He was small and not particularly fast. His passing arm wasn't the strongest.
But Frankie Albert was a winner at every level of football.
Though not blessed with great physical talent, Albert beat defenses with brains and guile, first as a running back at Glendale High in the late 1930s, then as a quarterback at Stanford and with the San Francisco 49ers.
After losing to Albert's 49ers, a rival coach lamented that he was beaten by a player who had "a million-dollar head and a dime-store arm."
Sadly, Albert's once-sharp mind has betrayed him in recent years. A month shy of his 80th birthday, Albert suffers from dementia that has affected his memory and speech. Contacted at his Rancho Mirage home Tuesday, Albert wasn't aware Stanford, his alma mater, is playing in the Rose Bowl on Saturday.
"He's doing about as well as any ex-football player," said his wife, Martha. "Old age isn't so much fun."
Perhaps that proves life isn't fair, because Albert created more fun on the football field than just about any player of his era.
Long before Fran Tarkenton became known for driving defenders crazy with his scrambling, Albert baffled them with his elusiveness and sleight-of-hand.
"At least with Tarkenton, those guys knew Francis had the ball," said Don Paul, a former Rams linebacker. "With Frankie Albert, we weren't always sure. Then he would stand there and laugh at you. He always acted as if he just heard the funniest joke. And it was you."
The left-handed Albert is credited with inventing the bootleg play, in which he would hide the ball on his left hip and act as if he had just handed it off. The maneuver has become the centerpiece of the play-action pass, a page in every NFL team's playbook.
"I guess you had to have been there, but Frankie Albert was the slickest thing you will ever see running a ballclub," Times columnist Jim Murray wrote in 1989. "He played his team like a great organ. He didn't just win. He gave a concert, painted a picture. . . . Albert was like a poker player who could bluff you out of the pot even if you had better cards. And he relished doing it."
Albert began his football career at Glendale in 1935, earning a spot on the varsity as a 116-pound running back during his sophomore season. By his senior season, he was 135 pounds and leading Glendale to the Southern Section major-division championship. The Dynamiters defeated Santa Barbara, 15-14, in the title game, a year after losing in the final to Long Beach Poly.
Albert was selected section player of the year in 1937, the first recipient of the award.
Shifted to quarterback at Stanford, Albert nearly faded into obscurity. The Indians, as they were known then, stumbled to a 1-7-1 record in Albert's first full season in 1939. Years later, he recalled that a highlight that season was tackling Jackie Robinson after the UCLA defender intercepted one of his passes.
"With Jackie in the open field, that wasn't easy," Albert said of his tackle. "Maybe I should have been a safety man."
Fortunately for Albert and his teammates, Stanford's fortunes took a 180-degree turn when Clark Shaughnessy became coach after the 1939 season. Shaughnessy changed the team's offense from the single-wing to the T-formation, and revolutionized football in the process.
The offense featured innovative tricks that left fans astonished and opponents flat-footed. Stanford bowled over its nine regular-season opponents in 1940 to earn a spot in the Rose Bowl against Nebraska. Albert passed for a touchdown and kicked three extra points in the Indians' 21-13 victory, capping a 10-0 season.
Afterward, Coach Biff Jones of Nebraska acknowledged the Cornhuskers were fooled by the fakes and pitchouts executed by Albert.
"Tell Clark Shaughnessy I'll buy him 120 acres of fine corn land if he'll tell me where we can get a Frankie Albert," Jones said. "That kid's got too much pass, too much kick, too much noodle for us. What a job he did out there."
Albert finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting that year and was third in 1941 as a senior when Stanford went 6-3.
After a four-year stint in the Navy and playing some semipro ball in L.A., Albert became the first player signed by the 49ers when they formed in 1946 and played in the old All-America Conference. He threw 29 touchdown passes one season, a mark that stood for 17 years in the 49er record book.
After seven seasons in San Francisco, Albert retired at 32 in 1952, the same year legendary NFL quarterbacks Bob Waterfield of the Rams and Sammy Baugh of the Washington Redskins ended their careers. The 49ers had signed a young quarterback with some potential--future Hall of Famer Y.A. Tittle--and Albert said he had no intention of becoming a backup.
Albert played in 1953 for Calgary of the Canadian Football League, then returned to the 49ers three years later as head coach. He lasted three seasons before leaving football for good.
Despite enjoying a fine pro career, Albert has been overlooked by the Hall of Fame, an injustice in the minds of many. One of them was The Times' Murray, who pointed out that only four All-America Conference teams survived the cut when the league merged with the NFL in 1950. The 49ers were picked because they were 12-2 and 9-3 in their last two seasons in the AAFC with Albert calling the plays.
Wrote Murray: "There might not be any 49ers today if there hadn't been a Frankie Albert."