Updated: Oct 14, 2020
Today, the 49ers “Gold Rush” refers to their cheerleaders but back in the early 1970’s their defensive line was the first to bear that name. Featuring Bill Belk, Cedrick Hardman, Charlie Krueger, Earl Edwards, Roland Lakes and Tommy Hart, their defensive line was in the upper echelon of defensive lines in the NFL. This was an era where some of the greatest defensive lines in league history ruled the NFL. Names such as The Purple People Eaters and the Steel Curtain left quarterbacks quacking in their cleats. The Gold Rush never reached the Super Bowl but they captured the hearts of San Francisco with their relentless pursuit of the city’s first championship.
After a tenous first decade in the NFL, the 49ers needed to prepare for life after Leo Nomellini, one of the greatest linemen in team history. Charlie Krueger had survived Bear Bryant’s brutal training camps at Texas A&M and was twice named All America. He was drafted in the first round of the 1958 draft and the first building block of the Gold Rush was set. The team struggled in his first decade but Krueger made the Pro Bowl in 1960 and 1964. Roland Lakes was drafted in 1961 out of University of Wichita.
Tommy Hart was drafted out of Morris Brown College in 1968. He was multitalented, having run sprints and shot putted in track while in college. Bill Belk was drafted the same year as Tommy Hart out of Maryland Eastern Shore and Earl Edwards was drafted the following year after spending two years in Canada. Cedric Hardman was drafted in the first round of the 1970 draft and made the Pro Bowl the following year.
The 1960’s were a struggle for the 49ers and they failed to make the playoffs the entire decade. However, they were slowly building a contender. By the end of the decade, aside from their stellar defensive line, they also had Hall of Famer’s linebacker Dave Wilcox and cornerback Jimmy Johnson roaming the rest of the field. The stage was set for an incredible three year run which would begin a historic rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys.
The Fight for a Championship
1970 was a year San Francisco has yet to forget. Since losing the Western Conference Championship in 1957 the 49ers had not been back to the playoffs. Dick Nolan had come over from the Dallas Cowboys in 1968 and had installed a variation of their Doomsday Defense. His particular system relied on a platoon system of defensive linemen. That way, the defense could be fresher in the fourth quarter where so many games are won or lost.
It was a dream season with the team going 10-3-1. However, a dark cloud loomed over their championship hopes as they only ranked 14th in point allowed and 18th in rushing yards allowed. On the other side of the line, the Cowboys had been building a multi-dimensional offense which could exploit any defense. They fought their way to the NFC Championship Game in Kezar Stadium’s last game. The Gold Rush started off strong and suffocated the Cowboys offense early. The Cowboys eventually started to figure out the 49ers defense and became more physical.
After battling to a 3-3 halftime tie, the Cowboys scored two touchdowns in the third quarter to take control of the game. Late in the third quarter the 49ers had three chances on the same drive to force a turnover and failed. It was becoming clear that the Cowboys were beating the 49ers defense to the punch as they were able to sustain long, time consuming drives. The fourth quarter was much of the same and the Cowboys ended the 49ers Super Bowl hopes 17-10.
The following year was more of a challenge. Roland Lakes was traded to the New York Giants which affected the Gold Rush’s depth. The team finished 9-5 and visited Dallas for the NFC Championship Game. The defense had done better than the previous year, having ranked 6th in points against and 7th in passing yards allowed. However, the Cowboys were ready, having replaced an ineffective Craig Morton with Roger Staubach at quarterback. Playing in the sparkling new Texas Stadium, the 49ers defense battled in vain to stop the Cowboys’ offensive machine. The 49ers offense did little the whole game and as a result their defense was on the field far longer than it should have been. Mistakes big and small doomed the 49ers as they lost 14-3.
The 1972 season saw the team finish a subpar 8-5-1. The 49ers finished 15th against the pass and 9th in points allowed. They played the Cowboys at Candlestick Park and the game was different than all the others against the Cowboys. Up 28-13 in the fourth quarter, the 49ers were caught off guard when Staubach, injured for much of the year, came into the game. Staubach led an incredible rally and the 49ers were left to lick their wounds in a 30-28 stunner. Little did the 49ers know that they wouldn’t come so close to the Super Bowl until for another nine years. The glory years of the Gold Rush defensive line was soon to fade away.
Following the heartbreak of the past three years, the 49ers tried in vain to get to the Super Bowl in 1973. However, they were getting older, particularly their defensive line. Charlie Krueger retired following the season and Bill Belk left for the WFL after the 1974 season. Tommy Hart signed with the Bears in 1978 and Cedrick Hardman signed with the Raiders in 1980. Hardman won the Super Bowl with the Raiders that year, completing the task he and his teammates had set out to do a decade earlier. Ironically, the Gold Rush defensive line perfectly illustrated the original 49ers. Many traveled to San Francisco for great riches and many ended up with nothing while some struck it rich. The Gold Rush found the silver but they could never find the gold they so desperately coveted.