Calling Canton: One Woman's Push to Put Roger Craig in the Hall of Fame
Photo Credit: Nebraska Athletics

Calling Canton: One Woman’s Push to Put Roger Craig in the Hall of Fame

June 30, 2019

This story appears in the Hail Varsity 2019 Husker Football Yearbook. For more great stories like this, subscribe today.

Leisa Knudsen’s determination can’t be questioned. Keep that in mind.

Two-dozen years ago, she was diagnosed and treated for cancer. It subsequently recurred, an aggressive tumor, and she went through more aggressive treatment, which damaged her internally. It continues to worsen. “I’m kind of like, ‘OK,’ I just have to go day-by-day,” Knudsen says. 

But “I’ve lived 24-plus years since I had cancer, so I’m lucky for that.”

She’s not 100-percent homebound now, but she’s on disability and needs help at times. As a result, she recently moved to the Columbus, Ohio, area, a newly-built home in a wooded area, “kind of like being in a park.” She has the lower level, her dad and step-mom the upper level.

All of her siblings live in the area, too. Moving there was like coming home.

Knudsen was living in Kansas City when she went on disability. She had spent much of her working life there in sales, putting together proposals and making presentations. 

She’s a Royals fan, still watching every game on television, as well as a Chiefs fan. She’s also recently become something of a San Francisco 49ers fan. More about that shortly.

Knudsen graduated from North Canton (Ohio) Hoover High, then returned to Iowa to attend the University of Iowa. Returned? Before her family moved to Canton, her home was Davenport, Iowa. She was a sophomore at Davenport Central when Roger Craig was a senior.

Did she and Craig know each other in high school? Not really. 

“I vaguely remember her,” says Craig.

But she knew who he was because of his athletic accomplishments in track and field, wrestling and especially football; he was a high school All-American. And she attended games.

She also attended the Iowa-Nebraska game in 1981 but doesn’t remember much about it. For the record, the Hawkeyes shocked Nebraska 10-7, limiting the Huskers to 234 yards of offense, including 153 rushing—Craig had 79 of the yards and scored Nebraska’s touchdown.

Fast forward nearly 40 years. Knudsen has maintained contact with a few of her friends from Davenport over those years. In February, she checked a Davenport Central Facebook page and saw a link to “Elect Roger Craig to the Hall of Fame,” a reference to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.

The Facebook page “has a bunch of people on there and they were all lamenting the fact that he’s not in the Hall of Fame and what could we do to help him?” Knudsen says.

The page was started by Jim Rose (not former Husker play-by-play announcer Jim Rose), who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, but grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. His family had 49ers season-tickets. And Craig was his mom’s favorite player.

Knudsen has visited the Hall more than once, having finished high school in Canton. That Craig isn’t in was news to her. So she was determined to pitch in and see that he is.

“It takes my mind off other things,” she says, “and it makes me feel good to help somebody else.”

That’s how this story begins.

Craig played 11 seasons in the NFL, the first eight with the 49ers, one with the Oakland Raiders and two with the Minnesota Vikings at the end of his career. He was a starter in nine of the seasons.

He signed a one-day contract with San Francisco so he could retire a 49er. He’s regarded as the first professional athlete to request a one-day contract for that purpose.

Craig was a second-round pick, the 49th overall but the 49ers’ first, in the 1983 NFL Draft, even though he had been plagued by injuries his senior season at Nebraska. The injuries cut short a planned move from I-back to fullback so he and junior Mike Rozier could be on the field at the same time.

Nebraska Athletics
Roger Craig (21) celebrates with Mike Rozier (30) during the Huskers’ 59-0 win over Colorado in 1981.

He agreed to the position switch, even though he was on the Heisman Trophy preseason watch list after rushing for 1,060 yards (6.1 yards per carry) and earning first-team All-Big Eight recognition as a junior. As a sophomore, he had been described as the “best third-string running back in the country” after rushing for 769 yards and 15 touchdowns—he averaged 7.1 yards per carry.

He rushed for only 586 yards, 127 of them in the regular-season finale at Hawaii, and five touchdowns his senior season. Nevertheless, 49ers Coach Bill Walsh wanted him, and as Craig remembers, was quoted to that effect in Sports Illustrated before the draft. Walsh considered him a good fit at fullback in San Francisco’s West Coast offense. 

