As a kid growing up in Junction City, Oregon, a half-hour north of Eugene, Justin Wilcox knew his father had played professional football but that was not a daily theme of the family’s life.
“I never knew him as a football player because I was not even born,” Wilcox said. “He was a farmer.”
Dave Wilcox played 11 seasons for the 49ers, was seven times a Pro Bowl linebacker and was twice first-team All-Pro. But Dad was not a post-football millionaire after his playing days ended in 1974.
“It was a good job in those days,” Justin said, “then you had to go to work.”
Dave and Merle ran the farm, together with sons Josh and Justin, where they raised, at various times, cabbage, corn, bush beans, sugar beets, strawberries and grass seed.
Contributing to the family business was a given. Justin was in charge of the cherry trees for a time, his mom said, but there was one annual chore he hated.
“We used to have to put the fires out after they’d burn the mint field,” he recalled. “I hate mint for that.”
Young Justin was learning life lessons that had had nothing to do with football, but inform the way he now operates as Cal’s second-year head coach.
“Really the only rules we grew up with were you work hard and if you start something, you never quit,” he said.
At Cal, which faces Stanford on Saturday in the 121st Big Game, Wilcox calls effort and toughness the “non-negotiables.”
Merle Wilcox recalls young Justin trying to learn how to work a hula hoop.
“He wouldn’t stop until he could get that hula hoop going,” his mom recalled.
“He was just a child that persevered at everything he did.”
Said his father, “We had put up a basketball hoop when he was little and he would stand there in the dark and the rain until he made his free throws.”
In high school, Justin didn’t initially want to play quarterback.
“But he kind of knew what everybody was supposed to do,” his dad explained. “Coach said, `Hey, Justin, I want you to be quarterback.’ Then he worked his tail off to make sure he was good.”
As a junior, Wilcox led Junction City High to the Oregon state title.
Even so, football was not all-consuming in the Wilcox household. Justin, at that point, still had just a general idea how good Dad was as a player.
“We didn’t talk about it a lot, nor did we come down to go to 49ers games,” Justin said. “We would go to games (locally), but it was never about him.”
Justin earned a scholarship to Oregon, following in the steps of his Dad and brother, Josh, who later played tight end for two seasons in the NFL. When he was buried on the Oregon depth chart at quarterback, Justin moved to safety, then to cornerback.
Dave Wilcox was a regular at Autzen Stadium.
“He never missed a game, but he never said a word,” Justin said. “Never once, `Why’d you throw that ball? Why’d you miss that tackle?’ Never, ever, ever, ever.”
Justin has enduring regard for his Dad, in all ways. Dave has hands so large that his son admits, “I’m 42 years old and every time I shake his hands I feel like a little kid.”
But he also admires how his father emerged from a hard beginning. Dave Wilcox’s family had moved from the Midwest to eastern Oregon and built a life off the land. “They were as poor as Grapes of Wrath,” Justin said. “Dust Bowl. Moved out and had nothing.”
From that unlikely starting point, Dave Wilcox was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000, just after Justin had finished school at Oregon.
On the day the scheduled phone call came to the house with the news, Dave was not home. “He went to the store to get doughnuts,” his son recalled.
Dave Wilcox was part of an imposing Hall of Fame Class: Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Howie Long and owner Dan Rooney, and his new-found status changed his life. A quarter-century after his career ended, Wilcox suddenly was a celebrity, being paid to attend memorabilia shows and sign autographs.
For Justin, the occasion gave him the chance to see just how great a player his dad was through old game films assembled for the Hall of Fame ceremony.
“He was a very fundamental player. He played really physical,” Justin said. “He was pretty impressive.”
The Hall of Fame experience also provided a reminder of how to live your life.
Justin said his dad is very humbled by his Hall of Fame membership because he understands what an honor it is.
“But it’s not like, `Everybody get out of my way now.’ Same guy,” Justin said. “He was one of the best players at his position that’s ever played. But the way he treats other people, he doesn’t act like he’s better than anybody. So, who am I to not be humble?”
Merle says Dave and Justin are cut from the same cloth.
“Dave is very calm and quiet. Very even-tempered,” she said. “Justin’s a lot like Dave.”
Dave, now 76, shrugs at the comparison. Justin is too respectful to accept the compliment.
One thing they all agree on, Justin didn’t inherit Merle’s effervescent nature.
“She’s the polar opposite,” Justin said. “Really loud, Southern, competitive.”
“I’m the intense one. I’m out there a little bit,” Merle agreed, noting that even now she cannot watch Cal’s games live on TV. She records them, then watches later. If the Bears won.
Mom appreciates her son’s quiet leadership style. “You don’t see him running up and down the sidelines, going crazy . . . like I would do,” she said.
But Merle loves Berkeley and her son’s team.
“I am so proud of him,” she said. “I just think that team is just awesome. There are some things that could be better, but you work to the strengths of your club. I’ve watched enough football that I can understand it.”
Dave Wilcox enjoys watching the Bears compete.
“The way they won seven games this year is everybody played to win the game,” he said. “They don’t say, `Shucks.’ They work their tail off. The other team probably wants to win, too, right? They just hang in there, and all of a sudden something good happens.”
Wilcox concedes the Bears may not always be the most physically talented team on the field, but he appreciates how his son’s players merge fundamentals with determination.
“That’s kind of what I did,” he said.