• Steve Bowles

Born in the Gold Rush: The History of the 49ers Part 3: “Wrong Way” Marshall Gifts the 49ers


Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

 



While a safety is a somewhat common occurrence, they typically result when a quarterback is sacked in his own end zone. The 49ers scored one thanks to an opposing player who forgot which direction to run with the ball.

He thought he had scored a touchdown. Instead, it was a safety, for the fuses in Jim Marshall’s brain momentarily short-circuited and he forgot which one of Kezar Stadium’s end zones he was supposed to run toward.


To be fair to Marshall, he was a defensive lineman, and his primary job was not to score touchdowns, but to help prevent the other team from scoring them. And at that, he was very, very good. Marshall played twenty solid seasons in the NFL, nineteen of them with the Minnesota Vikings, with whom he was a two-time Pro-Bowler (1968 and 1969) and an NFL champion (1969; the Vikings defeated the Browns and went on to lose to the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl IV). Marshall started 270 consecutive games, and recovered 30 career fumbles, the most among defensive players.


But it was a fumble that he recovered on October 25, 1964, that gets talked about the most.

 

The Vikings, sitting at 3-3 after a 30-10 trouncing of the Pittsburgh Steelers, winged their way westward to take on Jack Christiansen’s San Francisco 49ers, anticipating an easy victory against a really bad team that had dropped four of its first six games to start the season. San Francisco would finish the season at 4-10, last place in the seven-team NFC West Division. It was Christiansen’s second season at the controls, having taken over from Red Hickey four games into the 1963 season, and he was not having much fun. A safety for eight seasons with the Detroit Lions, Christiansen was a five-time Pro-Bowler, a six-time All-Pro, and a three-time NFL champion (back when the Lions did such things). But in 1964, football was a slog for poor Jack, who was probably content to serve in the cushy job as the team’s defensive backs coach but nonetheless accepted the promotion upon Hickey’s dismissal. The 1964 Niners had no defense, and would allow 330 points, the fourth-highest total in the fourteen-team NFL. The 1964 49ers also had no offense, as evidenced by their 236 points scored (lowest in the league). It didn’t help that their field goal kicker, Tommy Davis, missed – missed – an unbelievable 17 of his 25 attempts. Things were that bad.


So, if an opposing player just happened to be charitable enough to run a fumble the wrong direction and give the 49ers two easy points, well, neither Christiansen nor anyone else would grumble about it.

 

Marshall’s gaffe took place in the fourth quarter. By this time, the Vikings had managed to erase a 17-10 deficit to take a 27-17 lead. Niners quarterback John Brodie was awful, completing just 12 of his 27 passes (one was a deep-strike touchdown to Dave Parks; another TD pass, to Billy Kilmer, was erased on a motion penalty) and throwing four interceptions, including two in the end zone. Despite all that, the 49ers had the lead, but Brodie’s poor auricles had been besieged by jeers and catcalls from the more than 31,000 drunk and angered fanatics around the large bowl-shaped stadium. Finally, Christiansen took pity on the poor guy and yanked him from the game, replacing him with rookie backup George Mira. The twenty-two-year-old had showed so much potential as a University of Miami signal-caller that he was drafted twice: by the 49ers in the second round (fifteenth overall) of the NFL draft, and by the Denver Broncos in the eighteenth round (137th overall) of the AFL draft. Mira signed with San Francisco and exhibited some of the same traits as a professional that he displayed as a collegian: a superb ability to make things happen with both his arm and his legs, but a frustrating habit of turning the ball over. Those tendencies never subsided, and he would spend his whole seven-year pro career as a backup, retiring with 19 touchdown passes, 20 interceptions, and 18 fumbles on his personal ledger.


But in 1964, Jack Christiansen believed he had something special in this kid, so with San Francisco possessing the slim four-point lead, he summoned Mira to take the controls from the beleaguered Brodie. Maybe, just maybe, George Mira could ignite a scoring drive that would put the Niners further ahead and get the Minnesota players yelping at each other in disgust.


Or.


Or.


George Mira could throw his first pass right to a Vikings defender.


Ugh.


