Lord of the rings

Posted Jan. 26, 2011 @ 8:26 p.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

The man with the most Super Bowl rings on the planet — enough to cover most of the fingers on both of his hands — flies so far beneath the radar that you probably haven't heard of him. You definitely haven't heard from him, even if you knew or worked with him.

How far below is he? Tracking him down proves to be quite a chore. One former co-worker thinks he lives in Florida. One coach who spent several years with him thinks he moved out West. Another coach thinks he might have passed away a few years back. All of these men are still in the NFL. He has completely dropped from sight, it seems.

Jim Saccomano, the public-relations maven and historian, a man who knows everything there is to know about the Denver Broncos, has no ideas of where to look. Neither does George Seifert, who spent more than 15 years by his side, winning title after title. One dead end after another. The message is nearly the same every time: Great guy. Terrific scout. Enjoyed working with him. Lost touch years ago. Please tell him I said hello if you find him.

And so goes the journey to track down Neal Dahlen, recipient of seven Super Bowl rings, more than any man alive. (More for the time being, anyway. Keep reading.) He's the Greek God of Roman numerals, and no one seems to know where he is these days.

The former coaching assistant/director of research and development/football administrator/scout/contract negotiator/financial liaison for the 49ers (yes, he wore all those hats at one point or another) and later the director of player personnel, general manager and director of football administration for the Broncos had a prolific football career that lasted 39 seasons, 24 of them in the NFL. Yet, you probably wouldn't know him if he was next to you in line at the grocery store — or more aptly, if he was teeing off in the foursome ahead of you.

Yes, he's alive. After two dozen cell-phone calls, e-mails and text messages, a step backward in technology terms yields a promising lead: It's a home number listed in the White Pages, naturally. It's only fitting that the method of tracking down Dahlen, who lives outside Denver, is executed through mostly anti-technological means. When it comes down to it, he's a throwback scout from another time. Dahlen might not have used computers to scout, but boy, could he pick out talent.

Dahlen didn't leave the game that long ago, last working in the NFL in 2002, and his approach to life and football appear to be in near lockstep: with simplicity, harmony and few regrets. He's had as successful a pro football career as anyone ever if championships are the barometer.

"I'm retired. My wife died in 2007. I live alone in a big house," Dahlen said by phone in January. "When the weather is good, I play golf. And when the weather is like it is today, then I can't."

Dahlen, who never sought the spotlight in the NFL despite being an integral member of some of the most successful teams in history, is even farther away from the glare today. He's about as likely to show up at an NFL event as he is to boast about his tremendous career: which is to say, never.

"I've never been the kind of guy who said, 'Well, I'll go over and watch practice or something like that.' The last day I was on a practice field, I was getting paid for it, and it's probably the last day I'll ever be on one."

He's not hiding, either, mind you. Dahlen just has no reason to make himself known anymore.

"I got a Christmas card from (former 49ers GM) John McVay, he's doing fine," Dahlen said. "But I didn't call him because I really don't have anything to say.

"I try not to bother anybody else, and I am fine with that."

*      *      *

A former San Jose State quarterback, Dahlen broke into the NFL in 1979 with the 49ers as a coaching assistant after 15 years of coaching high school and college. When he arrived in San Francisco, few knew it at the time, but he was joining a team that would embark on a dynasty for the ages. Bill Walsh and McVay were building a redoubtable monster in the 49ers, up from the bottom — with great players, coaches, scouts and administrators — and after moving to scouting, Dahlen was at their side on the ascent of this legendary franchise.

They went to the playoffs 13 out of 15 years from 1981 to 1995, Dahlen's final year in San Francisco, and won five Super Bowls: XVI, XIX, XXIII, XXIV and XXIX. McVay put together the roster with Walsh's vision, but it was far from an autocracy. Dahlen was nurtured in the pro game by McVay and Tony Razzano, the team's college scouting director, whom Dahlen calls "my scouting idol." From '79 to '81, the staff drafted nine of the 22 starters — including Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott — from Super Bowl XVI. They were building the best team of the 1980s.

"Tony Razzano, his way of scouting to me was by far the best," Dahlen said. "You watch the player; don't talk to anybody else about him until after you put your grade on him. The only way you could change it is to watch more film."

The entire staff would do this separately and then average out everyone's draft grades to come up with a gross rating for every pro prospect. This consensus method of evaluation only got better over time, too. In '86, the 49ers had one of the all-time draft hauls, landing Larry Roberts, Tom Rathman, Tim McKyer, John Taylor, Charles Haley, Steve Wallace, Kevin Fagan and Don Griffin in the first six rounds — the next generation of Niners greats that won three more Super Bowls.

