What do the 49ers mean to me?
I totally understand not giving a damn about sports, and I totally understand a sports team being a big part of one’s life. I know a guy who just goes crazy if his team gets in the baseball postseason; you literally cannot even speak to him about his team. He throws chairs when his team loses, he refuses to watch them in a bar because there might be people cheering for the other team.
I find that a little nuts. But, one team that has always meant a lot to me through good times and bad are the San Francisco 49ers.
I grew up in Fresno, about three hours from San Francisco. We got all the Niners games on TV as a kid, most people in Fresno were either 49ers or Raiders fans when I grew up there.
Maybe because they won their first Super Bowl the year my dad died. It was a few months after he died that they won. See, dad actually hated the 49ers. He was a big Rams fan. I asked him one time why he hated them so much and he said it was because San Francisco was full of queers and liberals (seriously, this is how his mind worked). I couldn’t believe that. I couldn’t believe you would hate a sports team over politics (or the sexual orientation of some of its residents … never mind the fact that L.A. has its own rather large gay community..?)
I think that was when I began cheering for the 49ers, to spite dad. I always cheered for the teams that he cheered for until then. The first year I remember getting excited about the 49ers was 1976. They got off to a hot start — 6-1 — and looked a sure playoff team after three straight losing seasons. Their quarterback was Jim Plunkett (that’s right, Plunkett played a year or two for the Niners), but then the team finished 2-5, ended up 8-6, still a winning record, but out of the playoffs.
What followed was an atrocious stretch of football. The 49ers became the worst team in the NFL, going 4-28 at one stretch. They became a joke, a laughingstock.
My dad died in July 1981. I didn’t really have anyone to talk to about it, Mom slipped off into a dark hole of depression that she didn’t pull out of for years. I didn’t talk to my friends at school about it. I just sort of internalized it all.
The 49ers didn’t start out anything special that season; they got off to a 1-2 start, then won a couple games in a row to go to 3-2. I didn’t start taking the 49ers seriously again until their next game when they destroyed the Dallas Cowboys 45-14. The Cowboys were the most cocky, obnoxious team in the NFL; they were the most dominant team in the NFC and had been for 10 years, winning two Super Bowls and going to three others since 1971, and the 49ers had just annihilated them. It was probably the team’s biggest win in a decade.
I started to believe in them again, and started looking forward to the next week’s 49ers game. They rattled off a bunch of mostly close, exciting wins over the rest of the season and went into the playoffs at 13-3. It had been their best season since 1972, and of course, their new star, Joe Montana, was the toast of the entire NFL. He was doing things no quarterback had ever done in the NFL. The entire offence centered around him. The 49ers had virtually no running game.
The 49ers easily won their first playoff game against the Giants and then faced the hated, cocky Cowboys again. I remember Butch Johnson boldly predicting a Cowboys win before the game. Wait a minute, the 49ers killed them last time, where did he get off? I remember thinking.
It was a very tense, back and forth game. Montana actually didn’t play well; I think he threw three interceptions, but it came down to the final drive and of course, everyone knows “The Catch.” I was watching it at my brothers’ house. I couldn’t believe it when the 49ers blew the kickoff and kicked it out of bounds and gave the Cowboys the ball at the 40, with almost a minute left. Oh, here we go. The 49ers never win, they’ve never won anything, here comes the choke. But, the defence held and the Niners were off to the Super Bowl. I couldn’t believe it. The 49ers NEVER won. They never won anything, they had never won a single championship, nor even played in championship game in their entire existence.
The next week was almost an anti-climax. The 49ers steamrolled the Bengals 20-0 in the first half, but then let them back in the game in the second half. The Niners held on a goal-line stand nursing a 26-14 lead and that was it. The 49ers were world champions.
And for a while, I forgot about my dad’s death. It didn’t sting so much, at least that year. The 49ers helped me get through that year.
I’ve witnessed almost all the highlights and lowlights of the 49ers over the past 30 years. They are all seared into my memory, even after all these years. Ronnie Lott severing a finger on a tackle — yeah, I actually saw that. Steve Young getting knocked completely out on a tackle. The wars with the Giants and Cowboys. Jim Everett curling up in a little ball because he was afraid of getting sacked … only no 49er was within 5 yards of him. I saw it all.
