As an NFL running back, Roger Craig only had three 1,000-yard rushing seasons in 11 years.
However, Craig was no one-trick pony.
He also happened to be one of the best receiving backs in NFL history.
In fact, in 1985, Craig became the first running back in league history to reach 1,000 yards as a runner and receiver in the same season.
Playing for the San Francisco 49ers, he was part of a dynasty that played, and won, three Super Bowls during his career with the franchise.
— Niners History (@NinersHistory) May 2, 2022
During Super Bowl XIX, Craig achieved another milestone when he became the first player in title game history to score three times.
By the time he ended his career with the Minnesota Vikings, Craig had the further distinction of being the first player to reach the Pro Bowl as a fullback and halfback.
Additionally, his teams made the playoffs every year he played.
Since his retirement, Craig has stayed busy in the business and fitness sectors and the cry for his inclusion into the Pro Football Hall of Fame grows louder.
This is the story of Roger Craig.
Growing Up in Iowa
Roger Timothy Craig was born on July 10, 1960, in Davenport, Iowa.
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) July 10, 2018
He was one of eight children of Elijah and Ernestine Craig, a mechanic and machine operator respectively.
Both worked late into the evening and it was usually Ernestine who made sure the Craig children got to school on time.
“I didn’t take a lot of sleep back then,” she said. “I just kept going.”
Roger’s older brother, Curtis, was his idol who ran roughshod as a running back for Davenport’s Central High School.
Watching Curtis made Roger want to become a great athlete himself.
”Everybody was always asking me, ‘Are you going to be like your older brother?”’ Craig recalled. ”I didn’t like it, but I set goals for myself to be better than he was at my age. It worked out well for me. It made me a better person and a better athlete.”
After Curtis left Davenport with a football scholarship to the University of Nebraska, Roger began making his own name as a prep athlete.
He dove headlong into sports at Central and competed in football, track, and wrestling.
As a grappler, Craig made it to state in his weight class and he competed in hurdles for the track team, breaking the Blue Devils record in the 110-meter event.
Craig also excelled on the Central football team, helping the school win a state title as a sophomore alongside Jamie Williams, a future NFL tight end.
Then, during the first game of his junior year, Craig broke his right leg and doctors told him he would miss the rest of the season.
Instead of sulking, Craig attacked rehab like a madman.
Numerous times he would walk through the house without the use of his crutches to try and get his bum leg working again.
A few of his brothers and sisters would help his rehab by climbing onto the family couch while Craig would hoist the couch using his legs.
“Roger went through four or five casts.” said Ernestine. “That boy scared me half to death.”
In Craig’s mind, he wasn’t doing anything wrong, he was just following the example of hard work set by his parents.
”My mother and father worked really hard for me growing up,” Craig explained. ”I wasn’t hurting for anything, but I saw how hard they worked to make things better for us.”
When his leg healed, Craig began running, encouraged daily by his father to keep pushing himself.
Unfortunately, just before Roger’s senior year began, Elijah Craig was diagnosed with lung cancer.
While his father was battling cancer, Craig was battling on the football field.
— stadiumtalkcom (@stadiumtalkcom) January 6, 2023
He ran through opponents to the tune of 1,565 yards and an incredible 27 touchdowns, leading to an All-American designation.
During the state playoffs, Craig tried to help Central beat Cedar Rapids Washington by rushing 41 times for 353 yards, four touchdowns, and a couple of two-point conversions, scoring all the points that day for the Blue Devils.
Despite the incredible output, Central lost the contest.
A few months later, the Craig family experienced an even bigger loss when Elijah succumbed to cancer.
He was only 45 years old.
There were a host of big-time college football programs that sought Craig, but he wanted to follow in his brother Curtis’ footsteps, choosing Coach Tom Osborne and Nebraska.
As a freshman in 1979, Craig mostly played for the Cornhuskers freshman team, netting 447 yards and three scores as a tailback.
