The 49ers and I grew up together
It’s just a damned football team, but like the Boston Red Sox, the San Francisco 49ers have a special meaning for me — and it has a lot to do with my dad.
My first memory of the 49ers was when they were shocked in the postseason in 1972, losing in the playoffs to the Dallas Cowboys when they had a 28-16 lead with two minutes left in the game. This was the beginning of a long slide and heartbreak for the Niners. In 1976, the Niners started 6-1 and were the hottest team in the NFL, but then they remembered they were the 49ers and ended up 8-6, missing the playoffs. The Niners went 15-43 over the next four years.
My dad died in 1981, I was just a kid. Obviously, it was a bad year for me, not only did my dad — a four-pack-a-day smoker — die of lung cancer, but my mom fell into a deep pit of despair. It went wayyy beyond normal grief, a lot of talk about killing herself and putting an end to it all. I felt ignored. I was too young to know how to deal with it, I was mostly just angry.
Then, along came the 49ers. My dad hated the 49ers, because he hated San Francisco, because it was full of liberals, hippies and gays … which is maybe why I became a 49ers fan — to spite him. But, it was something for me to care about and take my cares away from the real world, if only for three hours a week.
I remember when the 49ers became a big deal with early in the season, when they beat the Dallas Cowboys 45-14. The Cowboys were a consensus pick to win the Super Bowl that year and were obnoxious as all get out; this is when they began they asinine “America’s Team” bullshit. I started thinking, “hey, these guys might actually be for real.”
The Niners ended up crushing everyone that year behind this new kid Joe Montana and then won — for me personally — the greatest game in the history of the NFL in early 1982, beating the cocky-ass annoying Cowboys in the NFC championship with Dwight Clark’s spectacular “catch” with 58 seconds left. For a moment, it was a respite of what I was going through with my mom and my dad’s death.
The Niners went on to win the Super Bowl, and my love affair began with the Niners. Honestly, when I think of the Niners, I think of that awful year after my dad died and dealing with a mom deep in the throes of clinical depression, while I was just beginning high school. It was too much, too young, but the 49ers actually helped get me through those difficult months.
As you know, they won 5 Super Bowls over the next 14 years. The entered an era of excellence no other team in the NFL has sustained for so long. They won 239 games in 22 years, made the postseason 18 times and the NFC title game 10 times. No one has ever been that good for that long.
There’s more memories than I can count. The goal line stand in the fourth quarter of the 1982 Super Bowl, the monster season in which they beat Dan Marino in the Super Bowl, the up-and-down season (which had 50-yard touchdown runs by both Roger Craig and Steve Young to win games and a 70-yard bomb from Joe Montana to Jerry Rice in the final seconds to win a game) in which they beat Chicago in the NFC championship in Chicago then won the Super Bowl in the final seconds on a pass to John Taylor, Joe Montana getting knocked out — twice — in the NFC championship game, the most dominant season ever by any team when they beat Denver in the Super Bowl 55-10, the incredible battles against the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants.
After a couple of crushing, heartbreaking defeats in the NFC championship, the Niners rose again under Steve Young to beat the Cowboys in two incredible games in 1994, and went on to win the Super Bowl. Throughout this whole era, you simply expected the 49ers to win each and every game. They didn’t. But, you expected it … and when they didn’t, it was a shock. I could see why the rest of the NFL came to hate the 49ers during this era. Their swagger was unparalleled.
Then, disaster struck. First, their owner Ed DeBartolo Jr., got busted for trying to bribe the governor of Louisiana to build a riverboat casino, then the NFL took the team away from DeBartolo and handed it to his sister, Denise York.
DeBartolo was allowed by the NFL to take control of the 49ers again, but his sister and her husband, John York, would have nothing of it. Eddie was out of the picture … and with the Yorks running the team, the 49ers went into a long and painful decline beginning in 2002. The 49ers have not been in the playoffs for 9 years, and during that time, the team hasn’t just been bad, they’ve been an embarrassment. The Yorks are painfully inept owners; they hired bad general managers, and even worse coaches … and then, worst of all, after hiring bad people, they did the worst thing owners can do, they meddled. Several surveys listed them as the worst owners in the NFL.
