by Lawrence Vos (@F10YRetro and @NFLFANINENGLAND)
When the San Francisco 49ers scored their first touchdown in Super Bowl 54, it wasn’t mega-stud TE George Kittle, red-hot RB Raheem Mostert or even mid-season acquisition WR Emmanuel Sanders who broke the plane of the end-zone, it was a guy with a name that features two z’s, and we are not talking Buzz Lightyear.
Kyle Juszczyk the premier fullback (FB) in the NFL was the scorer of that TD. Resplendent in a #44 shirt Juszczyk could have gone on to score a second, but even if he had it would not have won the game for his beloved 49ers.
Exactly 30 years prior to Juszczyk’s heroics the 49ers were in the Super Bowl, their fourth, and coincidentally their fullback wore #44 too. In fact that #44, a Mr Thomas Dean Rathman, went on to eclipse Juszczyk’s feat by scoring not one, but two touchdowns of his own.
The game, Super Bowl XXIV, ended up at the biggest blowout in Super Bowl history as the 49ers destroyed the John Elway led Denver Broncos 55-10.
Turned out for Tom Rathman that in his 14 career playoff games he never again had two scores, and never topped the 11 bone-shattering carries he was given by Hall of Fame QB Joe Montana on that remarkable day in New Orleans.
So who exactly was Tom Rathman?
Born in 1962 in Grand Islands, Nebraska, a city of under 50,000 residents, Tom went to his local high school, Grand Island Senior High. This was an honour he shared with another boy who went on to become the 10th heaviest recorded human being in history.
Rathman was an excellent high-jumper, once clearing a distance of 6 feet 7 inches, but he was most at home in high-school running the football for the Islanders, so much so he earned a place at the University of Nebraska.
Rathman joined the Cornhuskers in 1981, but only saw limited action as a freshman, gaining 20 yards on four carries. A power running team, Nebraska’s backfield in the early 80s was led by Roger Craig (more to come later) and Mike Rozier, who went on to play in the USFL and then the NFL for 8 seasons.
After redshirting in 1982 Rathman benefitted from a fortunate proverbial bounce of the ball a year later when the team’s starting fullback Doug Wilkening quit the team, allowing Tom to avoid the possibility of being converted to a tight-end.
The 1983 Cornhuskers had a remarkable season, Rathman was lead blocker for Mike Rozier, who as a senior rushed for 2,148 yards and went on to win the Heisman Trophy. Nebraska reached the College National Championship Game, losing 31-30 to ‘The U’ – the Miami Hurricanes.
Rathman averaged 5.5 a carry that season on his rare handoffs and scored his first college TD (a catch), and like most fullbacks he spent most of the season blocking, in fact in the College Championship he didn’t touch the ball.
With Rozier gone Rathman entered his junior season in 1984, and again his carries went up, gaining 381 yards on 75 carries with 4 scores, but 0 catches.
The Cornhuskers lost two games, but won the Sugar Bowl against LSU, running the ball 59 times for 280 yards. Rathman had 2 carries for 8 yards in the victory.
In his senior season (1985) Rathman’s draft stock shot up, and he was billed as the top fullback in the country after gaining 881 yards, at 7.5 a pop, plus 8 scores. Nebraska lost in the Fiesta Bowl to Michigan to cap off a 9-3 season. Behind the blunt force trauma blocking by Rathman, Nebraska ran for 304 yards in the Bowl game, Tom himself gaining 47 yards in the showcase contest.
RATHMAN REACHES THE NFL
The 49ers 1986 Draft was one of the best negotiated and choreographed masterpieces of tactical execution in NFL history.
San Francisco head coach Bill Walsh, who had won Super Bowls following the 1981 and 1984 season was reeling after a 1985 Wild-Card loss to the Giants.
Walsh wanted to come out of the ’86 draft with an improved secondary, a devastating pass-rusher and blocking fullback, to lead the way for Roger Craig, who was fresh from becoming the first RB in NFL history to have 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in a regular season.
Moving around the draft like a chess grandmaster Walsh traded away an acquired first round pick to the Buffalo Bills to pile up picks in the middle rounds, including the first pick of the 3rd round. With that 56th pick the 49ers selected Tom Rathman.
Despite only watching footage of Rathman once Coach Walsh said:
“I saw Rathman take a screen pass, break two or three tackles physically and run 60 yards. He was an absolutely terrific blocker, and the thing we’d never had was the massive blocking fullback. I knew Rathman could be that player.”
The 49ers draft class of 1986 included DE Charles Hayley (4th Rd) who is now in the Hall of Fame, CBs Tim McKyer (12 season is the NFL) and Don Griffin (11 seasons in the NFL), WR John Taylor, and T Steve Wallace. Between just these six (including Rathman) their careers combined for 18 Super Bowl winners rings.
As a rookie Rathman suffered from some training camp fumbles, and feared he would be cut, however by the time his nine-year NFL career was concluded he only lost the pigskin 7 times.
Now reunited with former college backfield team-mate Roger Craig, Rathman was going to become a significant feature in Bill Walsh’s final three seasons coaching.
