Football or Golf? John Brodie Didn’t Have to Choose

By Ron Driscoll, USGA
January 31, 2014

John Brodie, seen here practicing for the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am in 1971, played golf competitively throughout his career as an NFL quarterback, and would go on to spend more than a decade on the Champions Tour. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

It was a scenario that would seem unimaginable today. Spring football had begun, and the Stanford University football coach couldn’t find his hotshot quarterback, the one who had turned heads the previous fall with his slingshot arm.

It turned out that John Brodie was at the Stanford University Golf Course, trying out for the Cardinal team, as recounted by Art Rosenbaum in the May 1970 issue of Golf Journal. Brodie’s explanation: “Spring is golf time.”

Brodie was certainly no stranger to the game – he went on to win the Northern California Amateur a couple of years later. And yet he wasn’t trying out for just any college team: Stanford had won the NCAA Championship two years earlier. He made the team, no doubt buoyed by having competed against regional contemporaries such as Ken Venturi, Tony Lema and Bob Rosburg, all of whom went on to win major championships.

Brodie competed in two NCAA Golf Championships for Stanford, saying at the time: “Golf is fun. I don't want to be committed to play football at the expense of everything else.”

Brodie managed to get to football practice often enough to secure the starting QB position, and he continued to blossom, earning consensus All-America honors in his senior season of 1956. He was drafted third overall by his hometown San Francisco 49ers and went on to play 16 seasons in the NFL, twice making All-Pro and earning league Most Valuable Player honors in 1970.

People have marveled at more recent multi-sport athletes such as Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, who combined jaw-dropping baseball and football skills. Consider that John Brodie played on the PGA Tour in the NFL offseason for a couple of years, until he decided to concentrate on one sport. Consider as well, that when Brodie arrived at Stanford, he hadn’t even planned on trying out for football – he wanted to concentrate on baseball and basketball, the sports in which he had earned all-city honors at Oakland Tech High School across the bay.

Brodie suffered a separated shoulder in a freshman basketball game, which kept him sidelined for the rest of the hoops season as well as the baseball season. He decided to try out for football the next fall, and immediately got the attention of head coach Chuck Taylor, who was not pleased to hear about Brodie’s golf aspirations. Taylor would find out that – as gifted an athlete as Brodie was – he was equally determined.

As Brodie’s wife, Sue, once put it, “John wants to be tops in anything he attempts, or it's not worth the effort.”

Brodie went on to become one of the top NFL quarterbacks of his generation. Granted, it was an era with far less emphasis on the passing game, but in a 14-game regular season, Brodie led the league in 1965 by throwing for 30 touchdowns and 3,112 yards. He earned NFL MVP honors in 1970 as the 49ers went 10-3-1, the best record of his career. The 49ers lost to the Dallas Cowboys, 17-10, in the NFC title game, missing out on the chance to play in Super Bowl V. When Brodie retired in 1973, he ranked third in career passing yards behind Johnny Unitas and Fran Tarkenton.

Brodie’s performance in 1965 launched a bidding war for his services between the 49ers and the Houston Oilers, then a franchise in the rival American Football League. Brodie landed a multi-year contract approaching $1 million to stay with the Niners, which kept him an amateur golfer for a time.

Earlier in his career, Brodie had given the NFL half of his year and the PGA Tour the other half. He once shot a 65 in the opening round of the San Francisco Open, and he posted several 66s and 67s elsewhere. But these stellar rounds were interspersed with many in the high 70s and low 80s. 

"In those early days," he recalled in the Golf Journal story, "I was rooming with Tony Lema. He wasn't winning, either, but his champagne pace was too much for me. I had to decide on continuing, or going back to football. I applied for amateur reinstatement."

Brodie played many times at Pebble Beach in the Bing Crosby Pro-Am, and in 1970, he finished one under par for the four rounds, though the scores of amateurs were not officially kept, except in the better-ball portion. He and professional partner Rosburg won the Crosby pro-am championship.

Said Rosburg at the time: "If I'd had John's game this week, I think I would have won the pro tournament."

After retiring from the NFL, Brodie played from 1985-1998 on the Champions Tour, earning a dozen top-10 finishes and winning the 1991 Security Pacific Senior Classic by defeating George Archer and Chi Chi Rodriguez in a playoff. He suffered a serious stroke in 2000.

Brodie, 78, and a veteran of 11 USGA championships, including two U.S. Opens, once addressed the subject of golf as a sport.

"Some critics claim golf is only a walk in the park and cannot be called an athletic event," Brodie said, "but those people are not low handicappers and they don't understand. I think golf is the most demanding sport of them all in asking coordination from mind and body. It involves more qualities than any other game. Football is repetition. After many hours of work with teammates, you react by reflex and instinct. There are so many factors depending on more than one person. … I learned a lot on the tour. Possibly most important, I learned a lot about myself."

Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org. 

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