— Nebraska Huskers on SR (@SRHuskers) July 10, 2021
He also played a few downs for the varsity squad and had 31 yards on seven attempts.
However, even though he was shining on the field, Craig wanted to be back in Iowa.
He missed his family, especially his father, and thought about transferring to play for the Iowa Hawkeyes.
“I was really homesick,” Craig said. “Things weren’t going well at first. It was just being away from home. I just had the freshman blues. I talked to my mother and brother and they told me wait until the second semester and see how I felt.”
Thankfully, he stuck around, and in 1980, Craig was third on the varsity depth chart yet still piled up 769 yards and a ridiculous 15 touchdowns as a sophomore (sixth most in the country).
The following year, Craig was a starter in a backfield that included quarterback Turner Gill and fellow back Mike Rozier.
While the Huskers went 9-3 in 1981, Craig started the year off rocky by fumbling 10 times in Nebraska’s first six games.
He recovered nicely and accumulated 1,006 yards on 173 carries and six touchdowns.
Roger Craig Nebraska pic.twitter.com/3NyRlUBokj
— Jeremy JJ Johnson (@JSQUARED) May 24, 2019
Craig also added 12 receptions for 87 yards and was an All-Big Eight selection after the season.
Having Craig and Rozier running the pigskin was a boon for Nebraska as they combined for 2,003 yards and Craig was only the seventh 1,000-yard single-season rusher in team history.
During the ‘81 season, Craig topped 100 yards in four games including a 234-yard effort on September 19 against Florida State.
That represented the third-most single-game rushing yards in Husker history and a 94-yard touchdown against the Noles tied a program best.
In the 1982 Orange Bowl against Clemson University, Craig had a 26-yard score and a two-point conversion, but it wasn’t enough as the Tigers beat Nebraska, 22-15.
Taking a Back Seat
Just when it looked like Craig might be a Heisman candidate for his senior year, Coach Osborne made a huge request.
Before the 1982 season began, the coach asked Craig if he would be willing to move to fullback and allow Rozier to play tailback.
The change would mean that Craig would be called on to block more often and receive fewer carries.
Solid list Boomer. Of course it’s our duty as Husker fans to feel robbed so…
If 1987 Thurman Thomas/Barry Sanders are #1 for 1613 & 603 yds respectively (27 total TDs), than 1982 Mike Rozier/Roger Craig need to at least make the list for 1721 & 604 yds (22 total TDs).
— Go Big Redcast 🎙 (@GoBigRedCast) March 23, 2022
Instead of complaining, he did what was best for the team.
“I could have said, ‘No, I don’t want to play fullback, I want to keep playing tailback,’” Craig said. “I was a candidate for the Heisman. A lot of people said, ‘Are you crazy?’ But I think it worked out well. I got good experience blocking. The tailback at Nebraska doesn’t block at all. He just runs. I think it benefited me.”
Rozier took advantage of being the lone tailback and ran for 1,689 yards and 15 scores in ‘82.
Meanwhile, when he wasn’t opening holes for his teammate, Craig tallied 586 yards, five touchdowns, and four catches for 15 yards.
It was a huge reduction in stats for Craig, but Nebraska profited from the lineup change by going 12-1 and beating LSU in the 1983 Orange Bowl.
Second Round Pick
In 1981 the San Francisco 49ers went 13-3 and won Super Bowl XVI.
That remarkable year was followed by a very unremarkable 1982 in which the franchise went 3-6 in the strike-shortened season.
Making matters worse, the Niners run game in ‘82 was awful, in fact it was the worst in the NFL, averaging just 82.2 yards per game.
Desperate for help, then-San Francisco head coach Bill Walsh selected Craig with the 49th overall pick in the second round of the 1983 NFL Draft.
Craig’s selection brought scorn from the local media.
“The 49ers didn’t get the bruiser they so sorely needed to handle short-yardage situations,” reported a local paper.