Tom’s first two NFL seasons ended in crushing playoff defeats, firstly a devastating 49-3 loss to the Giants and then in 1987 a huge shock defeat to the visiting Minnesota Vikings.
In his first two seasons Rathman ran for just under 400 yards, and although big and bruising, it was found he had soft hands, catching 43 passes in a West Coast offense that would not simply carry a blocking back. He missed 4 games in 1987, but would not miss a start over the next four years.
The 1988 49ers finished the regular season a rather middling 10-6, but went on to win their third Vince Lombard Trophy, a second win over the Bengals. Rathman led the way for Roger Craig to go All Pro with 1,502 rushing yards – Craig’s career best.
Rathman himself had 427 yards rushing and 42 catches for just under 400 yards in ’88. He touched the ball six times for 39 yards in Super Bowl XXIII, and narrowly missed scoring a second quarter rushing touchdown, a David Fulcher tackle preventing end-zone glory.
Following the emotional retirement of Coach Walsh, the 1989 49ers, under recently promoted defensive coordinator George Seifert, and offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren, gained revenge against the Vikings from 1987, blowing them away in the playoffs en-route to their fourth Super Bowl title, a blow out beatdown of the Denver Broncos.
Rathman led all NFC running backs with 73 catches, but just one TD, adding a second score on the ground alongside 305 rushing yards. Tom had 11 carries in the Super Bowl and turned them into two scores.
His first came in the second quarter, a 1 yard dive to cap a 14 play drive where he caught three Joe Montana passes for 39 yards, as well as converting a 4th and 1 at the Broncos 3-yard line.
Rathman’s second score in the final period extended the 49ers lead to 36, a three yard dive, in what would turn out to be his final touch of a ball in a Super Bowl.
An unsung hero, Rathman went on to play a further 55 games for the 49ers, winning a grand total of 7 division titles in 8 seasons. Whilst his trophy cabinet was bulging as a valued team-mate he never gained any individual recognition in his playing days, failing to make a Pro Bowl roster or an All Pro team.
Rathman played his final season in 1994 for Art Shell and the Los Angeles Raiders, failing to find paydirt for the only time in his 9 seasons in the NFL.
What happened after Rathman retired?
Having sacrificed his body for almost a decade Rathman hung up his helmet and immediately went into coaching, spending 1995-96 as an RB coach at high school level and then OC for the Menlo College Oaks in California.
The 49ers came calling in 1997 and Rathman was reunited with the red and gold colours as RB coach, a role he served until 2002. Rathman coached RB Garrison Hearst to three 1,000+ yard rushing seasons, including a team record 1,570 in 1998, to eclipse Roger Craig’s 1988 team record (where Rathman paved the way).
Following two seasons out of the league due to a potentially career ending medical condition Hearst returned in 2001, and thanks in part to Rathman became the NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
Rathman accompanied 49ers coach Steve Marriuchi (yes that crazy one on NFL Network) to Michigan and the Detroit Lions in 2003. With minimal talent Rathman helped RB Kevin Jones have his only 1,000 yard season as a rookie in 2004.
Missing the West Coast Rathman spent 2006-08 with the Raiders, still as RB coach. With an equally inept roster as the Lions Rathman helped Huggy Bear’s (character from the original Starsky and Hutch TV series) son to lead the Raiders in rushing three seasons in a row, including his only 1,000 yard season (2007).
Rathman then moved up the road and back to the 49ers for a second stint with the 49ers, from 2009-16, surviving four head-coaching moves (Mike Singletary, Jim Harbaugh, Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly).
In the 2012 season Rathman coached in his first Super Bowl, a 3-point loss to the Baltimore Ravens. This was Frank Gore’s only Super Bowl and Rathman coached Gore to 110 yards rushing and a touchdown to lead all players in the game.
Following the arrival of Kyle Shanahan in 2017 Rathman was cut loose by the Niners, and after a year out he was hired as RB coach by the Indianapolis Colts just under two years ago. Colts RB Marlon Mack had his first 1,000 yard season under Rathman’s tuition in 2019.
2020 and beyond for Rathman
Having spent 30 seasons playing and coaching in the NFL, 23 for the 49ers, it’s time for Rathman to move into a more senior coaching role, as a head coach or offensive coordinator at the very least.
Maybe Rathman has been offered promotions but just loves to coach running backs, somewhat symbolic of the sacrificial role he had on the field, one where his reward was not so much glory, rather executing a pancake block or helping to find a tiny crease for a star half-back to get that crucial first-down.
Millennial 49ers fans will only recognise Kyle Juszczyk as their favourite #44, but before him, paving the way for his team-mates, putting his body on the line against octopus-armed speed rushers, sledgehammer safeties and missile focused middle linebackers was San Francisco’s original #44 – Tom Rathman.
I’ll leave you with a recent intense quote from Coach Rathman, who was inducted to the 49ers Hall of Fame in 2017 (above):
“If you have the ball in your hands, you’re not only carrying yourself and your family, but the whole organization. The entire franchise is in your hands.”
Follow Lawrence at @F10yRetro on Twitter for more blasts from the NFL past.