John McVay was the reluctant star, the behind-the-scenes cog to the 49ers' championship foundation.
His ability to work the phones, recognize talent when others didn't and cobble together rosters as the right-hand man to good friend and coaching giant Bill Walsh meant McVay had a paramount role in San Francisco winning five Super Bowl championships. With humor and reflection, McVay regularly deferred credit to players, coaches and other front-office men when the 49ers set a gold standard of achievement in ruling the NFL landscape in the 1980s and into the '90s.
Now it's McVay's moment in the sun. The retired executive will be inducted into the 49ers' Hall of Fame on Oct. 12. The only one to be enshrined this season, McVay will attend today's news conference at 49ers headquarters in Santa Clara, where he expects to defer some more.
"I've been gone for a while from the franchise, so I thought they'd forget (how) to spell my name," McVay cracked from his Granite Bay home. "I'm very honored, very humbled. This means a great deal to me."
Typical McVay, he downplayed the significance of the tribute.
"There are (23) guys in that Hall of Fame, and most of them are superstars," McVay said, "not guys who sit behind a desk."
From that desk at Candlestick Park, high above the field, McVay's titles included general manager, vice president and assistant to the president. Perhaps the best way to describe him was this: invaluable resource to Walsh.
Said the late Walsh years ago, "It's quite possible that the 49ers would not have won five Super Bowls had it not been for John McVay."
In McVay's Placer County home, a cherished Walsh photo is autographed with these words: "My lasting friend. You are the master."
It was McVay whom Walsh first called in 1979 to join him in an effort to resurrect the downtrodden 49ers. And it was McVay who helped bridge the gap between Joe Montana of Notre Dame and the 49ers months later. Walsh asked McVay to look into why Montana was slipping in that '79 draft, and McVay placed an immediate call to an old coaching friend with the Irish. He spoke to Bill Gruden, whose son Jon was a teenager then and went on to coach Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl championship in 2002.
Bill Gruden's advice to McVay on Montana: "Just take him."
McVay relayed the word to Walsh, and the 49ers selected Montana in the third round in what became one of the great coups in NFL history.
In that same draft, the 49ers found another gem in Dwight Clark, snagging him in the 10th round because Walsh and McVay needed a wide receiver to catch passes for another quarterback prospect and liked the Clemson player.
McVay also orchestrated the 49ers' training camp move to Sierra College in 1981. Each of the 49ers' title teams were rooted in Rocklin.
It was Walsh who urged Montana to either hit Clark in the back of the end zone with a high pass behind the coverage or throw it away in the closing seconds against Dallas in the 1981 NFC Championship Game in San Francisco.
Clark made "The Catch" just as McVay was preventing a police horse from kicking or stepping on frantic club owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. on the sideline. The 49ers went on to beat Cincinnati in Super Bowl XVI, and a dynasty was born.
McVay presided over a front office that was masterful in acquisitions via the draft, trades or free agency, including some of the club's greatest names: Ronnie Lott, Fred Dean, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig, John Taylor, Steve Young and Charles Haley.
Retired 49ers center and captain Randy Cross once said McVay was "the glue to our organization."
McVay, 82, worked two stints with the 49ers, retiring for good in 2004. He and wife, Susan, travel often, including spending a week in Hawaii during the 49ers' Super Bowl visit last season. McVay passionately follows the franchise and said he's excited about the stadium project in Santa Clara.
"I saw it a few weeks ago," McVay said. "It's big and beautiful, but it doesn't sit there like a big albatross. I think there will be a lot more memories there."