THIS FULLBACK IS A COMPLETE BACK : Roger Craig Was Mike Rozier’s Caddy at Nebraska; Now, He Carries the 49ers

Times Staff Writer

This is for all National Football League players who consider a team man someone who can make it from breakfast to lunch without once mentioning out loud (a) his name, (b) his net-yard rushing average in domed stadiums following a vernal equinox or (c) his semiannual T-bill interest rate.

In 1981, Roger Craig of the San Francisco 49ers gained 1,007 yards as a junior tailback for the University of Nebraska. It appeared that the only problem would be how best to package him for the 1982 Heisman Trophy.

His name was kind of catchy, although what’s in a name at a school that had recently turned out a Jarvis Redwine and an I.M. Hipp?


Still, it could work. Nebraska could put Craig on the cover of the media guide, butter up some sportswriters and get him on national television a few times. The rest would be up to Crazy Legs Craig.

And, had it not been for one, “Excuse me Roger, would you mind stepping into my office,” Craig probably would have swept merrily on to New York’s Downtown Athletic Club to pick up his statue.

But before the 1982 season, Nebraska Coach Tom Osborne called Craig in and asked him if he could say the word fullback without choking on his mouthpiece.

It seemed that this other fellow, Mike Rozier, a junior college transfer, was coming along nicely and would replace Craig as the new tailback and Heisman candidate.

Osborne was real nice about the whole thing and many times complimented Roger Craig on his blocking techniques.

Then, making darn well sure there was a nearby desk to dive under, Osborne popped the fullback question.

And Craig said: “OK.”

It wasn’t, “OK, but only if you pay me the truckload of money it’s going to cost me when I go in the second round of the NFL draft instead of the first.”


No, it was simply, “OK.”

Well, as we know, things turned out just swell for Rozier, who won the Heisman two years later.

Craig moved to fullback just in time to pull a thigh muscle. He missed one game and parts of others his senior season and finished with 604 yards.

Roger Craig was smiling brightly the other day in an office at the 49ers’ camp here as he recalled his Nebraska story.

“I could have said, ‘No, I don’t want to play fullback, I want to keep playing tailback,’ ” Craig said. “I was a candidate for the Heisman. A lot of people said, ‘Are you crazy?’ But I think it worked out well. I got good experience blocking. The tailback at Nebraska doesn’t block at all. He just runs. I think it benefited me.”

Craig must have known something. His long-range vision wasn’t obscured by Heisman hoopla. His idea was to become the best all-around player he could be, not just for one season or for one trophy, but for one career.

So now may we introduce you to the best all-purpose back in the NFL right now who never won the Heisman and whose name never was Rozier. And he’s a fullback, of all things.


Roger Craig, in only his third NFL season, is sitting high atop the football world these days. Monday night, he’ll take the field against the Rams, ready to conquer a hill no other back has scaled.

With three games remaining, Craig, with 834 yards rushing and 843 yards receiving, has a chance to become the first NFL back to break the 1,000-yard mark in both categories in one season.

Craig burst into the national spotlight last January when he scored three touchdowns and gained 135 all-purpose yards in the 49ers’ victory over Miami in Super Bowl XIX. But Craig soon proved that the Super Bowl was just the opening act to a 1985 season that people wouldn’t soon forget.

First, this viewpoint from his coach, Bill Walsh: “He’s one of the premier players in football today.

And a view from a rival, LeRoy Irvin, the cornerback for the Rams who will be greeting Craig Monday night: “He’s the MVP of the league, without a doubt. Craig is their super guy. He makes things happen. We’ve got to shut him down. He’ll probably be the best all-around back to play for a long time. You tell me what makes him great.”

You can start with his obsession with football.

Craig knew something when he volunteered to be Rozier’s caddy at Nebraska. He learned early to keep his mouth shut and be nice and to do everything the coaches said. They told him at Nebraska that learning how to block would make him better in the long run.


And look what happened?

What if the price he paid might have been the Heisman Trophy?

Craig doesn’t know how to act at those fancy football things anyway, what with all those people standing around saying nice things.

He had that feeling after the Super Bowl.

“I really am shy about my accomplishments,” he said. “I still can’t accept it when I do something well. I feel shy and embarrassed.”

And that’s not Craig blowing smoke. He is a yes m’am, no m’am kind of guy whose good moves are far more abundant than his good quotes.

Craig tells you he’s an unselfish player and that individual statistics don’t mean anything.

Naturally, you don’t want to believe him, yet you can’t help getting that Rozier story out of your head.

Is Roger Craig for real?

