SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Gordy Soltau was a Navy Seal before the Seals were known by that name, graduating with the first class of frogmen during World War II. He was also one of the San Francisco 49ers' finest players during their first years as an NFL franchise, and for that the organization honored him Tuesday.
Soltau, a receiver and kicker who once scored 26 points in a game against the rival Los Angeles Rams, said he was "excited and thrilled and surprised" upon learning the team was enshrining him in the Edward J. DeBartolo, Sr., 49ers Hall of Fame.
Soltau, 87, recounted in detail memorable moments from a playing career that ran from 1950 to 1958. He was a three-time Pro Bowl choice and three-time All-Pro selection back when top players earned $200 a game, with most collecting more like $25 or $40. Some teams were barely surviving financially. There were no lucrative TV contracts.
Soltau recalled playing six or seven exhibition games in a year with no pay. One season, the 49ers traveled four days by train from Oakland to Syracuse for an exhibition against the Pittsburgh Steelers, stopping for "a few exercises" along the way. Quarterback Frankie Albert hatched a plan to net $25 per man from owner Tony Morabito.
"During the pregame meal, we're sitting in the hotel," Soltau said. "Frank had a pretty good relationship with the owner and he said, 'Tony, I’ve decided, the team has decided that we’re going to bet you $25 a man that we’ll score on the first time we have the ball."
Players looked around at one another, wondering where they'd come up with the money if they failed to score.
"Anyway, they kicked off to us and we had it on the 20-yard line and we ran a sweep to the right and I think we knocked down every Pittsburgh Steeler three or four times and had an 80-yard run for a touchdown," Soltau said. "Frankie Albert stood in front of the press box and said, 'OK, Tony, get the money out.' "
Morabito paid the players.
The game was changing as Soltau's career wound down in the late 1950s. Pete Rozelle took over as commissioner, forging TV contracts that tacked on zeroes to NFL paychecks. Soltau earned the maximum $10,000 in 1958, his final season. He then transitioned into a 45-year career with a printing company, becoming vice president of sales.
"There was not a lot of thought about money," Soltau said. "You played because you wanted to play and make the team. You didn’t want to get cut and sent home."