49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

November 12, 2007
Dick Nolan remembered

Two things stand out about my trip to Dallas in the summer of 2005. One was that it was unbearably hot and humid - over 100 degrees - the type of weather that made you wonder how Texans functioned in the days before air conditioning.

The second was how generous Dick and Ann Nolan were. I had set out for North Texas to do a story on Mike Nolan, Dick and Ann's middle child, who had been named head coach five months earlier and who would be holding his first 49ers training camp in a few weeks. Before leaving, Mike told me that his father recently had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and that he might have some trouble during the interview.

When I pulled up to the Nolan's house, Dick was waiting on the front stoop. Dick Nolan was a large man - bigger and broader than his son - and he had a shock of thick white hair that gave him the appearance of a lion. One of the first things I noticed was his wrist. Unlike a normal man's wrist, which tapers down as it approaches the hand, Dick's grew wider - the result of one of his many football injuries.

Inside the house, Dick and Ann regaled me with stories. They were the quintessential football couple. Dick was understated and famously taciturn. Ann was sweet and talkative. Dick would start a story. Ann would finish it. It was clear that the stories didn't belong solely to him. She had been by his side for more than 50 years. They belonged to both of them.

They told me a particularly telling story about the day Dick separated his right shoulder while playing cornerback for the New York Giants in the 1950s. In those days, medical treatment at the stadium consisted of a few bags of ice. All the Giants could do was give Ann a few dollars and hail the couple a cab. Together they rode over cobblestone streets - Dick's shoulder untreated - to the nearest hospital. It would be five hours before he got any attention and his shoulder was problematic for the rest of his life.

In July 2005, Dick Nolan's memory - especially his long-term memory - still was pretty good. When I later double-checked dates and jersey number and the scores of games, he was right every time. A year and a half later, however, Ann would no longer be able to care for him and Dick would be forced to move into an assisted living facility eight miles from their home.

Toward the end of the interview, I helped Ann clear away a few plates - she had made me cookies and lemonade - and in private I asked her whether Dick's Alzheimer's was related to football. No one knew for sure, she said, but that Dick had had a number of concussions and blows to the head over his career. There was a strong suspicion among family members that one had led to the other. The interview ended much like it had begun - with Dick walking me to my car on that hot, hot day and seeing me off.

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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