He says he never played a game in which he really liked what he did. Win or lose, Craig can’t get the game out of his mind.


“I hate it when you’re watching film with all the other guys in a room and you’re messing up out there,” Craig said. “That bugs me. I can’t sleep at night after a game. I toss and turn, after a bad game or a good one. I think about what I messed up on.”

What about the Super Bowl?

“I slept after that one,” Craig said, smiling.

He’s not particularly big--6 feet and 224 pounds--and he runs erect, but he is effective, nonetheless.

“He has great leg drive,” Ram linebacker Jim Collins said. “If you just try to grab his legs, you won’t bring him down. I think you’ve got to get a shot at him above the waist.”

Maybe it’s Craig’s passion for football, a passion that he can’t really explain. “I just want to give it my all and know that I gave it my all,” he said. “I want to be able to face myself in the mirror 10 years from now and know I gave my all in this business.”

Perhaps this passion stemmed from growing up in the shadows of his older brother, Curtis, who was a star wingback at Nebraska.

Curtis, five years older than Roger, was the darling of Davenport, Iowa, where the Craigs grew up.


“It was easier because he was older,” Roger said. “But it kind of got old with people saying, ‘Are you going to be like your brother?’ and ‘Curt never did this or never did that.’ He let me be his punching bag. He was really tough on me. But it helped me. I have to give a lot of credit to him. He took a lot of time to build my fundamentals up.”

Craig spent his childhood trying to make good on his own and to build his own name, but by the end of high school, he had even more motivation.

Craig’s father, Elijah, a mechanic, died of cancer in the spring of Craig’s senior year. He couldn’t forget the message his father had been pounding into his head.

“My father was always preaching hard work,” Craig said. “He kept telling me not to be lazy. He always used to tell me to do more running, do more conditioning and it would pay off in the long run.”

And so Craig developed a disciplined work ethic, though it took awhile.

His freshman season at Nebraska was pretty much a flop. He was depressed. His dad had just died and Craig was homesick. He wasn’t playing much as a freshman and wondered if going to Nebraska hadn’t been a mistake. He called home to his mother and brother and asked if he could transfer to Iowa.

They said no.

“I was really homesick,” Craig said. “Things weren’t going well at first. It was just being away from home. I just had the freshman blues. I talked to my mother and brother and they told me wait until the second semester and see how I felt.”


He did and things eventually got a lot better at Nebraska. His biggest game was a 234-yard rushing performance against Florida State in his junior season.

If Craig was worried about anything after his senior season, it was whether his move to fullback would hurt him in the NFL draft. And, no doubt, it did a little.

Craig was the 49th player taken in the draft and the 49ers’ first pick. But his reviews hardly drew raves.

Reported one Bay Area paper: “The 49ers didn’t get the bruiser they so sorely needed to handle short-yardage situations.”

A scouting report said: “Shuffled I-formation tailback and fullback in college. Upright style makes him a bigger target and has a reputation as a fumbler, but excellent speed and moves.”

It was the speed and moves that most interested Walsh. Still, Craig was hardly brought in as a savior. The 49ers had a running back, all right, but his name was Wendell Tyler. The Rams traded Tyler to the 49ers before the 1983 season. It seemed like Mike Rozier all over again.


But Walsh had this idea about using both Tyler and Craig in the same backfield. He had this idea about turning Craig into a receiver, even though he had caught only 16 passes in four seasons at Nebraska.

Craig loved the idea.

“Bill Walsh recognized my talents when I first got here,” Craig said. “It’s amazing how someone can work with your talents and make something happen.”

A big pass play at Nebraska is a swing pass. Suddenly, Craig was being asked to run all sorts of crazy patterns.

Craig said he would practice receiving by catching as many as 100 passes a day. His emergence as a star has been just short of meteoric.

Last season, Craig rushed for 649 yards and had 675 more receiving.

This season, he has 72 catches for 843 yards and is closing in on the NFL record for receiving yardage by a running back in one season. Lenny Moore has the record with 938 yards.

Craig, with a team-leading 12 touchdowns this season, has replaced Tyler as the 49ers’ big-play man. When 49er quarterback Joe Montana gets in trouble, he looks for Craig.


Craig, though, isn’t about to rate himself with the NFL’s best backs. He’ll leave that to everyone else.

“There are a lot of great all-purpose backs, but it’s a compliment that people would think that,” he said.

“I guess it’s the hard work that’s paying off. I can name a lot of guys who are pretty talented, like Marcus Allen, James Wilder, Walter Payton. But I think I’m in their class. I hold my own.”