Art Michalik, whose hit led Otto Graham to wear a facemask, dies at 91

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Art Michalik, an NFL linebacker who also had a noteworthy post-football career as a professional wrestler, has died at the age of 91.

The son of a Chicago cop, Michalik grew up in Chicago and then went on to play college football and wrestle at St. Ambrose in Iowa. There he gained recognition both from NFL teams and from wrestling coaches who wanted him to try out for the 1952 Olympic team.

Ultimately Michalik would enlist in the U.S. Marines after college before signing with the 49ers, where he was an All-Pro as a rookie in 1953. And it was during that rookie season when Michalik inadvertently made his biggest contribution to professional football by popularizing the facemask.

In a game against the Cleveland Browns, Michalik drilled the great Browns quarterback Otto Graham with a hit that left blood streaming down Graham’s face. Graham was taken to the locker room, and when he returned the equipment staff had attached a makeshift plexiglass face protector to Graham’s helmet. It wasn’t the first time a football player had worn a facemask, but it was that incident that made facemasks go from a rare and unusual sight on the football field to a quickly adopted standard piece of equipment.

Michalik was a hard hitter, but he and Graham agreed that there was no ill intent in the shot to Graham’s face.

“I made a dive for Graham and hit him with my elbow. I hope he’s all right. I certainly didn’t mean to hurt him,” Michalik said.

Graham said, “I don’t think he did it on purpose. Anything can happen in a game like that.”

The next year Michalik suffered a serious knee injury in a game against the Rams that left the 49ers decrying the Rams’ “dirty play,” and Michalik never played for the 49ers again. But Michalik did make it back on the football field, playing two more years with the Steelers.

After retiring from the NFL, Michalik took up professional wrestling and was a National Wrestling Alliance tag team champion. After that he became a high school teacher and longtime high school coach.

But it was that hit on Graham that will be Michalik’s lasting legacy. Many noses, jaws and orbital bones have been saved over the years because Michalik showed that football should not be played without face protection.