* The 1983 season. The 49ers made it back to the NFC championship after a down year, got steamrolled early by the Redskins, but Montana brought them back to make it close at the end. The 49ers got robbed by the refs, who made a terrible call late in the fourth quarter, calling Ronnie Lott for holding when a Washington receiver ran right into him. That call cost the 49ers a trip to the Super Bowl.
* The 1984 season, in which they went 15-1, but were actually underdogs going into the Super Bowl against an unstoppable phenom Dan Marino, who had thrown for 5,000 yards and 48 TDs. Well, the Dolphins had no defence, and the 49ers did and Marino was helpless as San Francisco won easily. What I remember about that game is Montana actually had 60 yards rushing.
* The 1989 Super Bowl against Cincinnati. I was living way out in the boonies of far Northern California and had no TV. There was no cable where I lived. So, on a bitterly cold and snowy day, I drove out to a nearby golf course, which thankfully had the game on in their bar. I spent the day at the golf course bar with about four or five other people eating free mini-tacos watching as Montana again brought the Niners back and won with a TD pass to John Taylor with 30 seconds left. It was the first Super Bowl decided by a touchdown in the final two minutes.
1988 was a really weird year for the Niners. They were actually up and down all year, looked awful at times, went back and forth between Montana and Steve Young. One game they only scored 3 points. They won one game on a 50-yard run by Young in the final seconds and won another game on an 80-yard pass by Montana against the Giants in the final seconds. Roger Craig had an incredible 50-yard run that same season that helped win a game. Finally, they rattled off five straight wins near the end of the year to barely make the playoffs, then they completely dominated a 14-2 team in Chicago in the NFC title game.
* The 1990 Super Bowl against Denver. Probably the most dominant team ever, at least the most dominant 49ers team. I’ll never forget the NFC championship game, watching it over at my boss’s house. The Niners had beaten the Rams, who were actually pretty good at the time, once that year with a pair of 90-yard touchdown catches by John Taylor.
My boss was a big Rams fan and gave me all kinds of shit all year long about the Niners. That was the infamous “phantom sack” game with Rams quarterback Jim Everett. His entire career is defined by that one play. Everett had been sacked by the Niners four or five times already and late in the game, he went back to pass and simply curled up in a fetal position with no 49ers within five yards of him. Everett never got over that and in fact punched out Jim Rome for calling him “Chrissie Everett” on TV a couple of years later. The Super Bowl was actually pretty boring as San Francisco won 55-10.
What followed were a couple of frustrating seasons. The 49ers were the most dominant team in 1990 and seemed sure to go to another Super Bowl, but they actually got beat by Jeff Hostetler (Jeff Hostetler! WTF?) and the Giants. The 49ers dominated most of the game, but couldn’t score and had a lead of only 13-6 in the fourth quarter. Finally, Montana took one of the most vicious hits I’ve ever seen, getting hit from behind by Leonard Marshall and fumbling the ball. It was the last time Joe played for the 49ers. He left the game with a concussion and the 49ers lost when Roger Craig fumbled late in the game and the Giants recovered, drove down the field and won with a field goal.
After that came the big controversy over Montana vs. Young. Montana, who had reconstructive surgery on his elbow (I actually saw the game in which he hurt his elbow, it was in 1989 or 1990, it swelled up to the size of a grapefruit), was traded to Kansas City and Steve Young became the quarterback.
* In 1993, it appeared the Niners were headed to another Super Bowl, they had the best record in football, but got upset at home by the Cowboys. They just couldn’t stop them from scoring. The Cowboys finally had their revenge for 1981.
* 1994. The 49ers got their revenge back with a pair of incredible wins against the Cowboys, who had become the dominant team in the NFC again and again were really obnoxious and cocky. They got behind the Cowboys early in the regular season game, but by running Steve Young, they turned the tide. I remember what really turned it was an unsportsmanlike late hit penalty against the Cowboy for drilling Young in the head after he was down. The 49ers came back later and beat the Cowboys in the NFC championship, getting up 21-0 on a bunch of turnovers, then 31-14 when Young hit Jerry Rice on a huge touchdown pass at the end of the half. They held on at Dallas tried to rally, winning 38-28, then again, another anti-climatic Super Bowl against San Diego, winning 49-26.
