'The Intimidator,' Dave Wilcox: 1942-2023

Hall of Famer Forever Published on : 4/19/2023

The football world today is celebrating the life and career of Pro Football Hall of Famer Dave Wilcox, who died Wednesday at age 80.The football world today is celebrating the life and career of DAVE WILCOX, an outside linebacker known as “The Intimidator” for his toughness, tackling ferocity and ability to neutralize opponents’ running and passing attacks over 11 seasons with the San Francisco 49ers.

Elected as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2000 after a 21-year wait, Wilcox died Wednesday at age 80. He recently had undergone heart surgery.

“While Dave Wilcox was a nicknamed 'The Intimidator' for his aggressive style of play, he was a kind, humble and gracious man in all other aspects of life,” Hall of Fame President Jim Porter said upon learning the news.

“He transformed the outside linebacker position – one of the many feats that earned him a forever home in Canton.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Dave’s wife, Merle, and their entire family. We will preserve his legacy for generations to come.”

Several contemporaries considered Wilcox the finest outside linebacker of their era.

“I’ve got to say Dave Wilcox … played the position as well as anybody who’s ever played the position,” said Joe Kapp, who faced Wilcox over four seasons as quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings.

“Wilcox has the size to control the tight end and the speed to stay with the backs,” said Dick Nolan, the 49ers’ head coach for seven seasons of Wilcox’s pro career. “And he is the best open-field tackler I have ever seen.”

Dick Stanfel, who followed his Hall of Fame playing career by coaching for 40 years, including five with Nolan, said simply: “As far as I’m concerned, Dave is the finest outside linebacker I have ever seen in pro football.”

John Brodie, the 17-year quarterback for the 49ers who played 10 seasons with Wilcox, concurred. “I think he is the best outside linebacker that has ever played the game – by a long way,” he told NFL Films.

Tackling form earned “The Intimidator” this writeup from longtime Bay Area columnist Dave Newhouse: “Wilcox hit fullbacks and tight ends like a misplaced steer wrestler, grabbing them at the top of both arms, or by the shirt, and flinging them to the ground. A Dave Wilcox tackle starts at the shoulders and hurts all the way down.”

Wilcox’s tackling prowess and technique came from a combination of strength and a body that featured unusually long and muscular arms.

“I used to say that his triceps went from his earlobe to his wrists. He simply manhandled blockers,” said Mike Giddings, a member of Nolan’s staff in San Francisco and Wilcox’s presenter for Enshrinement.

“Dave Wilcox dominated people,” Brodie said. “I could find a piece of film every week where he’d take a guy and carry him over and lay him on a pile. Now who did that with a 265-pound man? And he never knew he was doing these things.”

Wilcox came by that strength the old-fashioned way: by growing up and working on a family farm in eastern Oregon.

Born Sept. 29, 1942 in Ontario, Ore., Wilcox earned nine varsity letters in high school – three each in football, baseball and basketball – and was a two-way end for Vale Union (Ore.) on two state championship football teams.

His college career began at Boise Junior College (now Boise State University), where he was named to the NJCAA All-America Team and was credited with blocking eight kicks in one season. He then played at the University of Oregon, where he was a teammate of Hall of Famer MEL RENFRO.

When the Ducks needed someone to step in at guard in Wilcox’s senior season, he filled that hole in the offensive line on a team that posted an 8-3 record capped with a 21-14 victory over SMU in the 1963 Sun Bowl.

But it was at defensive end that Wilcox drew the attention of pro scouts. He was the first defensive lineman in Hula Bowl history to earn Outstanding Lineman honors, and he also played in the Coaches’ All-America Bowl and the College All-Star Game.

The 49ers selected him with the first pick of the third round (29th overall selection) in the historic 1964 NFL Draft that sent 11 men to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Houston Oilers also chose him, with the AFL’s 46th overall pick.

Immediate contributor

Wilcox’s big break in the pros came when two teammates, both linebackers, were hurt in back-to-back weeks early in his rookie season – the first with a knee injury and the second when he sustained burns to his skin because a groundskeeper lined the field with lime instead of chalk.

Wilcox stepped into the starting lineup at left outside linebacker as the 49ers beat the Chicago Bears, 31-21, in one of the few team highlights that season. He played all 14 games his rookie year – as he would every season except one in his career — and recorded an interception and a fumble recovery.

