75 for 75: Leo the Lion

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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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1950-1963

With their first-ever National Football League draft pick in 1950, the 49ers hit the jackpot. 

San Francisco selected Leo Nomellini with the 11th-overall pick, and the imposing University of Minnesota tackle became the cornerstone of the franchise for 14 seasons. 

Leo "the Lion" anchored the 49ers lines starting at both offensive and defensive tackle during his first five NFL seasons and earning All-Pro recognition at both positions. He finally settled into the defensive tackle spot and at 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds, his size and strength were more than most opponents could handle.

''He was as strong as three bulls,'' said teammate Joe Perry, who in 1969 entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame with Nomellini as the first two 49ers enshrined. ''He'd slap you on the back and knock you 20 feet.''

Nomellini supplemented his strength with agility and grappling techniques he mastered as an off-season professional wrestler who earned several National Wrestling Association titles.

"Most people didn't realize how quick Leo was," fellow defensive lineman Charlie Krueger said. "It wasn't unusual to see him chase down running backs. In a game against the Rams one time, he caught (running back) Ollie Matson from behind. I think Ollie was a little embarrassed."

Nomellini was born in Lucca, Italy and raised in Chicago where he worked in a foundry to support his family. He never played high school football. During World War II, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps and saw action in battles at Saipan and Okinawa. He was introduced to football while in the service, and claimed the first game he ever saw was one he played in as a member of the (Marine Corps Air Station) Cherry Point team. 

Minnesota offered Nomellini a football scholarship based on his performance with the Marine Corps teams and he quickly gained recognition. He earned two All-America berths and a colorful nickname while playing for the Golden Gophers. Bud Grant, Nomellini's college teammate and the longtime coach of the Minnesota Vikings, recalled how Nomellini became known as "the Lion."

''We would pull him, we were running the single wing then, and when he'd come around the corner, he would just roar,'' Grant recalled. ''His blocking technique wasn't so great, but he'd just run you over like a truck.''

"The Lion" was also blessed with durability and legendary toughness. In the pre-face mask era, Nomellini endured broken noses, busted teeth, snapped fingers and a laundry list of other injuries, yet never missed an NFL start during 14 seasons with the 49ers. He played 174 consecutive regular-season games, 266 in all counting preseason and postseason contests. He also made ten trips to the Pro Bowl. 

Nomellini was a fearsome character on the football field but off the gridiron, he was a gentle giant known for his kindness and sense of humor. Former 49ers broadcaster Bob Fouts often accompanied Nomellini to banquets and public appearances.

"Leo loved mingling with people," Fouts said. "He'd sign autographs for hours and talk to people he never met like they were his best friends."

He was serious about his wrestling career winning several tag team championships during the 1950s using his signature move, "the Flying Tackle."

"Leo once was asked what sport was harder, football or wrestling," Fouts recalled with a laugh. "He said wrestling was harder because you had to drive to Stockton, Modesto and Fresno."

To a Marine combat veteran who spent 14 years in NFL trenches and wrestled 250-pound behemoths as a hobby, navigating California's highways was the hard part.

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