Photos courtesy of Dick O’Donnell
Opponents knew him for his punishing running style. Those close to him know him for his grace.
You likely know Roger Craig as the dual-threat running back who starred on the 49ers’ three Super Bowl-winning teams throughout the 1980s. Craig was named to the Pro Bowl four times during an accomplished 11-year NFL career that has teetered on Hall-of-Fame status. He never missed the playoffs. In 1985, he became the first of two players (the other is Marshall Faulk) in NFL history to have a 1,000-yard rushing, 1,000-yard receiving season. Three years later, Craig won the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year Award.
Despite these accomplishments, perhaps the most telling chapter of his football career preceded his 49ers tenure.
Prior to his senior year at Nebraska, Craig, an All-Big 8 running back during his junior year, switched to fullback because that’s what his coaches asked of him. He feared the position change would hurt his NFL draft stock. If anything, it did the opposite.
Craig’s transition to a less-glamorous role impressed then-49ers assistant coach Jim Gruden, father of current Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden. Jim Gruden advised then-49ers head coach Bill Walsh to draft Craig. Walsh listened, selecting Craig with the No. 49 overall pick in the 1983 NFL Draft.
The rest is history.
When Craig’s playing days stopped, however, he carried the same core values into his post-NFL life.
Craig’s conduit to the business world was as unique as his path to the NFL.
Five years after he retired from professional football, Craig met TIBCO founder Vivek Ranadivé, also part-owner of the Sacramento Kings, at a local health club. Ranadivé asked Dick O’Donnell, TIBCO’s former vice president of corporate marketing and communications, whether he had a potential job for Craig. O’Donnell, a 49ers season-ticket holder since 1986, knew all about his soon-to-be teammate. The two got in touch, and Craig accepted a job in business development with TIBCO, a billion-dollar computing company based in Palo Alto.
He was off and running.
Craig used his NFL contacts to his advantage. He frequently traveled to NFL cities, where he hosted some of the company’s biggest customers and advanced sales. He quickly found success in the profession, earning a vice president role in business development, which he retains today.
His relentless nature transferred to his new line of work. O’Donnell recalls Craig regularly arriving at the office two hours before the rest of the company’s employees, then staying late another hour if his work was unfinished. It only makes sense, considering Craig never missed a practice in his NFL career, which he calls a “pride thing.”
Despite his status as a local icon and multi-millionaire, Craig hardly acted like it.
“A lot of guys get big heads when they get the trophies and accolades,” O’Donnell told KNBR. “He’s one of the most modest people I know. His leading characteristic is that he will help anybody out, he will do anything, and he doesn’t need any recognition, either.”
Many of Craig’s proudest endeavors are volunteer-based.
He centers them on running.
The Rock n’ Roll marathon series creates races among runners of varying ages and levels across the globe. Craig led the initiative to start an annual San Jose race 13 years ago. It has grown ever since. Last month, 10,000 registered runners participated in the event.
In 2016, the 49ers founded the Golden Heart Fund to help 49ers alumni in need of financial, medical, psychological, or emotional support. Each November, the Fund hosts a 4.9k race that ends in Levi’s Stadium. Craig runs in the event.
But the real reason he participates, he says, has a greater purpose.
“I just love giving back,” Craig told KNBR. “I love being able to share stories with people so they can go home with something. Every appearance I go to, I try to change someone’s life. If I can change their lives, I am doing something positive. That’s my whole mentality.”
Craig uses health and wellness not only as an avenue to meeting people, but as a life focus.
He remains remarkably fit. He trains as if he were still playing, lifting weights and running long distances on a near-daily basis. Craig, 58, knows the exact number of miles he has run annually, dating back to 2014, eclipsing 2,000 miles every year since then. He has run 43 marathons throughout his life.
Part of Craig’s football legend was his maniacal training. During offseasons, he ran a four-mile trail in the Edgewood Park and Natural Reserve, with an inclined hill that makes jogging, let alone running, taxing. He introduced the workout, known as running “The Hill,” to Jerry Rice.
“In the end I train not so much for football as for character — for myself and for my life after I’m done playing,” Craig told Sports Illustrated in 1988. “I want to be able to look into the mirror and go on with the rest of my life knowing I gave everything I’ve got.”
A NEW ENDEAVOR
In mid-June of this year, O’Donnell approached Craig with another opportunity.
Eleven months prior, O’Donnell accepted a consultant role with a startup called Sports Thread, an online platform designed to help youth athletes self-promote and create communities for recruiting purposes. The website and app allow players of all sports to upload highlight videos and stats. Sports Thread partners with youth tournaments, which use the platform as a communicative device for scheduling, rain delays, and other organizational updates via push notifications.
O’Donnell envisioned Craig as the company’s spokesperson. When Craig learned about the company’s mission, he was sold. He wishes he and his five kids, three of whom went on to play major Division I college sports, had access to this type of platform in high school.
Craig was particularly drawn to the company because it remains the only free recruiting service for kids. This way, underprivileged youth have the same opportunities for exposure as everyone else. Sports Thread does not offer a premium model or charge several-thousand dollars a year for scouts to contact college programs on a kid’s behalf, as other services do.
About 45 million youth athletes participate in competitive tournaments each year. Sean Leary, Sports Thread’s founder and CEO, feels every kid deserves equal opportunity. He says his company has a social responsibility to educate and inspire, more than just landing high school kids college roster spots.
Leary made Craig the face of Sports Thread’s “mentor initiative” program, a four-part video series of Craig giving all types of advice.
