Former Husker and Nebraska native Tom Rathman was announced as the newest inductee into the San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame this year. The fullback played eight of his nine years in the NFL with the franchise, winning to Super Bowls over that span.
But before that stellar career began, there were a couple of near false starts Rathman said in an interview with Chris Schmidt of Hail Varsity Radio.
The first came on draft day, 1986. A member of the 49ers staff called Rathman before San Francisco made its second-round selection to let him know they were thinking about taking him. The 49ers instead selected Alabama defensive end Larry Roberts, who would also go on to play eight years with the franchise. Rathman thought he had missed his chance to join one of the preeminent organizations in football.
“My heart just sunk to my shoes because [former Husker] Roger Craig was out in San Francisco,” Rathman said. “They had previously won two championships, in 1984 and 1981. Bill Walsh was the head coach, Eddie DeBartolo the owner. I mean it was a fantastic organization. To be on the waiting list there and then all of the sudden find out it didn’t happen . . .”
But then all of the sudden it did happen. The 49ers traded up to the top of the third round to select Rathman with the 56th overall pick. The dream was back on, but when Rathman went out to California for training camp some doubt started to creep in.
“My first year in the league, I kept calling back to [my wife] Holly and telling her, ‘Man, I’m going to get cut,'” Rathman said. “I remember saying that over and over in preseason as a rookie.
“You’re trying to overachieve, maybe. I just probably was lonely. I was missing my wife, missing my family. You just get those emotions and obviously it’s hard. It’s a struggle as a rookie. You’ve got to come in and prove yourself.”
There was also the issue of a few fumbles early in that training camp. After one of those fumbles Rathman remembered Walsh coming over to him and saying, “Hey, you’re not on scholarship. We don’t have to keep you.”
The 49ers did, of course, keep Rathman and alongside Craig he formed an all-Nebraska backfield in one of the most innovative offenses in the game. He rushed for 2,020 yards and 26 touchdowns and had 2,684 yards receiving over eight years with San Francisco and one with the Los Angeles Raiders.
Perhaps most importantly, Rathman, who is also in the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame, only lost seven fumbles over that nine-year career.
To hear the full interview with Rathman including his future plans as a coach, thoughts on Nebraska’s West Coast offense and more, check out the podcast.