There was also the knock on Craig that he ran bolt upright, fumbled a lot in college (especially in his junior year), and that he was demoted to fullback as a senior.
It turns out that Craig’s experience at Nebraska was exactly what Walsh and the Niners coaching staff were looking for.
”He can do a lot of the same things Franco Harris does,” Walsh announced at the time.
Walsh didn’t just envision Craig as a runner, he also saw the back as a potent receiver out of the backfield.
3rd and Goal, Montana swings it to Roger Craig, makes a guy miss and gets in for a TD.
Roger like see ya
Throwback 1983 Week 16 MNF 🌃 Cowboys @ San Francisco 49ers pic.twitter.com/ORdIsLDRYz
— 49ers Throwback ❤💛 (@49ers_Throwback) July 11, 2023
That seemed odd to most people especially since Craig only caught 16 passes total in college.
However, Craig wasn’t one to question the coach, especially with Walsh’s reputation as an offensive guru.
“Bill Walsh recognized my talents when I first got here,” Craig said. “It’s amazing how someone can work with your talents and make something happen.”
Walsh also kept Craig at the fullback position and the team signed LA Rams running back Wendell Tyler to play tailback.
The duo would lead the team’s running game for the next four years.
In order to prepare for his role in the San Fran offense, Craig caught at least 100 passes a day.
His work ethic was such that Craig started 13 games as a rookie in 1983 and gained 725 yards and eight touchdowns rushing and another 427 yards and four touchdowns receiving.
#49ers Roger Craig was a key part of San Francisco's dynasty in the 1980s with his ability as a physical runner and as a receiver out of the backfield.
— Always Faithful 24/7 (@Mark_Faithful87) August 16, 2023
San Francisco turned things around quickly and went 10-6 before losing to the Washington Redskins in the NFC Championship game.
The following year turned into a season every NFL player dreams of.
While the Niners went a remarkable 15-1 (best record in franchise history) in 1984, Craig started every game and tallied over 1,300 combined rushing and receiving yards and 10 total scores.
He still ran upright, but defenders were also becoming acquainted with his high knee running style, a throwback to his days as a hurdler.
— jessicapierceinfo (@jessicapiercein) August 2, 2017
Trying to bring him down meant that opponents risked getting a knee to the chops.
”I run to protect myself,” Craig said. ”The high knees break tackles. They’re like a weapon. If my knee hits somebody right, it might go in his chin or head. Guys back off.”
During the playoffs, the Niners took care of the New York Giants and Chicago Bears by a combined score of 44-10.
For the second time in four years, the organization was headed to the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl XIX
Before Super Bowl XIX against the Miami Dolphins, San Francisco was installed as 3.5 point favorites.
All the pregame hype didn’t amount to much when the contest started, unfortunately.
By the end of the first quarter, Miami led 10-7, but it would be short lived.
In the second quarter, Montana found Craig for an eight-yard touchdown pass to take a 14-10 lead.
— Retro Sports (@RetroSports411) November 27, 2016
Later in the same quarter, Craig ran into the end zone from two yards out to stake a 28-10 lead.
Miami answered with two field goals to end the half, but San Fran continued pressing in the third quarter.
Late in the third, Craig found paydirt once again when he caught a pass from Montana and ran in from 16 yards.
His score represented the final points of the day and the Niners had a second world title courtesy of a 38-16 victory.
Montana received the game MVP award after passing for 331 yards and three touchdowns.
Marino also passed for over 300 yards, but added two costly interceptions.
Craig ran the ball 15 times for 58 yards and a score and also caught a team-high seven passes for 77 yards and two more touchdowns.
With his 16-yard fourth quarter touchdown reception in Super Bowl XIX, #49ers fullback Roger Craig becomes the first player ever to score three touchdowns in a Super Bowl.
This date in 1985 pic.twitter.com/ERGK4itZoK
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 21, 2023
His stats meant that Craig was the first player in league history to score three touchdowns and 18 points in a Super Bowl.
