February 8, 2012
On February 8, 1965 the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers made a straight-up swap of two seven-year NFL veteran players. Going from the Cardinals to the West Coast was HB John David Crow and heading to St. Louis was Abe Woodson, a cornerback who was more prominently known for his ability at returning kicks.
Crow (pictured at right) was dissatisfied at his playing time in ’64 and had requested a trade. An All-American at Texas A & M and winner of the 1957 Heisman Trophy, he was taken in the first round of the 1958 NFL draft by the then-Chicago Cardinals (second overall). A knee injury caused him to miss a significant portion of his rookie season, but he broke out in ’59 with a Pro Bowl year in which he rushed for 666 yards and caught 27 passes for 328 more. In 1960, the franchise’s first season in St. Louis, Crow had his greatest year as he set a team single-season rushing record with 1071 yards and led the NFL in yards per carry (5.9) and yards from scrimmage (1533) thanks to an additional 462 yards on 25 catches. On the downside, he also led the league in fumbles (11), an issue that would crop up again in his career, but he was a highly regarded runner with good size (6’2”, 220) who had speed as well as power and didn’t shy from contact.
Crow suffered a broken leg in the 1961 preseason and, when he returned five games into the schedule, was injured again. He carried the ball just 48 times for 192 yards. Healthy in ’62, he had a third Pro Bowl year as he rushed for 751 yards and 14 touchdowns, but also fumbled 14 times and dropped numerous passes. In 1963 he was sidelined again by a knee injury that required surgery, running for 34 yards on 9 attempts.
When he came back in ’64, there was a crowded situation at running back. While HB Bill Triplett, who played well in Crow’s place in 1963, was out due to a bout with tuberculosis, Crow was shifted to fullback while Joe Childress started at halfback, and there were young players like Willis Crenshaw and Bill “Thunder” Thornton getting playing time. Crow led the team in rushing with 554 yards on 163 attempts and caught 23 passes for 257 more, but he felt that he was not getting enough carries and took his complaint to the front office, threatening to retire if he wasn’t sent elsewhere.
The 49ers were coming off a 4-10 record in 1964, putting them at the bottom of the Western Conference, and the running game was one of the big problems. FB J.D. Smith and HB Don Lisbon both were lost for much of the year with injuries and a rookie free agent, HB Dave Kopay, led the club with just 271 rushing yards.
Woodson (pictured below), the player San Francisco was forced to give up, played collegiately at Illinois and was also a Big 10 champion sprinter and hurdler. Drafted by the 49ers in the second round in 1957, he had to fulfill a military commitment before reporting to the club during the ’58 season. He led the NFL in kickoff returning in 1959 with a 29.4 average and scored on a 105-yard return. It marked the beginning of five straight years in which he was selected to the Pro Bowl, and he was a consensus first-team All-Pro in ’59 and ’60. Woodson led the league in punt return average in the latter year (13.4) and again led the league in kickoff returns in 1962 and ’63 with averages of 31.3 and 32.2 per return, respectively – in ’62 he also set a season record with 1157 yards on his 37 kickoff returns. Overall, he was the NFL career leader in kickoff return yards (4873) at the time, averaging 29.4 yards per return with five touchdowns. He averaged 9.0 on 105 punt returns for another 949 yards and two more TDs. As a cornerback on defense, he intercepted 15 passes.
“In order to get a player of Crow’s ability, you have to give something comparable,” said San Francisco GM Lou Spadia, admitting he had been reluctant to part with Woodson.
Crow expressed great satisfaction. “Being traded to the 49ers feels real good. I’m real excited about it. I wish the season started next week because I’m ready to go,” he said.
Crow, who turned 30 prior to the 1965 season, proved to be a good acquisition for San Francisco. It helped that he was put in tandem with rookie FB Ken Willard - both of them earned Pro Bowl honors. Willard led the team with 778 yards rushing on 189 carries (4.1 avg.), ranking fourth in the NFL, and caught 32 passes for 253 yards while scoring a total of 9 touchdowns (five rushing, 4 on passes). Crow contributed 514 yards on 132 attempts and gained 493 yards on 28 pass receptions for an impressive 17.6-yard average. He, too, accounted for 9 TDs (7 on passes, two on the ground). The offense in general was far more potent and the 49ers improved to 7-6-1.
The combination of Crow and Willard continued to do well with similar numbers in 1966 and ‘67. Willard, the tough power-runner, took some of the burden off of Crow and likely helped to keep him healthy and productive, especially when compared to the injury-plagued years in St. Louis.
The team went 6-6-2 and 7-7, respectively, and Head Coach Jack Christiansen was replaced by Dick Nolan. Willard had his best year in 1968, with 967 yards rushing, but Crow was moved out to tight end in what proved to be his final season – he caught 31 passes for 531 yards (17.1 avg.) and five touchdowns. Overall, in four years in San Francisco, Crow rushed for 1474 yards on 370 carries (4.0 avg.) and five TDs and pulled in 120 passes for 1738 yards for a 14.5 average and 18 touchdowns. He also fumbled only seven times during that period, with five of them in his first year on the club in ’65. By comparison, during that same period Willard ran the ball 776 times for 3018 yards (3.9 avg.) and 22 TDs and had 133 pass receptions for 1078 yards (8.1 avg.) and 7 scores (he went on to play another five years in San Francisco before ending his career, ironically enough, with the Cardinals in 1974 – his career rushing yardage total was 6105).
As for Woodson in St. Louis, who turned 31 shortly after the trade, the results were not so good. He was strictly a reserve in a good defensive backfield and handled the bulk of the kick returning in 1965. However, he placed 14th in kickoff returns, with 27 for a 24.6 average, and his 18 punt returns netted just 7 yards for a 0.4 average. Supplanted by halfbacks Johnny Roland and Roy Shivers in ’66, Woodson returned no kicks, although he intercepted four passes while starting in the defensive backfield. He retired, having played a total of nine seasons. His career kickoff return yardage record, which he increased to 5538 while with the Cardinals, lasted until 1972 when it was first exceeded by Ron Smith, but Woodson’s record of having led the NFL in kickoff returns three times has endured.