July 11, 2006 > Bob Toneff - NFL Great
Bob Toneff - NFL Great
by Steve Michel
Bob Toneff at age 76 still works selling cars in the East Bay. It's a far cry from his days in the National Football League (NFL) as an offensive and defensive tackle for the San Francisco 49ers and the Washington Redskins. Toneff was drafted in the second round by the 49ers in 1952, out of Notre Dame. He played in the pro Bowl as a defensive tackle for San Francisco in 1955 and then four more times with the Redskins from 1959 to 1962.
"I was well-prepared for the NFL because I played my college football at Notre Dame. I honestly felt more pressure playing at Notre Dame than I did playing for the 49ers. The coach, Frank Leahy, did not accept losing and neither did the administrators or the student body. Losing one or two games in a season at Notre Dame is considered failure.
"In pro football in the 1950s most of us played both offense and defense. And if a player ran out of bounds to avoid getting hit he was considered a sissy even by his own teammates. I thrived on the contact and loved the hitting. And I feel very fortunate that I only missed one game in 13 years in the NFL." Toneff played the 1955 season with a cast due to a broken wrist. He was selected for his first Pro Bowl that year.
Toneff became a starter in his rookie year (1952) at both offensive and defensive tackle and played alongside future Hall-of-Famer Leo Nomellini. "Playing with Leo was great. I really learned a lot from him my rookie year. Head coach Buck Shaw was also a great teacher. But the guy that helped me the most was defensive coach Phil Bengtson. He was a great coach, who watched film every day. Our defense was so well-prepared going into games that many times we knew exactly what our opponents were going to do on offense before they ran the play," says Toneff.
The 49ers compiled 46 wins, 36 losses and 1 tie during Toneff's years. "The toughest year for our ball club was 1957. We finished the season 8-4 and made the playoffs. We hosted the Detroit Lions at Kezar Stadium and jumped all over them in the first half and led 24 - 7 at halftime. But we had a total letdown in the second half and lost the game 31-27. That playoff loss hurt me inside more than any other loss before or since," says Toneff. "I had quite a bit of personal success in the NFL ... but the fact that I never played on a championship team really hurts."
Yesterday's NFL differed dramatically from today's league regimen. Toneff notes that weight-lifting was not encouraged in the '50s. Push-ups, sit-ups and sprints ruled. "The coaches in those days did not feel weight lifting was necessary. They wanted us linemen to be quick to lead the sweep. Today, players lift weights in the off season. We all had to work other jobs in the off season. We didn't make the big money like today's players. My rookie year (1952) I signed my first pro contract for $6,250 and at the end of the year got a $500 bonus for becoming a starter and playing well. The most money I made in my NFL career was $22,000 a year."
The 49ers traded their Pro Bowler to the Washington Redskins in 1959. "I was very hurt when I heard of the trade and gave some serious thought about retiring from football. But I was only 29 years old and I still loved the game, so I went to Washington and ended up making the Pro Bowl four years in a row (1959-1962). I was determined to make the 49ers sorry for trading me because I really loved my teammates in San Francisco and loved the city and made my home in Palo Alto. But football is a business and even great players get traded, so all you can do as a player is go out and give 100% effort."
The All-Time 49er team of the 1950s lists Bob Toneff at defensive tackle. "It was a great honor," he says. "We had a team of great defensive players. I had a lot of fun playing for the 49ers. They were a great group of guys and head coach Buck Shaw was a great teacher who almost never cussed at us players. He was one of the finest gentlemen who ever coached in the NFL, a very good man."
For all the hard hitting on the field, it was a personal blow that hurt the worst. His 12 year old daughter was killed by a drunk driver as she walked home from school one day over 30 years ago. "That was the biggest loss of my life. Both my wife and I felt so helpless at the time because there was nothing we could do to bring her back to us. No loss on the football field compares to losing one of your children. Time does heal, but there is always a void."
Today, the Toneffs reside in the Marin County town of San Anselmo. They have two adult daughters and six grandchildren. The former 49er great says he plans on working a few more years at the car dealership. "I receive $1,000 a month in pension money from the NFL. That's not really enough money to live on here in the Bay Area, so I will probably continue to work as long as my health permits. Right now I feel good and I know I am one of the luckiest of former NFL players because I have almost no pain in any part of my body."
Sports fans may want to stop by Hayward Ford, 25501 Mission Boulevard, Hayward (510) 881-1200 and say "hi" to football great, Bob Toneff.