During the next 8 years, the 49ers only won 46 games. They were arguably the worst franchise in the NFL. Frankly, it got hard to keep caring about them. Bad owners, bad team, bad coaches and shitty stadium. They hired an offensive coordinator, Mike Martz, who brought in his personal hand-picked quarterback from Detroit, some schmoe named J.T. O’Sullivan, who proceeded to the turn the ball over 17 times in 7 games and had to be benched. I don’t think Martz’s “wunderboy” is even in the league anymore.
To me, the nadir of the team was Mike Singletary. Constant delay of game penalties. Unbelievably bad offences and play-calling. Horrendous play clock management. Constantly changing quarterbacks. He once called a running play up the middle in a close game when the 49ers were on the 3-yard with 10 seconds left to play and no time outs. The runner got stopped at the 2-yard-line and time ran out before the 49ers could spike the ball to stop the clock. And a field goal would have tied it. How bad is that?
The 49ers still play in a crap stadium, and are likely moving 40 miles south to Santa Clara, but this year, a funny thing happened. Despite the crap stadium, the crap owners, the team got good. All those high draft picks started paying off (plus two or three surprisingly good free agent signings — Justin Smith and Braylon Edwards.). A couple of years ago, co-owner John York was removed as President of the team by the team’s board of directors. That maybe had something to do with the 49ers finally getting on their feet.
The 49ers are 8-1 this year and have won two monster games against good teams — Detroit and New York Giants — arguably the two best games of the year in the NFL (they also beat a 6-3 Cincinnati team). They are winning with a ferocious defence that simply doesn’t let teams run the ball and a monster running game. They are No. 1 in the NFL for fewest points allowed — by quite a bit. Alex Smith, their No. 1 draft pick from 2005, is playing the best football of his career, and a fiery young coach, Jim Harbaugh, seems to have a plan. After the disasters of Dennis Erickson, Jim Nolan and Singletary, the 49ers seem to have found a coach with a semblance of a clue.
Alex has had a sad sack career. He was the No. 1 draft pick, taken about 20 picks ahead of Aaron Rodgers, but then floundered over the next several years. He has shown flashes (especially when Norv Turner was his offensive coordinator for one year), but he’s played for four head coaches and SEVEN offensive coordinators in seven years. None of those head coaches were offensive coaches until Jim Harbaugh came along. He had a major shoulder injury early in his career, then was forced to play with it when his idiot coach Nolan questioned his toughness. I remember the game. Alex came back to play and couldn’t throw the ball worth a damn because he was in so much pain. He screwed up his shoulder even worse and required surgery. Nolan was fired less than a year later. You don’t fuck with a permanent injury to your No. 1 draft pick like that. Nolan will never be a head coach again as a result.
Singletary was almost as bad, switching back and forth between Alex, David Carr and some guy named Troy Smith. It was like Singletary couldn’t figure out who he wanted to play quarterback. Troy Smith is a terrible QB and is barely in the league anymore.
Alex survived all that to have the best year of his career this season. He doesn’t throw a lot, but he doesn’t make mistakes — only three INTs in 9 games. He is on pace for his first 3,000-yard season and 20-TD season, and just keeps proving his detractors wrong every week.
The 49ers will definitely win their division and make the postseason and host a first-round game. They have a five-game lead with seven games left. One of the best descriptions I’ve seen of them is “a team no one wants to play.” The question now is, can they pick up the No. 2 seed in the NFC? That’s a distinct possibility, as they have a two-game lead over the next best team — New Orleans.
I seriously doubt the 49ers will make the Super Bowl this year. That would mean getting past Green Bay, at Lambeau, but this is an exciting year nonetheless, an incredible leap in one year from a laughingstock for nearly a decade to one of the most feared teams in the NFL. After a near decade of almost total ineptitude, the 49ers are fun … and interesting … and most all, relevant.
Takes me back to 1981!