75 for 75: Hardy The Hatchet

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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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1951-1955

Hardy "The Hatchet" Brown was the most feared man in football during the 1950s. He stood just 6 feet tall and weighed 195 pounds, but from 1951 to 1955 the 49ers linebacker was a defensive enforcer who sent chills down the spines of opposing players.

"Pound for pound, inch for inch, he was the toughest football player I ever met," said Y.A. Tittle, a fellow Texan, teammate and roommate of Brown.

By all accounts, Brown had his faults. He lacked pass coverage skill and was not big enough to plug holes, but he had one marketable skill. He sent opposing players to the hospital.

According to Tittle, a Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback and 17-year veteran of both the NFL and AAFC, Hardy knocked out at least 21 opponents in pre-facemask 1951 alone.

"He may have been the hardest hitter that ever played the game," Tittle said. "[Dick] Butkus would maul you and [Ray] Nitschke too. They were strong and could bring you to the ground with arm strength. Hardy just exploded. In that 1951 game against Washington, he knocked out the entire backfield. I mean he knocked the running backs out cold."

Brown's secret was a devastating shoulder tackle placed just below an opponent's helmet, like a boxer's uppercut. He crouched low as the ball carrier approached, then launched himself forward and upward under the ball carrier's chin. Prior to the use of facemasks, it produced a devastating blow, resulting in loose teeth, broken jaws and ambulance rides to the hospital.

In the 1950s, it was perfectly legal.

"People shivered when you mentioned Hardy Brown," former 49ers receiver Gordy Soltau said. "Nobody hit like him."

Brown's mean streak may have had roots in his childhood. At the age of four, his father was shot dead in Texas. Hardy's mother sent him to an orphanage when he was five years old. He did not see her again until he was 17 and needed a guardian's signature to join the Marine Corps. Others suggested Brown's aggression came from his experiences as a Marine paratrooper during World War II.

For years, the legend of Hardy Brown resonated throughout the NFL. Before games, his shoulder pads were examined for foreign objects. Opposing coaches believed they were lined with sheets of steel.

Brown was born to be a football player. He spent 17 years in the professional ranks and is one of only two men known to have played in the four major pro football leagues, the AAFC, NFL, AFL and Canadian Football League.

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