The first video focused on weight-lifting. He gave tips on training, from running The Hill with Rice to various track exercises. Craig encouraged the kids to get in touch with their favorite athletes — just as he did with Walter Payton, Franco Harris, and Gale Sayers.
The second video centered on nutrition. He emphasized the value of sleep and eating for fuel.
The third video touched on the pressures of high school. He used his own experiences, as the younger brother of the No. 3 running back recruit in the country, Curtis, to preach motivation and perseverance.
The fourth video detailed college and the importance of academics. He used his example of switching to fullback as an attitude on life. The team, and the game, are bigger than you, he says. Avoid drama. Keep your head down and continue to push forward.
Craig reaches out to kids and coaches individually to introduce himself as a sounding board. The most meaningful advice he gives is life-based.
“If I can share a story to help them get a better grip of what they need to focus on,” Craig says, “to help them go to that next level, I am going to be there for them.”
He learned about sacrifice and teamwork as the third-oldest of seven children. Craig grew up in Davenport, Iowa, located at the westernmost part of the state. His late father, Elijah, was a mechanic. His mother, Ernestine, was a machine operator. They preached the value of hard work. Craig learned the same ideals under his high school football coach, Jim Fox. He explained the importance of buying into a culture, which transferred into Craig’s success when he joined the 49ers, led by icons Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott.
“Being a team player, understanding what my roles are, that’s what you have to do in life,” Craig said. “I try to talk to kids, you got to think about your team. Be one heartbeat.”
Similar to his role with TIBCO, Craig leveraged his professional contacts in his newest endeavor. He has connected Sports Thread with college coaches and athletic organizations across the country.
As his involvement grew, so did the company.
In about 13 months since it launched, Sports Thread has partnered with 46 of the largest tournament and showcase companies in the U.S. By January, they plan to implement tournament registration and scheduling within the platform. Leary expects for Sports Thread to register and provide its service to approximately one-million people in total over the next calendar year, including both youth athletes and tournament partners.
The presence of Craig, a universally identifiable football star, solidified Sports Thread as a legitimate presence. Several professional organizations, whether the Colorado Rapids or Sporting Kansas City, and former athletes, including 13-year NBA veteran Larry Hughes, have partnered with Sports Thread. Six MLB franchises will meet with Leary and his team during the upcoming Spring Training.
“It all got kicked off with Roger’s participation and being able to show these guys we work with people on their level,” Leary said. “He has really had dual impact for us in terms of not only being a tremendous sports star that we are extremely proud to be in association with and working with, but he’s a great business guy.”
For Craig, Sports Thread has combined all of his worlds — football, service, and business— into a concept he loves.
Even with his work obligations for TIBCO, his weekly correspondence with Sports Thread, his active lifestyle, and — most important to him — his role as a father and grandfather, Craig makes it all work.
“Metaphorically, he still runs that hill every day,” O’Donnell said. “He may not be in Redwood City, but he still runs the hill every day because he is still persevering or trying hard or working out. In our case in particular, he is helping kids every day. And he wants to give back. That’s why people love him.”
GREAT PLAYER, BETTER PERSON
Craig’s legacy is easily remembered throughout Levi’s Stadium. His face is plastered inside the locker room walls and emblazoned on the stadium’s massive façade. Glance around the stands during a 49ers game, and you’re sure to spot scattered “33” jerseys.
The high school and youth athletes Craig works with through Sports Thread weren’t alive to watch him play, however. That’s why, when he contacts kids, many times they’ll ask their parents who he is.
That’s where Leary’s favorite story of Craig comes in.
Last year, during the San Jose Rock n’ Roll race, Craig saw a teenage girl struggling to finish. He approached her and helped her along, even though she did not know who he was. Once they crossed the finish line, her parents, wide-eyed, saw them and rushed over to tell her about Craig’s background.
“Everybody says Roger is the greatest guy you will ever meet, and they are right,” Leary said. “He will go so far out of his way to make a tiny little impact on one person.”
This is the life Craig leads, where stars are also public servants.
“I love talking to the fans,” Craig said. “I was never one of those kinds of athletes that didn’t want to be bothered. I want to be bothered. Bother me. You have something to ask me about my life or how I can help you in your life, I am here for you.”
Over the years, Craig and O’Donnell have attended functions where people recognize Craig and become star-struck. O’Donnell motions them over. Craig signs autographs and customizes them with personalized messages. He chats with fans and asks about their lives.
O’Donnell calls Craig “one of the most giving people” he has ever met. It’s in his gregarious nature.
“You will never find a nicer guy than Roger Craig,” O’Donnell said. “He will do anything for you. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel that way who has met him.”
Craig will, of course, forever be linked with the 49ers’ glory days. In addition to overwhelming talent, Craig says those ‘80s teams were so dominant because they were unified.
And three decades later, not much has changed.
Craig sees his former teammates four or five times per year, thanks to former 49ers owner Eddie Debartolo, whom Craig calls “an angel walking on Earth,” organizing the get-togethers. In late April, Craig was one of 27 former players, coaches, and 49ers staffers to visit Dwight Clark, as he battled ALS, in Whitefish, Montana. Fewer than four months later, Clark, 61, died. Craig attended the memorial service.
Whenever there is a team reunion, Craig is typically front and center.
On Nov. 18, Craig will participate in the Golden Heart Fund’s annual 4.9k race. He will chat with strangers. He will reminisce with DeBartolo and old 49ers teammates. And Craig will run — not for a game-winning touchdown, but for a greater purpose.
He prefers it that way.
“It’s not what I did on the football field,” Craig says. “It’s what I’m doing off the football field.”