Hot Off The Press
McKittrick made men out of players
BOBB McKittrick deserved better at the end of his life, but because you would never have heard him say so, it seems slightly wrong to bring it up now.
Yes, the longtime 49ers offensive line coach died Wednesday after a largely horrible 14- month fight with bile duct cancer. Yes, at the end he had lost the glint in his eye and the lucid and direct bearing with it. Yes, he died at Stanford Hospital, a poor second to going in the peace of his own bed.
The McKittrick we know and remember, though, was re-bar straight and unbowed by the elements. You knew him if you ever saw him walk, and you knew him only slightly better if you heard him talk. For him, the alternative to being the genuine article was nothingness.
That is why the news of his passing Wednesday morning struck with as much admiration as melancholy. He died only because we all die; it's the living that he left behind for us.
YOU COULD SEE the living in his closely shorn head, which he wore with pride years before anyone thought to make it a fashion statement. You could see it in his bare arms, scoffing at the most absurd wind chill figures, and the floppy hat he wore in summer to ward off the sun and the slightest suggestion of vanity.
He taught large men to block other large men, and he did it almost from the moment he left the Marine Corps. He did it for collegians and professionals, and almost to a man, they remembered him for reasons unaffiliated with the job.
They remembered his honesty, his forthright bearing, his absolute refusal to use salt when sugar would do, or sugar when salt was required. In a profession like most in the athletic dodge, filled with ambition-riddled, self-involved, careerist misanthropes, his ambition, involvement and career were spent on making his players better players.
That they credit him for making them better people is what made Bobb McKittrick more than your run-of-the-mill whistle jockey . . . why he is remembered not for his death but his life.
He was the guest of honor at a dinner at the Santa Clara Marriott Hotel on Jan. 6, and nearly anyone who ever blocked for him was there. He was the guest of honor at a halftime presentation during the 49ers' highest moment of a mostly lost 1999 season.
BUT HE DIDN'T feel right being anybody's objet a fete. As he said when he was presented with commendations from the Marine Corps and the NFL during that win over Super Bowl-bound Tennessee Oct. 3, "I'm not so naive to think I would be up here if it wasn't for what I'm going through. Assistant coaches don't usually get these kinds of awards."
No, they don't. Then again, few people had McKittrick's impact.
He took the heat and gave it back when people complained that he taught his fellows the leg-whip. He stood up, albeit a foot shorter, to Howie Long when the former Raider wanted to reinforce the point with his hands. He defended his players to anyone who wanted to raise a sour point, and yet he spoke frankly of their shortcomings when asked. To him, the best defense was an honest assessment, and in time, they all came to appreciate that more than a thousand institutional-strength lies.
For that, he made them famous, and wealthy - Keith Fahnhorst, John Ayers, Fred Quillan, Randy Cross, Jesse Sapolu, Steve Wallace, Guy McIntyre, Harris Barton . . . they were all at the dinner in January, because he fed them for so many years before that.
His body gave off signs of the illness that his demeanor would not allow. He was scheduled for a liver transplant last May, and celebrated the news by heading to work with tackle Tyrone Hopson and center Jeremy Newberry on pass-blocking techniques.
THE TRANSPLANT never happened; exploratory surgery showed a return of the cancer the transplant would have cured, and though nobody wanted to say it at the time, it meant that McKittrick's time was now short - only a bit more than nine months, as it happened.
If they were nine horrible months, as one imagines they must have been, McKittrick admitted nothing. Illness, as normal and human as it is, is not to be shared with any but one's closest friends; McKittrick believed it, and the Marines reinforced it. If he was to be remembered, it would be for the first 63 years of a life well lived.
So it is. He is remembered that way by his wife, Teckla, his two sons, Mike and Ladd, his two grandchildren and hundreds of boys turned men. They remember his bowlegged gait, his shiny head coming to a point in the rear half of his skull. His eyes, like slits, twinkled with every new day's challenge - making smaller men beat larger men in the harshest portion of the football field so that the artisans on the fringes of the fight could elevate them all.
Which, when you think of it, was McKittrick to a T. He spread his qualities across a fairly eclectic group of men, and left more of him behind than he took with him Wednesday.
Bobb McKittrick deserved better at the end of his life, but he never would have said so. He had the good sense to know how much he gave, and got, in the first 63 years to make a fuss about the 64th. That's one more lesson for us to take from him now that he's gone.