Anyone who knows me very well quickly learns that I’m a huge football fanatic – and have been for literally my whole life.
Family lore has it that my first words weren’t “Mommy” or “Daddy” - they were “Go Niners!”
This probably isn’t really true but it makes for a good story.
But it is true that as long as I can remember I’ve loved football. My dad was a big San Francisco 49ers fan and I quickly adopted them as my favorite team growing up in the Bay Area. I remember players from the early 70s 49ers teams such as John Brodie, Vic and Gene Washington and Ted Kwalik.
The 49ers were solid in those years – they made the playoffs but were usually knocked out by the Dallas Cowboys. As a matter of fact, I remember the playoff game in 1972 when the 49ers held a 28-13 lead in the 2nd half and Roger Staubach came off the bench to lead the Cowboys to 2 TDs in the final 3 minutes to beat the Niners 30-28. I locked myself in the bathroom and cried. And from that moment on I hated the Cowboys as much as I loved the 49ers. I still have in my possession a piece of artwork composed from 1st grade. In it I drew a football game between the 49ers and Cowboys (as best I could) and included a scoreboard that had the score of 49ers – 88; Cowboys 0. I guess that was the biggest score I could imagine as a 7 year old.
Anyway, you can see I was a pretty passionate fan from a young age. And as the 1970s progressed, one had to be a passionate fan to remain loyal to the 49ers as they quickly descended into a terrible team and franchise. Losing seasons compiled (think of today’s Raiders) and bottomed out with a couple of 2-14 seasons. They really sucked. But I didn’t care – I still jumped at any opportunity to attend a game in person with my Dad. We had an annual tradition for a few years where we would go to one of the 49ers exhibition games together as a birthday present (my birthday is the end of August). He would get tickets from his boss, who knew I was a huge fan. Even at a young age I knew the games didn’t count for anything, but it was still awesome seeing my 49ers live, in person.
Luckily for me and the rest of the 49er Faithful, Eddie Debartolo purchased the team and hired Bill Walsh away from Stanford as Head Coach and success soon followed. The team improved from 2-14 in 1979 to 6-10 in 1980 – I was just happy to see them competitive again after being so terrible for so many years. And then in 1981 the season all long-time 49ers fans remember happened. A quarterback by the name of Joe Montana was now a full time starter and Walsh had his “West Coast Offense” clicking. The 49ers stormed through the regular season – amazingly winning 13 of 16 regular season games….including a very satisfying 45-14 drubbing of the Cowboys (a year earlier Dallas beat up on SF 59-14). Still, when the playoff arrived, I’m not sure how many fans really knew or believed how good the 49ers really were. The 49ers took care of business in the first round as they dispatched the Giants at Candlestick Park, 38-24. Looming next: the Cowboys in a rematch.
One of my good friends at the time was also a passionate 49ers fan and we had a pact that if they ever made it to the NFC Championship Game at home, we would go to the game together. Even though we were only juniors in high school we still convinced our parents to let us drive to Candlestick Park alone and try to buy tickets from scalpers to watch the game. We arrived at the stadium almost 3 hours early because we had no idea how difficult (or expensive) it would be to buy tickets for this hotly anticipated match up. The winner of this game moved onto the Super Bowl – and this was the closest the 49ers had been since the Cowboys beat them in the earlier mentioned 1972 game. Amazingly, the first scalper we found was at end of the freeway exit and it was clear his mind wasn’t 100% clear because he offered to sell us a pair of tickets for $30 each (face value was $20). We bought the tickets and were lucky enough to be in attendance during one of the greatest NFL games ever played – one forever remembered for “The Catch.”
The 49ers vanquished the Cowboys and went on to win their first Super Bowl against the Bengals – and a new dynasty was born (although few realized it at the time). Debartolo built an organization that was the envy of the league as he was one of the first owners to spend heavily on luxury items such as chartered jets, upgraded facilities and offseason trips for players. Walsh was truly a coaching genius who was far ahead of most of the NFL coaches at the time. The 49ers were already an offensive juggernaut when they drafted Jerry Rice out of Mississippi Valley State in 1985.
I won’t recap Rice’s entire career here (plenty of others have done so) but his accomplishments and records are truly mind-boggling. His presence on the 49ers offense placed it into an entirely new dimension. Suddenly 10-15 yard slant passes that were originally designed for first downs were now potential touchdowns when Rice caught them. And Rice caught plenty of touchdowns.
This excerpt from The Examiner summarizes Rice’s achievements nicely:
Rice holds just about every important pass-catching record in the NFL. He made 1,549 catches (400 more than the next best mark). He gained 22,895 yards (7,600 better than the #2 man). He finished his career with 208 touchdowns, leaving Steve Largent’s TD reception mark (101) and Jim Brown’s overall touchdown record (126) in the dust.
He is the only NFL player in history with more than 20,000 receiving yards. He broke the NFL records of 21,264 yards from scrimmage and 21,804 all-purpose yards, both held previously by Walter Payton, the late great from Jackson State.
He made 10 All-Pro teams and 13 Pro Bowl teams and had a reception in a staggering 274 straight games.
As a lifelong football fan – and a 49ers fan – I can’t imagine ever seeing an era as great as the 49ers run from 1981-1998 when they went a remarkable 16 seasons with at least 10 wins. They did so with a Hall of Fame coach who is considered one of the all-time greats, 2 Hall of Fame quarterbacks who are also considered all-time greats (especially Montana), a Hall of Fame defensive back who also is definitely one of the all-time greats (Ronnie Lott) and now the greatest receiver ever in Jerry Rice.
Unfortunately, Eddie D got stupid and got involved in outside activities that led to corruption charges – which ultimately led to the NFL forcing him to sell his interest in the team to his sister and her husband. The team hasn’t been the same since. It has slid back and is has been considered one of the lower-tier teams in the league during the past decade under the York’s “leadership.” It has been dismaying to watch them turn what was once one of the elite teams (and NFL brands) into an afterthought.
I’ll always be a 49ers fan but my passion for the team has waned over the years. I guess I found a replacement with my love for the Ducks. But that doesn’t keep me from remembering a truly golden era and being very thankful that as a fan I had the opportunity to watch a team I was so passionate about perform at such an incredible level for so long.