The only problem San Francisco 49ers coaches had with Leo Nomellini in 14 seasons was deciding whether he was more valuable on offense or defense.
As a blocker, the 6'3", 264-pound giant opened huge holes in defensive lines and had the agility to drop back and defend 49ers passers as well as any tackle in the league. On defense, he was an avalanche of a pass rusher and equally adept at stuffing enemy runners.
All-Pro selectors had a similar problem. He was chosen for offensive honors in 1951 and 1952 and on defense in 1953, '54, '57, and '59. He was picked for 10 Pro Bowls in his first 12 seasons, starting at times on either side of the line.
Through most of his career, he showed up on either platoon in an important situation. In 1955, when injuries decimated both San Francisco lines, "The Lion" played virtually 60 minutes a game all season.
Injuries never stopped Nomellini. Born in Lucca, Italy, in 1924, he was a consensus All-American at the University of Minnesota in 1949. The 49ers made him their first draft choice in 1950, and he never missed a game until he retired after the 1963 season -- 174 straight games.
The 49ers had numerous stars in addition to Leo during Nomellini's tenure. Their entire starting backfield of 1954 -- Y. A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny, John Henry Johnson, and Joe Perry -- has been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Yet they never seemed to have a complete team.
One year, the offense would be spectacular but the defense would be poor. When the defense was strong, the offense would go flat. It made the decision of where to play Nomellini all the more important -- and all the more impossible.
During off-seasons, Nomellini wrestled professionally around the Bay area. He learned to use some of his "wrasslin' show" on the football field. Before the ball was snapped, he'd assault opponents with huffs, puffs, growls, snorts, and other animal sounds, all the while screwing his face into a horrible mask.
Of course, if that didn't scare the opponent to death, Leo would just flatten him.
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