He also tied a title game record with two receiving touchdowns.
Craig Sets another Record
As impressive as Craig’s performance was in Super Bowl XIX, he was just getting warmed up.
When the 1985 season got underway, it was apparent that Craig was going to accomplish big things that year.
Game after game, he was like a man possessed, refusing to go down after being hit and making sure to punish anyone who got in his way.
“He has great leg drive,” Rams linebacker Jim Collins said. “If you just try to grab his legs, you won’t bring him down. I think you’ve got to get a shot at him above the waist.”
During the ‘85 season, the Niners won 10 games and Craig was a rushing and receiving nightmare.
By the time the season ended, he had rushed for 1,050 yards on 214 carries (4.9 yard average) and nine touchdowns and added a league and career-high 92 receptions for 1,016 yards and six more scores.
Craig became the first running back in NFL history to net 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season.
— #Random49ers (@Random49ers) December 22, 2022
Furthermore, he was the third running back (after Lydell Mitchell and Chuck Foreman) to lead the NFL in receptions in a season.
Craig was then named a second-team All-Pro and selected to his first Pro Bowl.
Offensive Player of the Year
Between 1985 and 1987, San Francisco reached the postseason each year, but lost in their first playoff game.
That included a humiliating 36-24 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional round after the Niners went 13-2 in the strike shortened 1987 season.
Craig kept trucking along, bagging 81 receptions and 1,454 combined yards in 1986 and 1,307 combined yards and another Pro Bowl in 1987.
”The thing about him,” said Lynn Stiles, the Philadelphia Eagles’ personnel director, ”is what he does after he catches the ball. If you don’t hit him as soon as he catches the ball, he’s capable of breaking it.”
1986 was also the season that San Francisco drafted Nebraska fullback Tom Rathman, leading the local populace to dub the two the “Cornfield Backfield.”
With Rathman’s arrival, the Niners shifted Craig to running back and allowed his new backfield mate to open holes for him for a change.
In 1988, Rathman and Craig tore through opponents to help the Niners reach 10 wins and victories over Minnesota and Chicago in the playoffs to reach Super Bowl XXIII.
It was always tough to bring down Roger Craig.
It seemed impossible, though, in this 1988 battle against the Rams, when Craig put the @49ers on his back, running 22 times for 190 yards and three TDs to lead a 24-21 midseason win.
— NFL Legacy (@NFLLegacy) October 20, 2018
Craig rushed for a career and franchise-best 1,502 yards and nine touchdowns and caught 76 passes for 534 yards and another score.
He was chosen as the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year, received first-team All-Pro accolades, and went to his third Pro Bowl.
His Pro Bowl selection made Craig the only running back to play in the contest as a running back and fullback.
“I really am shy about my accomplishments,” he said. “I still can’t accept it when I do something well. I feel shy and embarrassed.”
Super Bowl XXIII
For the second time in the same decade, the Niners and Cincinnati Bengals were squaring off in the Super Bowl.
This time, it would be in Super Bowl XXIII and San Fran was favored by seven.
Both teams were evenly matched and the scoreboard read 3-3 at halftime.
When the second half commenced, the Bengals and Niners slugged it out like a heavyweight title bout.
Craig didn’t score in his second world championship game, but he did contribute 71 rushing yards and 101 receiving yards.
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) February 5, 2018
His receiving yardage made Craig the first running back to bag 100 or more receiving yards in a Super Bowl (James White and Corey Clement have done it since).
With Craig’s help, San Francisco outscored Cincinnati and won the franchise’s third title, 20-16.
By 1989, Craig was one of the best running backs in the NFL as well as one of the hardest workers in the league.
He never took a practice off and trained even harder during the offseason.
Six days a week during the NFL’s off months, Craig could be found running countless wind sprints and doing hill work near San Francisco.
