Updated: Oct 15, 2020
Throughout their history, the 49ers have had a number of unsung heroes. Players who were great but never got the recognition they deserved. Hardy Brown was one of the first of those players. In an era where there were fewer rules governing the game, Brown ruled the gridiron with an iron shoulder. He tackled leading with his shoulder which caused mass amounts of damage to players without face masks. His tackles hurt but they reflected the life he had lived before entering the NFL.
Often, a person’s accomplishments later in life reflect their struggles and experiences early in life. Hardy Brown’s style of play perfectly illustrated his upbringing. When he was four years old he witnessed his father’s murder and a few months later he witnessed the killing of one of his father’s murderers. Shortly after the second murder, his mother sent him and his siblings to live in the Masonic Home in Fort Worth, Texas. It would be 12 years before he heard from her again.
At the age of five he was living in an orphanage with an unrealized rage burning within his heart. He needed an outlet for that rage and football turned out to be the solution. The school fielded a team, albeit a rag tag group but a team nonetheless, and there was a tremendous amount of peer pressure to play. Those who did not participate were considered sissies and that was the last thing Brown wanted to be called. His brother, Jeff, taught him the shoulder tackle and a truly devastating weapon was forged. By crouching low and hitting the chin, the opponent was sure to go down easily.
Jeff Brown not only taught “the Humper” to Hardy, he also taught the move to the rest of the team. Before long, teams all over the city feared the Masonic Home football team because their squad’s hits were so brutal. It wasn't the only move that made them dangerous, they also practiced leg whipping, spearing and crack back blocking. It was a team of orphans with a chip on their shoulders. Hardy Brown’s skills were honed on the sandlot parks with the boys of the Masonic Home for Orphans and he carried the memory of his days there for the rest of his life.
He enrolled in SMU in 1941 but was called for service in the military when World War II broke out. He served as a paratrooper in the Pacific Theatre and was on his way to Iwo Jima when he was contacted by West Point. It turns out that a former teammate, Tex Coulter, was playing for the Cadets and had put in a good word for Brown with Red Blaik, the head coach. Brown went to the Academy’s prep school to qualify for West Point but ultimately failed the math requirement. He earned a scholarship to Tulsa University in the fall of 1945.
At Tulsa, against tougher competition he soared into national prominence. As a blocking back and linebacker he knocked out opponents on both sides of the line. There were games where he would knock out both defensive ends as a fullback and halfback. Despite his accomplishments of brutality he was not widely recognized as a legitimate professional prospect. The only league which would even consider him, the AAFC, barely let him in the door.
He was drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers football franchise in 1948 and spent a year there before being traded to the Chicago Hornets. After the AAFC folded following the 1949 season he spent parts of the 1950 season with the Baltimore Colts and the Washington Redskins. His first game with the Colts was the beginning of his legend in the NFL. He broke the nose of New York Giants running back Joe Scott in that game by using his signature move. This caused outrage among the Giants players who wanted revenge for their fallen comrade. After the Colts folded he joined the San Francisco 49ers in 1951 where his legend grew to mythical proportions.
The 49ers were just in their second year in the NFL, having come over from the AAFC in 1950, and were struggling to gain some level of respectability in the highest level of the professional ranks of football. Likewise, Hardy Brown was trying to make a name for himself in a league which had barely let him in. All those years of struggling and fighting for everything he earned had hardened him, there was no time for relaxation. Tex Coulter, his old teammate from the Masonic Home who had tried to get him into West Point played a few years in the NFL and later recalled the first time he saw Brown in the NFL. He remembered those eyes, a pair of eyes which had witnessed so much violence and carnage from his father’s murder and the battlefields of World War II to the gridiron where he had sharpened his rage into a razor sharp double edged sword. His old friend saw something beyond the rage, hurt and bitterness of years past. He saw a level of hunger and desire which only the poorest and most desperate can truly understand. Hardy Brown knew that if he did not immediately make an impact in 1951 then he might as well pack up and go back to the Masonic Home. All of that hard work would have been for nothing.
He finally found a home at left outside linebacker with the 49ers and he immediately wrecked havoc around the league. During an exhibition game against the Cardinals in his first year with the 49ers it was reported that at least six Chicago players were knocked out of the game with broken noses. It wasn’t reported just how many of those broken noses were Brown’s doing but it is certainly more than just a mere coincidence that in one of his first games with San Francisco that their opponent would lose so many players. Sometime later, Chicago Bears coach George Halas requested that his shoulder pads be checked for metal.
Over the years his legend grew. There was the hit he put on Joe Geri, a tailback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. It has been said that Geri’s eye was hanging by a single tendon. After Geri left the game, his teammates sought vengeance but Brown had other plans. Three more Steelers were knocked out of the game by Hardy Brown. He also ended Heisman Trophy winner Glenn “Mr Outside” Davis’ career and knocked out fellow Ram’s running back Dick Hoerner in the same game. His hits were so brutal that he was reportedly held out of practice for fear that he would knock out his own teammates. At last, Hardy Brown had found a home in the NFL and each and every hit he inflicted sent another message to the rest of the league that he belonged.
As great as he was on defense, he may have been even more disruptive on special teams. One of his favorite tactics on punt return was to hide behind an official until the moment the ball was snapped. He would then use the Shoulder to disrupt the center.
As a result of his brutal style of play teams went after him. Detroit Lions defensive tackle Gil “Wild Horse” Mains once flew into him feet first on a kickoff return and opened a massive cut on his thigh requiring stitches. When he was with the Cardinals in 1956 there was a game where the entire Giants team went after him rather than blocking their assignments on a kickoff return.
For all his viciousness as a hitter, Hardy Brown never developed a proper tackling technique and as a result there were many missed tackles. Eventually the 49ers tired of his ineffectiveness as a reliable tackler and cut him after the 1955 season. He spent a year in Chicago with the Cardinals before he was released. After a four year hiatus he signed with the Denver Broncos of the AFL in 1960 but was not the same player. He retired following his lone season in Denver.
The End of a Long Journey
His shoulder tackles made him famous but he paid a heavy price for that fame. He suffered from arthritis in that famed right shoulder for the rest of his life. He eventually developed dementia and emphysema before passing away in a mental institution in November of 1991 at the relatively young age of 67. In the end, his style of play was a warning to future generations. Playing with reckless abandon can cause you to pay a steep price and he ended up paying the ultimate price. In decades since his retirement, there have been a lot of violent players but few have come close to the fear that Brown brought to his opponents. His hits were hard and they are still felt to this day.