Leo Nomellini truly lived a full life. After immigrating from Italy as an infant, he fought in World War II, starred on the offensive and defensive lines of the San Francisco 49ers and made a name for himself in professional wrestling. His whole life was one adventure after another and he emerged stronger after each and every experience. This is his story.
Leo Joseph Nomellini was born on June 19, 1924 in Lucca, Tuscany, Italy. His family immigrated to America when he was an infant where they eventually settled in Chicago, Illinois. Times were tough for the Nomellini’s and Leo dropped out of Crane High School to work in a foundry to support his family. Wanting more for his life and to serve his country, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1942.
Early in his time with the military, Nomellini first began his journey into football, playing for the Cherry Point, N.C., Marines team. After a year of playing on the gridiron, Nomellini was sent to Saipan and Okinawa, seeing a great deal of violence and carnage. When his service ended in 1946, Nomellini accepted a scholarship to the University of Minnesota. After twice being named an All-American, Leo Nomellini was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the first round of the 1950 NFL Draft. As their first ever pick in the NFL Draft, expectations were high. Little did they know just how far he would exceed those expectations.
Despite his minimal experience in football, Leo Nomellini proved to be a natural in San Francisco, earning his first Pro Bowl invitation in his rookie year. A year later, he added an All-Pro nod to his resume. Through the 1950’s the 49ers had an excellent offense, featuring as many as six future Hall of Famers. However, they could never put it all together to win a championship.
But despite his frustrations, Leo Nomellini continued to show up every day. Over his 14 year career, he started 166 games and appeared in all 174 in an era when the NFL schedule only consisted of 12 games. Amazingly, Nomellini starred on both sides of the line, twice being selected to the first team All-Pro team for offense and four times for defense. He was also named second team All-Pro three more times at the end of his career. He was invited to ten Pro Bowls and helped lead the 49ers to the playoffs once, in 1957, where they lost a heartbreaker to the Detroit Lions.
Though sacks weren’t an official statistic until 1982 and tackles in 2001, Nomellini’s impact went beyond the numbers. On offense, he blocked for four Hall of Famers in Y.A. Tittle, Joe Perry, John Henry Johnson and Hugh McElhenny. On defense he wrecked havoc on the opposing offense, becoming a nightmare for dignitaries such as Jim Brown, Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas among many, many others. Teamed with fellow Hall of Fame offensive tackle Bob St. Clair, Nomellini paved the way for great runs and tremendous tackles. He was an indestructible force in an era when players often played both ways. Leo Nomellini retired after the 1963 season.
Leo the Lion
Football wasn’t his only sport. Beginning in 1950, Nomellini debuted as “Leo the Lion” during the offseason in Minnesota for wrestling. The sport proved to be so lucrative that he briefly considered quitting football to concentrate on wrestling. At the time, he was being paid $22,000 a year for football and $28,000 for wrestling. However, his love for the game won him over and Leo Nomellini made a name for himself on the gridiron during the football season and in the ring during the offseason.
By March of 1952, he won his first tag team match in NWA San Francisco with his partner Hombre Montana. Together, they defeated Mike and Ben Sharpe. It was the first of 10 tag team championships that he would earn over his wrestling career. His greatest rival was Lou Thesz. In five matches, Nomellini managed one victory against three draws and a loss. That lone loss was a memorable one.
On March 22, 1955 at the Cow Palace, Thesz threw Leo the Lion out of the ring and refused to allow him back in the ring by repeatedly kicking him, an illegal move. Thesz was disqualified and Leo the Lion was crowned champion. However, this victory was short- lived because two days later later the National Wrestling Alliance ruled that a champion could not lose his title by disqualification, thus costing Leo the Lion a rare victory against his nemesis. He moved on to NWA Minnesota in 1958 where he would win three more tag team championships to bring his career total to ten.
After Nomellini retired from the ring, he was inducted into numerous Hall of Fames. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1969, the College Football Hall of Fame in 1977 and the NWA Hall of Fame in 2008. He worked in the insurance industry for 30 years and was a wrestling promoter for years after his retirement from the sport. Leo Nomellini passed away on October 17, 2000 from a stroke at the age of 76.