Ralph Higgins

Ralph Higgins
color pencil sketch by Gayle Higgins

Quotes I Like

"If you do not take an interest in the affairs of your government, then you are doomed to live under the rule of fools."

– Plato


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Who Remembers Bob St. Clair?

Question: What is 6’9” tall, weighs 270 pounds, could run like a gazelle…and thrives on raw meat? 
Answer: Bob St. Clair, 49er offensive tackle way back in the ‘50s.

Young readers won’t know who Bob St. Clair is, but those of us in the bay area who were conscious during the ‘50s remember Bob well.  Bob was one of the greats on that memorable 49er football team.  You may remember Y. A. Tittle, Billy Wilson, Leo Nomellini, Gordy Soltau, Joe “The Jet” Perry, Hardy Brown, Hugh McElheny, and other great Niners from that era.  

I’ve just finished ghost writing the autobiography of a good friend and my former football coach, Pietro “Pete” Denevi.  These are the guys that Pete hung out with and who remain his friends today, although many have passed away.  The late Billy Wilson was Pete’s college roommate and his primary receiver when Pete was All-League quarterback at San Jose State.  There are some interesting stories here, so I thought I’d talk about one of the guys who remains a prominent figure in the Bay Area.

Bob St. Clair played his entire career in San Francisco at Kezar Stadium as a 49er.  He played 17 seasons and 189 home games at Kezar and the city of San Francisco renamed the stadium’s field in honor of Bob St. Clair.  He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990 and was known by the nickname, “The Geek.”  Back in the ‘50s when Bob played, a “geek” wasn’t a computer nerd.  Bob got this name because of his idiosyncrasies, like eating raw meat.

This guy was the epitome of a carnivore.  I’ve heard that he ate a live pigeon in front of an opposing team just prior to a game.  I saw him admit this on TV.  They say he grinned at his adversaries with blood and guts running down his chin to terrorize and intimidate the opposing team. It worked. After all, he was the biggest player in the NFL at that time and also one of the fastest runners.  In his cleats he was seven feet in the air. Imagine a giant like that pacing back and forth in front of you and your teammates staring at you with blood dripping from his mouth.

A running back playing against Bob had to be particularly wary.  Bob was said to be the fastest runner on the 49er team. With his great running speed, if Bob was hungry for raw meat it was best for a ball carrier to toss the ball in the air and run like mad into the stands before Bob caught him and ate his leg.  This was particularly true if the running back had an open wound.

Bob played football at USF.  I had a coach in high school named Larry Mathews who played football at San Jose State. He was known as a very speedy halfback and led the Spartans running game for three years. The Spartans were playing USF in Spartan Stadium. Larry broke loose and was tearing down the sideline when Bob came from the opposite side of the field with his long stride.  He ran like a rabid ostrich.  He actually ran Larry down and nailed him from behind.  For a big lineman to outrun a speedy halfback is amazing.

My friend Pete sat next to Bob St. Clair at a pre-season 49er awards luncheon and said St. Clair still looked like a mountain. Bob’s appetite was as big as he was.  They brought him a gigantic bloody and completely raw steak.   It looked like half the hind quarter of a steer.  Bob dove into that pile of raw meat like a ravenous lion and in a short time there was nothing but blood on his plate.  The former players sitting around him checked to make sure they didn’t have any blood on them.  That could be a problem if Bob was still hungry.

I’m exaggerating a bit here.  It’s easy to let your imagination run wild with a guy like Bob St. Clair, because of his size, athletic ability, and good nature.  And, of course, all the stories we’ve heard about him.
Bob and his son Greg, along with R. C. “Alley Oop” Owens recently started a thing called “Tough-Tailgater.” They wondered the parking lot prior to a game, where the smells of barbeque and beer fill the air.  They would pick some tailgaters at random and challenge them to compete with Bob eating raw steak. This was to celebrate Mike Singletary’s first season as Coach. The survivors were rewarded with photos and autographs. The losers got a barf bag.

Bob St. Clair is still a very popular guy in the Bay Area.  He served as Mayor of Daly City and a County Supervisor for San Mateo County. He continues to support the 49ers and the NFL. You may run into him at a tailgate party when the 49ers are playing at home.  I have, but I made sure I wasn’t standing between Bob and a raw steak.


  1. Ralph, it is all coming together now! How friends can turn an "angelic" boy into a lad that might have gotten into trouble occasionally.

    They still write about St. Clair and his raw meat around here.

  2. For some reason all those guys on the 49ers back in the '50s made a lasting impression on me. Those guys were the 49ers!

  3. Your love of football also showed in high school Ralph. Of course, you being modest do not mention your football awards etc.

    Did you remember Lynn Rhode on the 49ers back then? He was the franchisee of one of many Burger King Fast Foods in the Santa Clara Area. I worked as his Night Managr for years. As you described Bob, I could picture Lynn. One night at work he stopped by the restaurant, and seeing I was busy, asked where he could help. Even with two handfs, I was having difficulty getting the caps off the soda kegs to change them. He came along, and with these humongus hands popped two off at a time. I don't know if individuals realize how huge these professional players are until you are actually standing beside them.

  4. Sharon-
    That's interesting. I knew Len Rhode. In fact, I lifted weights with him at the Redwood Swim & Tennis Club in Redwood City. I remember his huge hands from the first time I shook hands with him, but he is a huge guy. And a very nice guy. He is mentioned prominently in the book I just "ghost wrote" for Pete Denevi. Pete owned the club and I worked for Pete after graduating from State. I also had lunch with Y.A.Tittle at the same club while waiting for Pete to show up for a meeting.

    Thanks for mentioning Rhode. I didn't know you worked for him.

    1. Such a small world Ralph. We never know whose life we are going to touch along the way. When I go down to San Jose, I will stop and see if Len has retired yet. I may even get 49er tickets. Yeah right. I have to say, he did share 49er tickets with his employees.