Minnesota cornerback Roy Winston picked off the errant toss – his third interception of the game – and ran 15 yards to the 49ers 11-yard line. A few plays later Fran Tarkenton, the Vikings’ redoubtable QB, scrambled around the right side for a touchdown that vaulted Minnesota ahead. On the next San Francisco possession, Mira fumbled. Carl Eller, a 6-foot-6, 247-pound colossus of a defensive end, recovered the ball and rumbled 45 yards for the 27-17 Vikings lead.

Enter Jim Marshall.


On the next possession, the 49ers found themselves with their backs to their own goal line. The first play of the drive was designed for Mira to hit Kilmer for a first down. And, well, let’s allow the rich baritone of legendary 49ers play-by-play man Lon Simmons take it from here:


Mira, straight back to pass. Looking, now stops, throws ... completes it to Kilmer up at the thirty-yard line; Kilmer driving for the first down, loses the football. It is picked up by Jim Marshall, who is running the wrong way! Marshall is running the wrong way! And he’s running it into the end zone the wrong way, [he] thinks he’s scored a touchdown! He has scored a safety!

Blissfully unaware of his folly and thoroughly convinced that he had planted a dagger in the 49ers’ hearts, Marshall trotted into the end zone and gleefully flung the ball into the air in celebration.


Then he realized he’d screwed up.


“After he picked up the ball, he was probably 20 yards from me,” Winston recalled to Chris Tomasson of the Twin Cities Pioneer Press/TwinCities.com many years later. “I started going the other way trying to find somebody to block and then I looked back and I saw he was running the other way. It was just baffling to me.”


“There was a big mixup, with everybody hitting in there on the play,” Marshall said after the game. “And I got turned around. I just picked it up and started running.”


He added, “I didn’t hear anybody yelling,” even though every single Viking was screaming at him from the sideline and a few of them had run onto the field to flag him down. “I was like everybody else on the sideline,” Ron Vander Kelen, the Vikings’ backup quarterback, told Tomasson. “We were yelling, ‘You’re going the wrong way! You’re going the wrong way!’”


“The big thing I remember is I hoped he dropped it in the end zone because [49ers center] Bruce Bosley was chasing him all the way,” Kilmer told Tomasson. “I said, ‘If he drops it in the end zone, we get a touchdown.’ Instead, [Marshall] was so happy that he threw the ball.”


After tossing the ball away, Marshall turned around to head back to the Vikings’ sideline and was greeted by the sight of Bosley approaching him with a pat to the shoulder, as if to thank him for the two-point gift.

 

In the end, Jim Marshall’s fleeting brain fart mattered little for either team. The Vikings held on to win, 27-22 and would finish the 1964 season with an 8-5-1 mark, missing out on the postseason. The 49ers stumbled their way to a 4-10 record. Jack Christiansen managed to stick around through the 1967 season, and in 1970 he would be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a player. Sadly, such honors eluded Marshall, who retired after the 1979 season as one of the greatest players in Vikings history; the team retired his jersey number 70 in 1999. Eller, the large defensive end who had the (right-way) fumble recovery for a touchdown earlier in the game, and who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004, wonders if the blunder may have cost a great player a shot at Canton. “It’s ironic,” Eller said to Tomasson in 2014. “It’s one of the most memorable plays, but I think it detracts from Jim and from his career. And I think he’s still sensitive about it. I’m very respectful of that for him. I think it’s unfortunate that it happened to Jim because he was such an outstanding player.”


Hopefully Marshall, who is currently in his eighties and still resides in the Minneapolis area, will soon get the enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame he so richly deserves.



 

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Sources

NFL Films. (2016, October 14.) #5 Jim Marshall's Wrong Way Run | NFL Films | Top 10 Worst Plays [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iiMVv-0uek0


Pro-Football-Reference.com


Tomasson, Chris. “50 years later, Jim Marshall’s wrong-way run remains an NFL classic.” Twin Cities Pioneer Press/TwinCities.com, 17 October 2014. https://www.twincities.com/2014/10/17/vikings-50-years-later-jim-marshalls-wrong-way-run-remains-an-NFL-classic/


Wilson, Darrell. “In Marshall’s Defense.” San Francisco Chronicle, 26 October 1964, p. 49.


Wilson, Darrell. “Wrong-Way Vikings Beat 49ers.” San Francisco Chronicle, 26 October 1964, p. 49.