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Mourning the loss of a friend
Mercury News

Professional football watched helplessly as Bobb McKittrick quietly suffered through a yearlong ordeal with cancer.

And when death came Wednesday for the legendary 49ers assistant, there was little anyone could do but reminisce.

And cry.

McKittrick, who was diagnosed with bile duct cancer in January 1999, died in his sleep at Stanford University Medical Center. He was 64.

The often stoic Marine Corps officer remained true to an era of hard-nosed football in a day of high-salaried players and super-hyped games. Through it all McKittrick was Marine-tough on the players he loved -- and on those he didn't, friends recalled Wednesday.

No one knew this better than one of his favorites, All-Pro Jesse Sapolu. During training camp one year, the 49ers lineman asked if he could arrive late because of difficulties with a divorce. Then-Coach George Seifert and then-President Carmen Policy said OK.

When Sapolu finally arrived, McKittrick refused to call him by name. When the coach needed to make a point, he would refer to Sapolu by his number or position.

The snub unnerved the player. Sapolu sought Policy at the end of camp and complained, ``He is so bullheaded.''

Policy broached the topic with his coach.

``I know you have a problem with Jesse, but it's time to put this to rest,'' Policy said.

Without looking up, McKittrick replied: ``In this business, you have babies and get divorced in March.''

Such an attitude led to a memorable 21-year career as the 49ers' offensive line coach. He played an instrumental role in developing the renowned West Coast offense that helped the team reach five Super Bowls and become one of the pre-eminent franchises in pro sports.

At the end of training camp, Sapolu wanted to make peace. He kissed McKittrick on the cheek.

``Jesse, don't ever do that again,'' McKittrick said.

Sapolu: ``See, Coach, I know you love me. You called me by my name.''

He did love Sapolu, as he loved most of the young men he turned into formidable linemen to protect quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young. Not that he would let his emotions show.

How tough was McKittrick? He was so tough that one day during training camp in the late 1980s, the coach passed a kidney stone while showing his players a game tape. He crumpled to the floor and handed the remote to six-time All-Pro Randy Cross.

He told Cross, ``Here, you've got to finish this. I think I'm passing a kidney stone.''

The players finally said, ``Bobb, this is ridiculous. You've got to go to the hospital.''

He did, but returned the next day.

When Sapolu broke his leg for the second time in 1986, he told his coach, ``Don't waste your time with me. I want to retire.''

Known for developing low draft choices into world-beaters, McKittrick would have none of it. He visited Sapolu at UC-Davis hospital and told him, ``You're not a marginal player.''

Fittingly, Sapolu was with McKittrick's wife, Teckla, a year ago when surgeons started a liver transplant. They quickly stitched him up without performing the operation because they discovered the cancer had spread.

As the 49ers suffered through one of their worst seasons in memory in 1999, McKittrick remained on the sideline as much as possible.

``I'm not afraid of death,'' he said last year after Chicago Bears great Walter Payton died of a similar disease. ``Heck, I don't even know what it is.''

McKittrick grew up in Baker, Ore., where he worked on a sheep farm and learned to tolerate the cold. He was known for not putting on a jacket during chilly games at 3Com Park or even in frigid road games.

He starred at Oregon State in the mid-1950s, playing on the Beavers' last Rose Bowl team. He began coaching in 1961 as an assistant at Oregon State, and then for UCLA and the Los Angeles Rams. He returned to Oregon State for graduate work in 1973.

``Bobb McKittrick has been universally acclaimed as one of the great coaches of our time,'' 49ers General Manager Bill Walsh said in a statement.

Said Guy McIntrye, formerly a 49ers lineman: ``He was one of those men who was built in the time of wooden ships and iron horses.''

McKittrick returned to the NFL with the San Diego Chargers in 1974. He joined the 49ers in 1979 and never left.

But he had offers.

Policy, now Cleveland Browns president, knew how to keep his beloved coach tethered to the 49ers.

When the St. Louis Rams recruited McKittrick as offensive coordinator in 1996, Policy asked to see Teckla.

``I knew the only shot of keeping him was to have her buy into it,'' Policy said.

After long trips, Teckla and Gail Policy would be the only wives waiting at the airport to greet the team at 4 a.m.

Teckla brought McKittrick to the 49ers' complex in Santa Clara two weeks ago. It took his mind off his decaying body.

``He wants to be around you guys,'' Teckla told Bill McPherson, a 49ers coach who started with McKittrick.

McKittrick's presence gave his colleagues emotional strength -- especially McPherson, who strives to emulate his friend.

``I wouldn't say I got to the level he was at,'' McPherson said. ``He was the best in the business at what he did.''

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