By his second season, Wilcox was a full-time starter. And by his third – 1966, when he was selected to his first Pro Bowl – he was making a reputation for himself, particularly as a menace against opposing tight ends. 

“All the man did was take the outside linebacker position and make it more important than the tight end,” Giddings said in his presentation speech. “Our tough strong safety, Mel Phillips, the DB coach for Miami under coaches (DON) SHULA, (JIMMY) JOHNSON and now (Dave) Wannstedt, added: ‘This man added five years to my career, because the tight ends simply never got off the line of scrimmage.' "

“If you talk to any tight end, he was the meanest, most ornery guy that ever played the game,” Brodie said.

Hall of Famer JOHN MACKEY thought so, saying Wilcox “was strong, he was smart and he was quick. And I liked his attitude: ‘When you hit me, you get hit back.’”

Wilcox summed it up succinctly: “What I do best is not let people block me. I just hate to be blocked.”

He also hated trespassers.

“Defensively, I had an area. And I did not like people in that area,” Wilcox told NFL Films. “So when I prepared to play the game, it was to keep everybody out of that area. Nobody was going to run in my area; nobody was going to pass in my area. This was my spot, and nobody was welcome there – except me.”

49ers begin ascension

With Wilcox helping the 49ers forge a top-10 defense, results improved. The team ended a 13-year postseason drought with a 10-3-1 record in 1970 winning the NFC West that season and the two that followed.

Each time, however, the 49ers fell to the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs, including back-to-back losses in the NFC Championship Game that denied San Francisco and Wilcox a spot in Super Bowls V and VI.

Before one of those games, Hall of Fame Coach TOM LANDRY was asked, “How do you attack that tough 49er defense?” He replied, “The first thing you do is to figure out what to do away from their left outside linebacker.”

Giddings recalled a particular play in which Wilcox jammed the tight end at the line then shadowed an opposing halfback nearly half the length of the field and knocked down a pass.

“Forty yards downfield, knocks down a pass with one of the great open-field plays these eyes have ever seen,” he said. “That closed the scouting reports. You can’t run at him. You can’t pass on him. So just stay away from him.”

While many opponents chose to attack the other side of the field, Wilcox relished the challenge when the play came his way.

“Wilcox was the kind of guy who thrived on pressure. He would want you to come to his side,” said Roman Gabriel, the 16-year quarterback who faced Wilcox twice a season in their NFC West battles. “‘Don’t run away from me if it’s third-and-1. Come to my side. Challenge the best.’”

Long wait for Enshrinement

Wilcox was selected to the Pro Bowl each season from 1968 to 1973 and was a first-team AP All-Pro in 1971 and 1972. He missed only one game in 11 seasons.

The author of “Inside Pro Football” used an informal poll of NFL coaches, players and scouts for his book. It named Wilcox as one of the 12 toughest men in the National Football League.

“Wilcox has earned a league-wide reputation as a ‘hitter,’” the author wrote. “He doesn’t push or pull and shove. He hits people with hard hammer blows that send them reeling. Tight ends who run patterns across the field are pet targets of the San Francisco defensive star. More than once Dave has almost decapitated an unwary tight end. Now most of them look for him before they start across the middle.”

Wilcox said in response to similar comments: “When no one completes a pass on your side or runs your hole, that gives you a better feeling than what someone says about you in a book.”

Following each season, San Francisco coaches would rate their players based upon their performance. The typical score for a linebacker was 750. Wilcox’s score in 1973 was an incredible 1,306. 

That season, he recorded 104 solo tackles, forced four fumbles, intercepted two passes and made 13 tackles for loss. The NFL Players Association named Wilcox its 1973 Linebacker of the Year.

Despite all the accolades, Wilcox was not elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame until moving into the Seniors category in 2000.

As one NFL observer put it: “No one played better or was forgotten faster than Dave Wilcox.”

In his presentation, Giddings said he asked DICK BUTKUS, “What do you think of the qualifications for this year’s Senior inductee for Canton?” He said the Hall of Fame middle linebacker replied, “Name me a better one.”

Like many who waited years to reach Canton, Wilcox said he “never stayed up at night” thinking about it, but he also never doubted himself.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging at all, but nobody ever ran to our side,” he said in an interview. “If they ran, they would never make many yards. It all kind of came back to this: This is my spot. It’s kind of like you’re king of the hill, and nobody’s going to knock you off of it.”

Wilcox’s reputation as a fierce outside linebacker who could intimidate opponents and force them to change their gameplan will be preserved forever at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.