"(Dahlen) was a wonderfully capable guy," Seifert said. "There wasn't a thing he didn't do around there. Bill (Walsh) wanted him on the sidelines as an extra set of eyes in practice. He scouted. He did some of our clock (management) on game days. He helped out wherever was needed."

The good times rolled through the early 1990s, and Dahlen was a part of something special. A dynasty was in place, and Montana had handed off — metaphorically, though not very willingly — to Steve Young. Mike Shanahan came on in '92, running the offense to near perfection for three years. It appeared the salad days would never end.

But for Dahlen, change was coming down the line. Dwight Clark, author of "The Catch" that allowed the 49ers to advance to XVI, had retired and moved into the front office. Some believe he unfairly leapfrogged the unsung worker bees such as Dahlen and Razzano and was using his name as one of the most popular 49ers — his No. 87 jersey was retired after he called it a career in '87 — to move up the front-office totem pole quickly.

Naturally, humble as he is, Dahlen chooses not to badmouth any of his former coworkers. But his son, Tim, most gladly will. Probably his most ardent and impassioned supporter, as sons are wont to be, Tim Dahlen feels like his father was railroaded out of town, caught in the midst of a power struggle.

"There were some not good people in that organization, I'll tell you that right there," Tim said. "They would rather have had a dozen (director of college scouting) Vinny Cerrato types come in who did not know what they were doing. That's what eventually drove my dad away from the 49ers."

The effect was felt. The 49ers sunk a few years later, falling to four- and six-win seasons in 1999 and 2000, their lowest point since when Dahlen arrived, and the front-office and ownership situations were turning a bit ugly. "When I arrived (in '97), all anyone talked about was how much he did: personnel, work during practice, he (helped the coaches) with clock management stuff during games," said Marty Mornhinweg, the 49ers' offensive coordinator at the time. "He had done just about everything. People missed him there.

"He must have had something special because everywhere he went, he won."

Shanahan got the Broncos' head-coaching job in 1995, and a year later he was able to bring over Dahlen, rescuing him from the awkward situation in San Francisco. Dahlen was brought in specifically to rebuild the Broncos' defense, which was middling at best the season before, and do so within the confines of the then-new salary cap. In the draft, they landed John Mobley and Tory James in '96 and Trevor Pryce in '97, and they signed free agents Alfred Williams, Bill Romanowski, Neil Smith, Keith Traylor and Darrien Gordon to round out what would be the most underrated element of the two-time champion Broncos in John Elway's final two seasons.

When the 49ers' front office later restructured and Walsh returned to the team as GM, they sought to bring Dahlen back to the front office. But Shanahan stonewalled them, saying Dahlen was his general manager with a long-term contract and would not be going anywhere. He knew a good thing when he saw it.

*      *      *

Dahlen isn't one to start the conversation about the good old days, but get him going and watch out. He can tell a story or two. He'll tell you about the week of practice where not a single Montana pass hit the ground. ("I had never seen anything like it," he said.) Dahlen can talk at length about the philosophies of noted OL coaches Bobb McKittrick with the 49ers and Alex Gibbs of the Broncos, both of whom sought smaller, quicker linemen when the league trend was to go bigger. Ask about the strike season of '87, and Dahlen will laugh at having to fill a roster with scab players and thanking the heavens that Montana was among the first stars to cross the picket line to rejoin the 49ers.

He'll talk about all of that and the passion he got from the game in the early days, watching his quarterback idols and wanting to mimic their every move. "I remember loving to watch Johnny Unitas. Watched him play at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco," Dahlen said. "Tobin Rote up in Green Bay. Frankie Albert was the first 49er quarterback, and then Y.A. Tittle took over for him. It was just a great line of guys."

He'll do all that ... he just won't talk about himself being anything special, always deferring the praise elsewhere.

"I have seven Super Bowl rings, and only three quarterbacks had anything to do with that and they're all in the Hall of Fame (Montana, Young and Elway)," he said. "There is correlation with having seven rings and having those three.

"Football is so competitive in the NFL. The game changes, and the coaches adapt. But the players win the games."

The truth of the matter is that at least one person has been associated with more NFL world championships, and it's believed to be George Halas, with his eight titles. But there's something about the Super Bowl ring. It's the most iconic piece of jewelry in sports, as close as there is to the Hope Diamond in the NFL. Only 44 designs, one from each of the past Super Bowls, exist, each one more bedecked than the next.

And yet for Dahlen, they hold little value beyond the memories they evoke. All seven Super Bowl rings currently sit in a safety-deposit box in a bank, rarely seeing the light of day. You could argue his most cherished piece of jewelry over the years was not the ornate, 70-gram yellow-gold ring from Super Bowl XXXIII with more than five carats worth of diamonds, the final ring Dahlen won, nor even the more classically designed XVI ring with its 90-point diamond centerpiece and the superimposed Golden Gate Bridge embossed in 10-carat gold, which was Dahlen's first.

