Around Oregon

Commentary: Remembering Dave Wilcox, of Vale and Niners fame

The year was 1969. I somewhat reluctantly went with my dad to the South Salem Fred Meyer store for a football event.  A native Oregonian and member of my beloved San Francisco 49ers was signing autographs at Freddy’s, and I was going to get that photo to hang on my wall.

Admittedly, I don’t recall much about my encounter with Dave Wilcox—a future Hall of Fame linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers.  Pretty sure I said very little, beyond “thanks!” to Mr. Wilcox.  I DO remember that the man was big, especially compared to an undersized nine-year-old like me. Dave Wilcox sadly passed away on Wednesday, April 19, at the age of 80.

His nicely scribbled signature on that 8X10 glossy photograph did hang on a bulletin board in my basement bedroom for many years.  I remain forever perplexed about what happened to that souvenir of my youth. After moving a time or two and going to college, it simply… disappeared.

I still have several Niners pennants, and a 49ers door sign that I created in my graphic arts class in junior high school—which received a B- for not being quite straight enough.

All during high school, the Wilcox picture hung on the wall along-side the vintage Niner poster that adorned the back of my bedroom door.  My parents peeled that aged poster from the door before they sold the house in the 1980s.

I became a 49er fan honestly—a grade school friend, who has the last name of Brodie, like the San Francisco quarterback during the late 1960s and 70s, helped make me a rabid supporter of the red and gold.  It was the closest NFL franchise to me as the crow flies geographically, and I admired and was a little jealous of the full Niner uniform my friend had at his home.

The Seattle Seahawks were introduced into the National Football League in 1977, but the Niners remained number one with me, even as a teen.  A few years later, when Seattle moved abruptly to the AFC in a realignment of teams, and opposite of the NFC 49ers—I dreamed of a Super Bowl between the two squads. I only got the occasional pre-season matchup between the Niners and the Hawks when the actual starters got one series on the field.  I became a fan of both teams, but Niners were forever at the top of the heap.

The semi-smiling visage of Dave Wilcox on that old photo of mine represented the simple joys of childhood fandom.  The former Oregon Duck—and graduate of Oregon’s Vale High School in 1960, and winner of two state titles in 1957 and 58—was an outstanding two-way player on the line for the U of O after a stellar junior college career at what is now Boise State. 

The nine-year-old me didn’t really care that Dave was a third-round draft pick who chose the Niners over the AFL’s Houston Oilers in 1964.  But I did like that the 6-3, 240 pound Wilcox was around the ball defensively most of the time when I got a chance to see him on TV.  He was a top NFL linebacker for all eleven years of his NFL career. Called the “Intimidator” for his aggressive style of play, Wilcox easily made the transition to linebacker out of college. His tenacious play helped to anchor a Niner team that gave up few points to the opposition.  San Francisco would never make a Super Bowl in Wilcox’s career—losing three straight years (1970-72) to San Francisco’s arch rival, the Dallas Cowboys.

Still, Dave Wilcox had a career to be proud of—with five all-NFL honors, two all-NFC awards, and seven appearances in the Pro Bowl.  Dave was also durable, missing just one game due to injury during his career.

It took a while, but Dave eventually was given the ultimate honor he so richly deserved—entering the NFL Hall of Fame in 2000.  The life-like bust of Wilcox was presented 21 years after he became eligible for enshrinement into the Hall in Canton, Ohio.  Wilcox’s delayed honor might have been soothed a bit over the years by the Niners own success with five Super Bowl victories from 1982 to 1995.  It was also somewhat ironic that Wilcox’s entrance into the Hall came the same summer as the Hall of Fame honors were given to Niner Super Bowl heroes Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott.  Wilcox used to tell inquisitive fans that he played in Frisco before “Joe and money.”  He also quipped about his enshrinement day in 2000 that it was great “to be selected to join these past greats.”

Dave’s legacy in football did not end when he quit playing.  He already had a family legacy in the sport at the University of Oregon—his brother older John also played for the Ducks team that went to the Rose Bowl in 1957.  Dave settled into the small town of Junction City north of Eugene—and, along with his wife, Merle, raised two sons—Josh and Justin—who also played for Oregon.  Justin has been the head football coach at Cal since 2013.

The Hall of Fame in Canton has lowered its flag at half-staff in honor of Dave’s passing.  My Niner memorabilia remains proudly posted in my garage.

But I wish I hadn’t misplaced the old 8X10 autographed photo of Dave Wilcox I had received as a shy nine-year-old kid so long ago.  It isn’t often that you can say “I met a true sports hero.”

But perhaps I should take a lesson from Wilcox himself, who looked as his career by saying “I did not have championship rings, but I have memories.”

That’s the way to look at my missing photo of number 64.

RIP, Dave.

Republished with permission. Readers can catch more of Mark Gilman’s articles on substack,