Artifact of the Game: 49ers vs. Seahawks
This story will appear in the Nov. 27 issue of the San Francisco 49ers “Gameday” magazine…
The 49ers Feast on Thanksgiving Day Football
By Joe Hession, 49ers Museum historian
Thanksgiving and football go hand-in-hand. While San Francisco hosts its first Turkey Day game today against the Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers are certainly not strangers to holiday football. San Francisco enjoys a 3-1-1 record in five previous Thanksgiving Day appearances, all road games.
The 49ers were in their second year of operation in 1947 when they traveled to Ebbets Field to face the Brooklyn Dodgers in their first Turkey Day classic. It was the final stop in a grueling 21-day road trip that saw the 49ers play games in New York, Cleveland and Chicago before stopping in Brooklyn. On a chilly New York afternoon just 9,860 fans watched San Francisco coast to a 21-7 win over the hapless football Dodgers.
Norm Standlee, the 49ers bruising 245-pound fullback, started the scoring by pounding his way nine yards to the end zone. But the day belonged to Standlee’s backfield mate, Len Eshmont, who was playing in New York for the first time since his legendary gridiron days at Fordham University.
Eshmont earned the nickname “The Fordham Flash” as an All American halfback at Fordham. He thrilled the adoring Brooklyn crowd by hauling in a 60-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Frankie Albert as San Francisco jumped out to a 14-0 lead. Ten years later, in 1957, the 49ers named their most prestigious individual award for Eshmont after his untimely passing at the age of 39.
Halfback Johnny Strzykalski provided San Francisco’s final score on a one-yard plunge. “Johnny Strike,” as he was known, finished the 1947 season as the 49ers leading ground gainer. He posted 906 yards rushing and averaged a remarkable 6.4 yards per carry.
San Francisco didn’t play another Thanksgiving day game until 1966. That season the 49ers mauled the Lions 41-14 at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium. Running back Dave Kopay had one of his best days in a 49ers uniform. He scored a pair of touchdowns, the first on a 32-yard dash from scrimmage, and the second on a 24-yard pass from quarterback John Brodie. The running back trio of Ken Willard, Gary Lewis and Kopay combined for 195 yards on the ground.
In 1969 San Francisco battled the Dallas Cowboys to a 24-24 tie at the Cotton Bowl. Fullback Ken Willard paced the 49ers with two first quarter touchdowns as the 49ers built a 14-0 lead. Former Cal quarterback Craig Morton directed a Cowboys comeback that ended with a fourth quarter touchdown pass to Lance Rentzel that tied the game.
Texas Stadium was the site of the 1972 rematch and linebacker Skip Vanderbundt provided a Thanksgiving treat for San Francisco by scoring two touchdowns. He scooped up a fumble and raced 73 yards for one score, then intercepted a pass and returned it 22 yards for another as San Francisco thumped the Cowboys 31-10.
Artifacts and interactive content from the 49ers early years, including one of Frankie Albert’s original jerseys, historic film clips, and interviews from 1940s and 1950s alumni can be seen at the 49ers Museum presented by Sony. Also on display is the story of Len Eshmont and the award the 49ers give annually in his honor. For more information on Museum tickets, hours and content, visit levisstadium.com/museum. For group pricing call 415-GO-49ERS.