Instead, his most endeared personal effect during that time was a chrome-and-fake-gold Citizen Quartz watch he picked up after it was unclaimed from the lost and found at Hillsdale (Calif.) High School, where he was teaching physical education, back in 1970. The watch hugged to his wrist with its elastic-stretch metal band then just as it did until a few years back when it finally "met its maker," Tim Dahlen said. It served far more daily purpose, Neal Dahlen felt, keeping excellent time, than the showy rings he received all through his career — and not just from the Super Bowl.

"That old watch sits on his nightstand, I believe, and it's right next to Pro Bowl watches, championship game rings, all this fancy jewelry he received," Tim said, "stuff he never wanted to wear."

The only time Neal would put them on, Tim said, would be to inspire his players before a big game. He'd slip a ring on prior to jumping on the team bus or in an elevator at the team hotel and promptly take it off when the players were not around.

"Well, they (mean something) when you get them," he said. "As far as wearing them, they're too big. They're sort of ostentatious, I think. Unless you're on a football trip with your team, then that was appropriate to wear them. But to go to church with a Super Bowl ring, it just seems out of place to me. So I never did that.

"I may not even get them out again until I die and my family gets them out and gives them to my grandkids."

*      *      *

It had been 18 months since the rings had come out, and that was only because one of his friends asked Dahlen to show them to her son. He was happy to oblige, but back in they soon went. A recent photo request for this story sent him back to the bank, but brandishing the rings sent no more new emotions through him.

"They'll always look the same," he said.

"Neal is a very generous, simple, loyal and all-around great man," said Jen Dahlen, Tim's wife and Neal's daughter-in-law. "He has had such big success but would never bring it up."

Instead, he spends his time between golf when it's warm and his family, no matter the weather. His garage is filled with golf balls — "Maybe 3,000 or more," Tim said. "Even the kitty-litter boxes are filled with them" — and canned tomatoes. Whenever Neal Dahlen sees a buy-one-get-one-free deal, he grabs two of everything.

Most of the golf balls and tomatoes end up in family members' hands, but his charity extends beyond the bizarre. Three of his four children live close by, and every Saturday morning without fail, he delivers a dozen doughnuts to each of their front doors. "That simple goodness is such a part of him," Jen Dahlen said.

And that goodness leaves him with no bitter feelings of how his Broncos days ended, either. Owner Pat Bowlen was fond of college scouting director Ted Sundquist and wanted to fend off teams seeking him as a GM. Bowlen asked Dahlen if he could give Sundquist the GM job and make Dahlen the director of football operations at the same salary. He accepted and even got a long-term deal out of it. "I just kept working on my own, as it were," Dahlen said. "Watched a lot of tape and did contracts, things like that. Not quite the same as it was, but not much different either."

But in 2002, Bowlen approached him again, offering him a new role: Going on the road every week to scout college players, the way Packers GM Ron Wolf did. But at 62, the idea didn't appeal too much to Dahlen. "Who wants to go traveling around the country all fall? So I said, 'You know, I don't think I would like to do that.'"

Instead, Shanahan — who didn't want to lose Dahlen but understood the dilemma — offered Dahlen early retirement. He accepted and never looked back. "The golf course was waiting," he said.

Dahlen follows the NFL game closely even today, although from afar. He sits in his big house on Sundays and watches the games on satellite.

"I've had enough plane rides and bus rides and commutes to the home games that there's no reason to do it anymore when you're more comfortable at home when you can watch two or three games," Dahlen said. "It's wonderful."

He also knows what might happen on Feb. 6. That, of course, is Super Bowl Sunday. If the Steelers beat the Packers, it means that Dahlen no longer would stand alone with his unprecedented mark of seven rings. Joining him would be Steelers administrators Dan Rooney and Art Rooney Jr., along with Chuck Noll, Bill Nunn and Joe Greene, who are members of the organization, honorary or otherwise.

Tim would not be happy to see his father's 13-year run of being the king of the rings end because he doesn't feel that his father's legacy has been recognized properly. Indeed: For a man with seven Super Bowl appearances and seven rings in 24 years in the NFL, most of them with big winners, he's shockingly unknown.

"All of us in the family feel he hasn't received the respect he's deserved," Tim said. "They say, 'Oh, he was just a scout,' or whatever. He helped build two dynasties. He was a coach's assistant. He was the best contract guy out there when the salary cap started.

"I can't believe more people don't recognize what he did in his career."

But the more you talk to Neal Dahlen, the more you realize that's just fine with him.