That began a long, gradual decline by the 49ers. Their owner Eddie DeBartolo, got in all kinds of legal trouble for trying to open up a casino in New Orleans and got busted trying to bribe the governor of Louisiana. The league took the team away from Eddie and handed it to his sister Denise York. Two years later, Denise and her husband John could have given the team back to DeBartolo, but chose to keep it. The Yorks promptly ran the team straight into the ground.
The 49ers were still good most years, but they weren’t consistently good year in and year out and they weren’t good enough to get to the Super Bowl. They won a playoff game against Green Bay one year on a 40 yard pass in the final seconds from Young to Terrell Owens (what I remember about that play is earlier on the drive, Jerry Rice had an obvious fumble, but that was one of the years they had gotten rid of replay because it didn’t work well when they first tried it. With replay, Green Bay wins the game.). But, then Owens turned into a jackass after that year. Biggest primadonna in the history of sport, I swear. The 49ers seemed to hit rock bottom when Steve Young got completely knocked out, a hit that ended his career.
Jeff Garcia had a couple of good years for the Niners. I always thought he was kind of underrated. One of his problems was he was tiny for a quarterback, only weighed about 180 pounds. He had one incredible game in the 2002 playoffs, bringing the team back from 38-14 to beat the Giants 39-38. The Giants had a chance for a game winning field goal, flubbed the snap, then actually got a pass off downfield to Jeremy Shockey. The 49ers, who didn’t know what to do, tackled Shockey while the ball was in the air, but the refs didn’t call pass interference (I think they literally didn’t know the rules on that bizarre play themselves). Giants fans are still pissed about that play.
Then came a long slowwww slide into irrelevance. The 49ers became just plain bad. The Yorks were inept owners, they were playing in a crummy stadium, and they kept hiring bad coaches and GMs. Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan, Mike Singletary, all bad, bad coaches. People were literally begging the Yorks to please sell the team. The head of Cisco offered $1 billion for the 49ers to try and save the team from the Yorks. The 49ers went 46-82 over eight BAD years. It was hard to watch. There didn’t seem to be any hope with the Yorks owning the team.
Singletary was the worst of the bad coaches, bad play-calling, bad clock management, switching quarterbacks all the time. The nadir came one season in which the 49ers could have won a game against the Cardinals. They had time for a couple of plays, down 24-29 and decide to run the ball up the middle from the 4-yard-line. They gain two yards, the clock runs out, they lose. What were they thinking? It turns out Singletary didn’t realise they were on the 4. He thought they were on the 1-yard-line. If San Francisco had won that game, they would have actually made the postseason. Instead, the Cardinals won the division and nearly won the Super Bowl.
The Yorks finally removed John York from decision-making duties and their son Jed was made president of the team. Oh, great, promoting their son, I thought. But, it turns out he is a really good executive, and the 49ers have been making all the right moves for three years — hiring Jim Harbaugh, getting a new stadium in Santa Clara, letting the football people actually run the football team.
I wasn’t sure if this latest incarnation of the 49ers was any good until their incredible playoff win over the Saints last year. The two teams combined for four touchdowns in the last five minutes of the game. I’ve never been a huge Alex Smith fan, but that was an outstanding game by him; by far the highlight of his 49ers career.
I also wasn’t sure what to think when Harbaugh switched from Smith to Colin Kaepernick in midseason. My brother was a big Kaepernick fan, but I thought Smith, who somehow survived Nolan and Singletary to stick with the team through some very bleak times, was getting screwed. It turns out Harbaugh knew what he was doing, obviously he had seen Kaepernick in practise, and knew his upside was too high to ignore. I wish Smith well, whereever he ends up next year, probably the Jets or the Chiefs. He deserves a starting job somewhere.
But, for now, the 49ers are back. Back in the Super Bowl after an 18-year hiatus through some pretty dark seasons.
My 35-year romance with the 49ers.