49ers retired his number 12 jersey, although his close friend Trent Dilfer wore it in 2007.
Golf and Later Years
Unbeknownst to many 49er Faithful, John Brodie had a lifelong love affair with the sport of golf. It began in college with him dividing his time between football and golf. He competed in two NCAA Championships while at Stanford. During his first three years in the NFL, Brodie spent his offseasons playing in the San Francisco Open, winning the Northern California Amateur golf tournament in 1958 and qualifying for the US Open in 1959. Going into the 1960 season, he was given the opportunity to play in the Yorba Linda PGA Tour Open Invitational. He shot 67 in the second round, five below par, and only trailed eventual champion Jerry Barber by four strokes. Amazingly, he was ahead of Arnold Palmer by two strokes. Unfortunately, he didn’t perform as well on the third and final day of the tournament, losing to Barber by ten strokes.
Following his retirement from the NFL, John Brodie competed in the Senior PGA Tour from1985 to 1998, winning once and finishing in the top 10 twelve times.
Along with an impressive golf career, Brodie also worked as a broadcaster for NBC in both football and golf. He suffered a debilitating stroke in 2000 which made speech difficult for him but he eventually pulled through and is still alive.