”You can’t relax in this business,” he said. “You can’t have a great game and think you’re on top of the world. There’s no way you can do that, because someone the next week will knock you right off the top, knock some sense in your head or bring you down to earth.”
All the hard work paid off during the season when defenders had to work overtime to try and slow Craig.
“To stop him, you’ve got to bring your lunch money, hit him with everything you’ve got,” said Bears linebacker coach Dave McGinnis. “He’ll run through arm tackles and dead legs. You can’t bring him down with one guy; you’ve got to swarm around him, keep a fever pitch throughout the game. That’s hard to do for 60 minutes.”
In 1989, Craig went to his fourth Pro Bowl after topping 1,000 rushing yards for the third time in his career while also adding 473 receiving yards.
— Niners History (@NinersHistory) April 21, 2022
San Francisco won 14 games and crushed the Vikings and Rams by a total of 71-16 in the playoffs to meet John Elway and the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV.
The Niners were favored by 12 points, but that turned out to be ultra conservative.
Elway and his teammates stood no chance against the San Fran juggernaut and lost badly, 55-10.
Craig’s totals for the afternoon included 69 rushing yards and a touchdown and 34 receiving yards.
In the summer of 1990, readers of the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner newspapers opened their latest edition and couldn’t believe their eyes.
In a full page ad for Macy’s department store stood Craig dressed in nothing more than his underwear.
We hired @andrewjpridgen to cover the Central Coast but you don't say no when someone pitches a story on the 49ers' infamous underwear ad.@cmarinucci: “Forget about diamonds being a girl’s best friend. Who needs ’em when Roger Craig is around?” Story: https://t.co/xOR5EDJkb6 pic.twitter.com/jeUqQMb1Rr
— Grant Marek (@Grant_Marek) January 28, 2022
The response was overwhelming.
“Men like it too, but women are crazy about the ad,” Macy’s spokesperson Merle Goldstone said at the time.
Macy’s reported that the ad was so popular that the company planned to release a poster version of Craig and his skivvies as a promotion.
As expected, Craig’s teammates couldn’t help but needle him about the picture.
However, the ad took a backseat when the 1990 season got underway.
Craig was cruising along as normal until a Week 5 showdown against the Houston Oilers.
During the game, Craig tore a ligament in his knee and was sidelined for a few weeks.
He returned and ended the year with 640 combined yards and one touchdown.
San Francisco was attempting to win a third championship in a row in 1990, a feat never accomplished in Super Bowl history.
After the 14-2 season, the team eliminated Washington in the divisional round and met the New York Giants in the NFC Championship game.
The contest was brutal as neither team could establish a foothold.
In the fourth quarter, Montana was hammered by Giants defensive end Leonard Marshall and knocked from the game.
Minutes later, the Niners had the ball and announcer John Madden hilariously quipped, “[If] I had a body like [his], I’d be in my underwear too.”
Craig then took a handoff and began running straight ahead.
32 years ago today,
The 1990 NFC Championship
The play sets up the Giants' championship-winning drive pic.twitter.com/EMRbBbEJ9F
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 21, 2023
The stunned 49ers then watched as New York drove down the field and kicked a field goal to win, 15-13.
Just like that, the dream of a three-peat died.
“I’ve had a lot of highs and lows, but this is the lowest ever,” Craig said. “I never dreamed I would make a fumble in a spot like that. This is like a nightmare for a running back. I had two hands on the ball. I was going through the hole. I don’t know what happened. All of a sudden, the ball was out of my hands.”
Craig Leaves San Francisco
Shortly after the loss to New York, Craig was quick to defend himself and his ability to perform as an NFL running back.
“People have been counting me and counting us out all year,” Craig said. “They’ve been saying that I’ve lost a step and everything like that. I’ll be back next year. I’m just happy that my teammates still respect me.”
Craig was somewhat correct.
His teammates did respect him.
However, Niners management believed he was no longer effective and decided to cut him loose.
