75 for 75: Iron 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 1, 1959

Matt Hazeltine played 13 years of football at the prep, college and professional levels before he ever received a game ball.

Hazeltine got his first after roughing up Detroit quarterback Tobin Rote in the 49ers convincing win over the Lions at Kezar Stadium in 1959. The 49ers linebacker sacked Rote three times and provided the outside pressure that led to defensive tackle Charlie Krueger's takedown of Rote in the end zone for a safety. Detroit's offense picked up just 183 total yards.

"I don't know what to say," Hazeltine said at a postgame press conference. "I don't really get too excited by individual awards. But it's nice to be acknowledged.

"The Lions are a team where we've been ahead 27-7 and they've come from behind to win," Hazeltine said. "So now I don't even look at the clock or scoreboard. I try to play every play as if it was the first quarter, except of course you have to know what the situation is in order to play intelligently."

Hazeltine, a popular linebacker with the 49ers from 1955 to 1968, was born in Marin County and played prep football at Tamalpais High School. He matriculated to U.C. Berkeley, where he was an All-American linebacker under head coach Pappy Waldorf. San Francisco selected Hazeltine in the fourth round (45th overall) of the 1955 NFL Draft.

At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, Hazeltine was considered undersized for a linebacker but he used quickness and guile to earn a starting role as a rookie alongside Hardy "The Hatchet" Brown. He went on to anchor the 49ers defense for the next 14 seasons. For five years from 1960-1964 he was selected as 49ers team captain. Once on the field he had an uncanny knack for finding the football.

Hazeltine recorded more NFL touchdowns than game balls. His first score as a pro came in 1958 after picking off Baltimore's future Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas and racing 13 yards to the end zone. The following season he scooped up a fumble and raced 40 yards to score in a win over the Lions. In 1966, he forced a fumble by the Packers standout quarterback Bart Starr then picked it up and raced 22 yards for a touchdown.

"Matt always seemed to be in the right spot," Charlie Krueger said of his teammate of 11 years. "He was very smart and studious. He came prepared to play, I'll tell you that."

Hazeltine was well-known for his durability and dedication. He played 176 games, the most by any 49ers linebacker, and earned Pro Bowl recognition in 1963 and 1965.

In the 1980s, Hazeltine contracted Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He passed away in 1987 and in recognition of his contributions to the 49ers franchise Bill Walsh established the Hazeltine Iron Man Award. It is awarded annually to the most courageous and inspirational 49ers defensive player.

Hazeltine is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and the U.C. Berkeley Athletics Hall of Fame.

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