75 for 75: Dangerous Return Man

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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 8, 1959

Abe Woodson established himself as the NFL's most dangerous kick return man after racing 105 yards with a kickoff against the Los Angeles Rams in 1959, the longest in 49ers history. 

His dazzling speed and quickness sent shivers down the spines of opposing players and he emerged as one of the NFL's greatest return men, averaging over 29 yards on kickoffs with the 49ers. During seven seasons in San Francisco, he recorded seven touchdowns on punt and kick returns. 

"Abe was just electric," said former 49ers quarterback John Brodie. "Every time he touched the football you thought he might score."

Woodson's first NFL touchdown may have been his most satisfying. After being selected by the 49ers in the second round (15th overall) of the 1957 NFL Draft, Woodson reported for military duty and missed nearly two years of football. 

Midway through the 1959 season, Woodson let 94,376 fans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum know he was back. The former University of Illinois star fielded a kick five yards deep in the end zone, picked up blocks from linebacker Karl Rubke and guard Bruce Bosley, then turned on the jets and ran untouched 105 yards to paydirt. 

"Woodson's run was a big one," 49ers head coach Red Hickey said in a postgame interview. "I saw some pretty good blocks on the play but he can really fly."

The third period touchdown dash finished off the shell-shocked Rams as the 49ers posted a 24-16 victory. Woodson's speed was no surprise to track and field aficionados. At Illinois, he twice tied the 50-yard indoor high hurdle world record. In 1956, he narrowly missed earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team after finishing fourth at the trials.

"(Coach) Red Hickey used to put the All-Pros like Bob St. Clair on the kick return team," Woodson recalled in an interview before his death in 2014. "He put his best blockers out there. That had a lot to do with our success returning kicks. On some of those returns I was barely touched."

Four of the 10 longest kickoff returns in 49ers history (105, 103, 99 and 98 yards) came from Woodson. Returning kicks was just one of Woodson's collection of skills. He also excelled as a shutdown cornerback with a nose for the football, recording 15 interceptions and 15 fumble recoveries for San Francisco. Between 1959 and 1963, Abe earned five-consecutive Pro Bowl berths. 

"We were one of the first teams to use the bump-and-run," Woodson said. "The man-to-man competition was something I really enjoyed."

After stopping the opposing offense, Woodson used his speed to run back punts. He added 85 and 80-yard punt returns to his collection of touchdowns while averaging nine yards per attempt.

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