His willingness to switch positions, however briefly, had paid off.

After seeing the Sports Illustrated quote, Craig says, “I said, ‘I gotta learn how to catch the freaking football,’ because they (49ers) threw a lot of passes to the running back.”

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That preparation also paid off. During a three-day rookie camp, with two practices a day, “I did not drop one pass, not one pass,” says Craig. “And they threw me like over a hundred passes a day.”

He had caught 16 passes at Nebraska, during his career. With San Francisco “I was immediately introduced into the offense to be a receiver, as a running back,” Craig says.

More specifically as a fullback-receiver. Wendell Tyler was the 49ers’ running back. Craig, a fullback his first four seasons in the NFL, wouldn’t move to running back full-time until the 1988 season. He split time between fullback and running back in 1987.

Sunday Oct. 5, 1985, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium: 49ers 38, Atlanta Falcons 17

Craig, San Francisco’s third-year fullback, caught 12 passes for 167 yards and the game’s first touchdown. “Craig came within four receptions of his college career total,” Art Spander wrote in the SanFrancisco Examiner. “Twelve catches tied the 49er single-game record. Someone wondered if Craig didn’t want one more, the record breaker.”

Spander then quoted Craig: “No . . . once you start thinking about records you get caught up in them and forget the basic idea of the game—to win.”

Note: Spander was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2018.

Craig would finish the season with 92 catches for 1,016 yards and six touchdowns. He would rush for 1,050 yards and nine touchdowns. The 92 catches led the league and were an NFL record, and he was the first player to have 1,000 yards rushing and receiving—as a fullback, remember.

Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk, a running back, is the only other player to have done that. 

Craig would be selected to the Pro Bowl for the first of four times in 1985.

His mentality, to which Spander had alluded, came with him from Nebraska. Its roots could be traced to Davenport Central head football coach Jim Fox, who “always told me, ‘The team is bigger than you. Don’t think that you’re bigger than the team,’” Craig says.

That was reinforced by Tom Osborne at Nebraska.

Craig stepped into the 49ers’ lineup immediately, rushing for 725 yards and eight touchdowns and catching 48 passes—three times his collegiate career total—for 427 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie, then following with 649 yards and seven touchdowns rushing and a team-high 71 catches for 675 yards and three touchdowns his second season. The receiving yardage was third behind Dwight Clark’s 880 yards and Freddie Solomon’s 737. Clark and Solomon were both wide receivers. Craig credits them both for helping in his development as a receiver.

He capped that season by scoring three touchdowns in San Francisco’s 38-16 victory against the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, California. Two of the three scores came on passes from Joe Montana, who was named the game’s MVP.

Craig was the first to score three touchdowns in a Super Bowl. Four others have done it since; Jerry Rice, Craig’s soon-to-be teammate, would do it twice.   

His first season at running back full-time was his sixth in the NFL, 1988. Tom Rathman, another former Husker, was in his third season with the 49ers and had settled in at fullback, his position at Nebraska. “It was like music to my ears,” Craig says of the position switch.

He made the most of the opportunity to play running back full-time, rushing for 1,520 yards and nine touchdowns and catching 76 passes for 534 yards and a touchdown. His 2,036 total yards led the NFL, and the Associated Press named him NFC Offensive Player of the Year.

More: Sign the Petition to Enshrine Craig in the HOF

He was a first-team All-Pro selection and was selected to the Pro Bowl again.

The 49ers won Super Bowl XXIII following that season, and Super Bowl XXIV the next season to earn Craig three rings. Super Bowl XXIII, a 20-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami was Craig’s favorite, not just because it came on a final-drive touchdown but also because “we had a lot of adversity that year,” Craig says. “We were down. The fans were booing us.

“We weren’t getting respected on the football field.”

Their record was 6-5 when they called a players-only meeting and “took ownership of our team,” says Craig. “‘We’ve got to do whatever it takes to win the next four or five games.’”

The 49ers won four in a row before losing to the Los Angeles Rams to finish the regular season.

“We went through a lot that year,” Craig says. 

The ownership carried over to the next season, when George Seifert, who had been the defensive coordinator, succeeded Walsh as head coach. San Francisco finished 14-2 in the regular season and defeated the Denver Broncos 55-10 in the Super Bowl at the Superdome in New Orleans.

