Years before Bob St. Clair was crushing rival linemen as an offensive tackle for the San Francisco 49ers, his high school football coach gave the enthusiastic wanna-be a wallop of hard fact.
“He said, ‘Bob, you’re 5-6, you weigh 160 and you’re 15 years old. My advice to you is to go home and grow a little.”
“And dammit — I did!” St. Clair told an admiring crowd during his 1990 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
St. Clair, who ended up towering over the gridiron at 6-foot-9 and was known throughout his 11 seasons in football for enjoying a slab of raw meat almost as much as he enjoyed manhandling defenders, died Monday in a Santa Rosa hospital. He was 84.
His death was caused by complications from a broken hip that he suffered in February, family members told the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat.
St. Clair, who joined the 49ers in 1953 and spent his entire pro football career with them, also poured himself into another contact sport: politics. From 1958 to 1964, he was a City Council member and mayor in Daly City. He was on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors from 1966 to 1974 and was a paid lobbyist for Orange County in 1979 and 1980.
“I learned as I went along to compromise,” he told interviewer Bob McCullough in “My Greatest Day in Football,” a collection of conversations with Hall of Famers. In football, he added, “you don’t compromise at all. There is no compromise. You don’t leave any wounded.”
In 1951, St. Clair was on one of the winningest teams in collegiate history – the undefeated, untied Dons of the University of San Francisco. Despite their stellar record, only one bowl game extended an invitation to the Dons: the Orange Bowl in Miami. But there was a catch: They would have to leave their two African-American players, Ollie Matson and Burl Toler, off the field. Organizers of the event in the segregated South insisted on it.
“We told them to go to hell,” St. Clair later recalled to a columnist at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The small Jesuit university, which had been losing $70,000 annually on its football program, dropped the sport the following year. St. Clair finished college at the University of Tulsa, where he received a bachelor’s degree in public administration.
In 2005, St. Clair and his teammates received honorary doctorates from USF, which described their decision against going to the Orange Bowl as “perhaps the single greatest symbolic victory in the history of collegiate football.”
St. Clair was born in San Francisco on Feb 18, 1931, and grew up a scrawny boy. In high school he took a Charles Atlas bodybuilding course, along with his father, a compositor at printing plants. When he finally experienced a teenage growth spurt, he added six inches and 60 pounds in a year.
He also consumed vast portions of raw meat — a taste that started when he was about 5 and his grandmother would toss him morsels from her kitchen chopping block. Sometimes he competed for meaty tidbits with Fluffy, the family dog.
St. Clair blocked for the 49ers’ celebrated “Million Dollar Backfield” — running backs Hugh McElhenny, Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson, and quarterback Y.A. Tittle.
“His mere presence on the football field tended to intimidate many opponents,” the Pro Football Hall of Fame said on its website. “He was blessed with size, speed, intelligence and a genuine love of hitting. His on-the-field trademarks became hostility, power and strength.”
He played in five Pro Bowls and in 1956 blocked 10 field goal attempts. He lost five teeth when he grabbed a ball being punted by the Los Angeles Rams’ Norm Van Brocklin. He broke fingers and toes, and received 23 Novocain injections for injuries during games. He once played a full quarter with a broken shoulder, and twice ripped Achilles tendons before calling it quits in 1964.
St. Clair worked in a variety of businesses after football. He owned liquor stores in San Francisco, was a salesman for a Sonoma dairy processor, and did marketing for a meat distributor.
His survivors include Marsha Bonfigli St. Clair, his wife of nearly three decades; sons Gary St. Clair and Greg St. Clair; daughters Rene St. Clair, Jill St. Clair, Gail St. Clair-Midyett and Lynn St. Clair-Gretton; sister Rosemary Umland; 19 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
St. Clair was not enthused about calls to cut back on the violence of pro football, according to Santa Rosa columnist Bob Padecky.
“The fans love it,” St. Clair said. “Like the Romans.”