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It can be argued that offensive linemen have the most difficult and physically-demanding job on the football field. Despite that, they very rarely get the praise and glory that the skill position players receive. Their names are typically not even mentioned unless they make a mistake.
Actually, come to think of it, that sounds like a lot of jobs out there.
Offensive linemen don’t truly have their own stats, but rather their success can be seen in the numbers of their teammates. They are often overlooked for the Wrangler or State Farm commercials. But hell, they are tough as nails and deserve as much credit as any other position in football, if not more.
So, in this week’s Forgotten 49ers issue we shine the spotlight on former San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Manase Jesse Sapolu.
Sapolu played on the 49ers during the formative years of their 1980s dynasty. And he spent his entire 15-year career with the team, playing at both the guard and center positions.
Born in Laie, Western Samoa, Sapolu grew up in Hawaii. He went onto play at the University of Hawaii and after his college career he was selected in the 11th round (289th overall) of the 1983 draft by the 49ers. Yes, the NFL draft once had 12 rounds.
A broken foot early on kept him off the field, including all of the 1985 and 1986 seasons. But he returned in 1987 and appeared in 12 games. In 1988 he would start all 16 games at left guard. Coincidentally, the 49ers won Super Bowl XXIII at the conclusion of the season.
It just so happened that after that season Randy Cross retired, so Sapolu shifted over to center for the 1989 season. Another coincidence happened, and the 49ers won Super Bowl XXIV to conclude that season.
Sapolu showed his grit and versatility through those two seasons by moving to wherever head coach Bill Walsh wanted him along the offensive line.
Sapolu would remain at center for the next few seasons, and he earned his first Pro Bowl selection in 1993 at the position. Another shake up on the offensive line occurred in 1994 with left guard Guy McIntyre’s departure and the acquisition of center Bart Oates. Thus, Sapolu moved back to left guard.
Again, the 49ers won Super Bowl XXIX to conclude the 1994 season, and Sapolu also earned a Pro Bowl selection. Is anyone else sensing a pattern here? Is the key to winning championships just having Jesse Sapolu move around the offensive line?
Sapolu would remain on the team through 1997, after which he would call it quits and retire from football. All in all, he was a part of four Super Bowl winning teams and earned two Pro Bowl selections. To this day he remains an active part of the 49ers’ community as an alumni coordinator.
The offensive line often doesn’t get the credit they deserve, but the 49ers offensive lines of the 1980s and 1990s deserve the utmost respect and consideration. Especially Sapolu, who played through both eras and blocked for two Hall of Fame quarterbacks.
So, when you are reminiscing about 49ers Super Bowl teams of the past and think about Joe Montana and Steve Young, remember one of the guys that blocked for both of them, and put some respect on Sapolu’s name.
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