Craig was selected to the Pro Bowl for the fourth time.

Despite his success, his approach didn’t change. As Spander had written four years earlier he was “worried less about what the headlines say than what his teammates have to say. For Roger, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

When Knudsen saw Rose’s Facebook page for the election of Craig to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, she was surprised. “I thought, ‘Gosh, I thought he was already in there,’” she says.

So she began researching the process for induction. “I just thought, ‘Maybe it’s time for somebody to put together a recap of Roger’s career, what he did and why he was a pioneer, how he impacted the league and how that impact still carries on today,” Knudsen says.

Nebraska Athletics
Roger Craig rushed for 2,446 yards (6.0 YPC) and 26 touchdowns over four seasons at Nebraska.

She learned that Craig had been a finalist only once, in 2010, and that his 25-year eligibility period is past so that he’s now in the “Seniors” pool, what the late Paul Zimmerman, long-time pro football writer for Sports Illustratedcalled the “Senior Swamp” because of the number qualified candidates and the difficulty in their selected. Seniors are grouped with contributors; only two from that group can be inducted annually, with both being players every other year.

There are 48 voters, all sports writers, one from each city with an NFL franchise (two if there are two teams) and 16 at-large. Knudsen found a list of the voters on the Hall’s website and sent notes to some by way of Facebook and Twitter “to see if anybody would respond,” she says.

A couple did, telling her that they took everything into consideration so she could send whatever she thought might be useful in evaluating Craig’s candidacy.

Knudsen learned that nine of the 48 voters are on the senior selection committee; they determined the finalists, which are then voted on by the entire group.

Along the way, Knudsen “connected” with Craig and “we started talking,” says Knudsen. “He helped me get in touch with a guy that he’s worked with before who’s in public relations and marketing.”

They discussed the need for her presentation to be “as impactful as possible,” she says.

Knudsen’s phone rang. “It was Tom Osborne,” she says. “I just about fell out of my chair.”

Though election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame depends solely on accomplishments in the NFL, character can also count. And what better character reference than Osborne? 

So Knudsen had reached out to the College Football Hall of Fame coach, as well as former Craig teammates, Rice, Ronnie Lott and Steve Young, as well as former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., all of whom are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. DeBartolo was inducted as a contributor in 2016.         

Paul Bellinger
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All five provided letters of support for Craig that Knudsen added to a recounting of Craig’s accomplishments as a player as well as his extensive contributions to his community—the San Francisco Bay Area. Craig works in marketing for Tibco Software in Palo Alto, California. Among other things, he was instrumental in starting the Rock ‘n Roll San Jose Half Marathon. 

Knudsen included the letters in a proposal-format presentation, which she took to the Hall of Fame. “They said . . . they’ll send it out to all the 48 members of the selection committee,” she says.

The committee is to have a conference call in July. “The date’s not public,” says Knudsen. The nine on the seniors committee will identify names for consideration. In August, in conjunction with the Hall of Fame Game and induction of the 2019 Hall of Famers, the full committee will vote for semifinalists.

“If Roger makes it as a semifinalist, we’re going to try to collect as many signatures as we can and we’ll deliver that piece along with a little PowerPoint presentation that kind of summarizes everything that’s in this big presentation . . . to refresh their memory,” Knudsen says.

There’s already an online petition in support of Craig’s candidacy.

The 2020 induction class will be announced in conjunction with Super Bowl LVI, to be played on Feb. 2 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.

“Roger’s such a nice person,” says Knudsen. “He’s such a good-hearted person, and he is the kind of person that just does anything he can for anybody else.”

That reflects his background. “I’m from the Midwest . . . I never changed, and I never will change. To my last breath, I’m going to think like I’m from the Midwest. I’m not going to think I’m better than anyone else. I’m going to try to help people, like I’ve always done,” Craig says.

Knudsen has seen that. “I know it really stung that he didn’t get into the Hall of Fame when all his peers did, years ago. But he wouldn’t really say that, probably, to anybody he doesn’t really know very well. He’s more interested in how you feel and what’s happening to you,” she says.

Despite what Knudsen has had to deal with health-wise, “she’s still got the energy to help me,” Craig says. “I’m definitely going to give her props.

“She’s really taken off with this Hall of Fame thing.”

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