75 for 75: Charlie's Game Ball

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"75 for 75" is an article series from the 49ers Museum highlighting legendary moments in 49ers history as part of the team's 75th Anniversary celebrations in 2021.

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November 29, 1959

Charlie Krueger earned the first game ball of his 15-year 49ers career after going toe-to-toe with future Pro Football Hall of Fame tackle Lou Groza in a snowstorm at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium. 

The rookie defensive tackle also got his first glimpse of Jim Brown, another future Hall of Famer, who was in the Cleveland Browns backfield. For Krueger, a Texas native who played under legendary coach Bear Bryant at Texas A&M, it was an eye opening experience.

Krueger got the best of Groza in the trenches, stopped Brown behind the line of scrimmage on two of his runs, and roughed up Cleveland QB Milt Plum to force a fumble. Veteran DT Leo Nomellini pounced on the loose ball at the 49ers 23-yard line and less than a minute later 49ers QB John Brodie fired a 21-yard scoring dart to RB J.D. Smith as the 49ers upset Cleveland 21-20.

In the postgame locker room, 49ers team captains Y.A. Tittle and Bob St. Clair presented Krueger with the game ball, his first as a professional. It signaled to Krueger he could hold his own against the NFL's best.

"That was a thrill. That first game ball is something I won't forget," Krueger once said.

Krueger went on to play 198 games during 15 seasons with the 49ers, the second-most of any defensive lineman behind only Bryant Young's 208 games. For two seasons in 1972 and 1973, Charlie lined up alongside his brother, 49ers defensive end Rolf Krueger.

The 6-foot-4, 260-pounder exhibited old-school football standards. He was a punishing run-stopper who toiled quietly and anonymously in the NFL trenches. Krueger's identifying trademark was the two-bar facemask he wore at a time when most defensive linemen used cage-style masks. 

Krueger was selected to the Pro Bowl in 1960 and 1964 but former teammates believe his old school collection of athletic talents often went overlooked. 

"Charlie never got the recognition he deserved," St. Clair once said. "He was regularly double and triple teamed. Opposing teams gave him a lot of respect."

The 49ers players showed their respect for Krueger in 1968 by selecting him as the Len Eshmont Award winner. The award is presented annually to the 49ers player who best exemplifies Eshmont's "inspirational and courageous play."

"In 1958 I came into the NFL and it was purely a game," Krueger told Sports Illustrated for a profile prior to his retirement. "Fifteen years later, it is strictly a marketing enterprise. I'm a dinosaur who's survived the Ice Age only to discover I'm caught between hard rock and hot clothes."

Krueger did have one brush with fame. In 1965, he picked up a Chicago Bears fumble and rambled six yards to the end zone to post the only touchdown of his NFL career. He also recorded three safeties during his 49ers tenure, which began as a first-round draft pick (ninth-overall) in 1958 and ended in 1973.

Shortly after his retirement, the 49ers retired Krueger's jersey number 70. He is a member of the Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame, the College Football Hall of Fame and the Texas A&M Athletic Hall of Fame.

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