Craig returned to play football in 1991, but it was with the Los Angeles Raiders.
Both he and former Niners great Ronnie Lott signed with the Raiders and helped the team to a 9-7 record and loss in the Wild Card round to Kansas City.
— Damesha Craig (@DameshaCraig) October 24, 2012
Craig shared backfield duties with Marcus Allen and finished the season with 590 rushing yards, one rushing score, and 136 receiving yards.
Once the season concluded, he was released for the second time.
Craig Becomes a Viking
In 1992, the Minnesota Vikings were only too happy to add a veteran of Craig’s caliber to its backfield.
He was paired with second-year back Terry Allen and the two paced the Vikings to an 11-5 record and a loss to Washington in the Wild Card round.
Craig started only one game that year but played in 15, gaining 416 yards and four touchdowns on the ground and 164 yards on 22 receptions.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) July 11, 2022
Then, in 1993, Allen blew out his knee before the season began and Craig shared carries with rookie Robert Smith and veterans Barry Word and Scottie Graham.
He totaled 119 rushing yards, 169 receiving yards, and two combined touchdowns as Minnesota posted a 9-7 record and lost to the Giants in the Wild Card round.
After the season, Craig retired.
During his 11 year career, Craig rushed for 8,189 yards, had a 4.1 yards per carry average, scored 56 rushing touchdowns and caught 566 passes (more than any running back in history) for 4,911 yards and 17 touchdowns.
— NFL Rumors (@nflrums) February 18, 2021
Additionally, he was the first running back to reach 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same year (Marshall Faulk and Christian McCaffrey have done it since).
Craig was a four-time Pro Bowler and the first back to reach the all-star competition as a running back and fullback.
Craig was also a two-time All-Star, NFL Offensive Player of the Year, and NFL receptions leader once.
Along with winning three Super Bowls, Craig was the first NFL player to score three touchdowns in a Super Bowl and the first back to reach 100 receiving yards during the contest.
Even more rare for an NFL player, Craig’s teams appeared in the postseason every year of his career.
Since retiring, Craig has been selected as a member of the NFL’s 1980s All-Decade Team and is a member of the San Francisco 49ers Hall of Fame.
— 𝙏𝙝𝙚𝙎𝙁𝙉𝙞𝙣𝙚𝙧𝙨 (@TheSFNiners) February 28, 2022
Based on his career stats and league records, the call for Craig’s inclusion into the Pro Football Hall of Fame grows louder every year.
Life in Retirement
For the first few years after retiring, Craig spent time with his wife, Vernessia, and their five children.
Then, in 1998, Craig had a chance encounter with Vivek Ranadivé, the founder of TIBCO, a computing company.
Ranadivé hired Craig to work in the company’s sales department and the former running back excelled.
“A lot of guys get big heads when they get the trophies and accolades,” former TIBCO vice president Dick O’Donnell said. “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.”
In 2018, Craig partnered with O’Donnell again to work on Sports Thread, a social media style platform that helps young athletes promote themselves and make connections with coaches, fans, and prospective colleges.
“If I can share a story to help them get a better grip of what they need to focus on,” Craig said, “to help them go to that next level, I am going to be there for them.”
Not only is Craig heavily involved in the business sector, but he also volunteers his time for good causes.
He started the Golden Heart Fund in 2016 to help former 49ers players with financial, psychological and medical support and hosts a race each year to raise funds for the program.
Today is anny of finishing end of San Diego Rock and Roll Marathon. Looked up mile 24 and saw Roger Craig! We ran it in! High knees. pic.twitter.com/wLCN0B6lqg
— Ivan Carter (@IvanCarter9) June 5, 2023
Craig also organized a San Jose based road race as part of the Rock n’ Roll marathon series.
What participants enjoy the most is that Craig doesn’t just plan the events, he competes in them as well.
In the past few decades, he has participated in dozens of marathons and half marathons.