This journey began for me in 1976. I was 5 years old and had just become aware of professional football. My family lived in San Jose and in our house, if you watched football, you were watching the 49ers...no matter how bad they were. As some of you may remember, it wasn't easy back then. Not by a long shot. Jim Plunkett was our starter...and he was bad. The defense was okay...but just okay. The Niners couldn't close. They were the laughingstock of the NFL.
Just as there are today, there were tall tales back then, too. Stories about Frankie Albert, YA Tittle, RC Owens, Joe Perry, Hugh McElhenny, John Brodie and a host of other local heroes. My Dad would rave about Gene Washington. My grandfather would go on for hours about Leo Nomellini, the biggest, baddest defensive lineman of all time. None of them had hoisted a Lombardi Trophy (or won a NFL Championship pre-merger), but that didn't matter.
They were our guys. The good guys. And no matter how tough it was, we would watch. We would cheer. We would laugh. We would cry. But win, lose or draw; in some way, shape or form, 49er football became a huge part of our Sunday ritual. In 1981, when Sundays became Super, the Niners became more than a part of Sunday...they simply BECAME Sunday. They were the living, breathing embodiment of Autumn and Winter weekends.
My Dad and I had our ups and downs over the years...but whatever our differences, they never got in the way of football. The game, our team and our guys represented common ground...the one thing we could come back to when everything else was falling apart. No matter what was going on, football was an ever present life raft. Every week from September to January, we'd find respite from the chaos of everyday life...even if it was just for a few hours.
Even now, when I close my eyes, a lifetime-long highlight reel flashes by. Sprint Right Option. Dan Bunz and the greatest goal line stop in Super Bowl history. Joe Cool being...cool. Ronnie Lott's hit on Ickey Woods. Roger Craig's 3 TD effort against Miami. The Big Easy against Denver. John Taylor's 10-yard game winning catch against Cinci. Jerry Rice beating...everybody. Steve Young's 6-TD explosion against the Chargers. The Catch. The Catch II. The Catch III. Jeff Garcia's comeback against the Giants. Steve Young FINALLY beating the Cowboys. Charles Haley's "invisible sack" against the Rams in the NFC Championship. Alex Smith (finally) having the game of his life against the Saints. Steve Young's 49-yard TD run against the Vikings. Garrison Hearst's 96-yard TD run against the Jets. So many memories...they all sort of run together now...like a giant blur of awesome.
That giant blur of awesome came to a sudden halt for me in September of last year, when my Dad finally lost his battle with cancer. As I wrote back then, Pop and 49er football are inextricably connected for me...and they will be for all time. Sundays suddenly seemed...off. Uncomfortable. Wrong.
For the first time in my life, football was just...there. Pop was gone...and along with him, the brief respite from day to day life that football used to represent.
As fate would have it, when last season's NFC Championship kicked off, I was sitting on a couch in Alaska, up for the weekend to visit my Mom. There was some comfort in that. Mom is a big time Niner fan, and if anyone knows what it's like to watch a game with me (I am what some would euphemistically call "animated" about the 49ers), she does. Things were fine.
Right up until the 49ers fell behind, 17-0, that is. The house was quiet. The mood was somber. Heads were hanging.This Sunday was starting to feel like a bad dream.
As I still sometimes do, I reflexively reached for my phone...and realized as I began to dial his number that Pop wasn't at the other end.
Just then, I got a text from my son, Alec.
One text turned into five, and five grew into a full blown breakdown of what was happening, how we could come back and why it was possible. It wasn't anything more than prognostication...but it was something. The day had sucked so far...but it wasn't over yet.
Then, the Niners scored.
Less somber, out text exchange picked up. Vernon was getting open. The defense was getting stops. Frank was finding space.
Just like that, the Niners scored again.
The game got closer, and the exchange more animated. We were still in this. We had a shot. As the 3rd quarter came to a close, the 49ers were on their way to overcoming the largest deficit in the history of the NFC Championship.
Then Frank Gore scored...and just like that, the 49ers had their first lead of the day. A few minutes of nail-biting and one impressive Navorro Bowman pass breakup later, the 49ers were headed to the Super Bowl. The first 49er Super Bowl of my son's life.
We all know how last season ended. Each of us has our own sad story of that day. For the first time in franchise history, the 49ers lost a Super Bowl. Though it was painful for me to watch, I found some unexpected comfort in the aftermath. Just as Pop had done for me when the 49ers were routed at the Meadowlands by the Giants in 1986...and again when they suffered a shocking playoff defeat at the hands of the Vikings in 1987, I found myself comforting my son.
Though I hadn't imagined that it would when I was younger, things have come full circle. My son is just as enamored with the 49ers as I was. Alec has become a bright, intelligent young man (not to mention one hell of a football player himself)...and I have become the old guy that spins yarns about retired legends.
The 49ers last season at Candlestick is going to have its share of ups and downs. Moments to cheer. Moments to shake our heads. Moments to hold our collective breath. Moments to share. But no matter how this season shakes out, try not to forget that this is more than just a game...more than just a spectator sport. This a living, breathing tradition. This is 49er football.
No matter how this season shakes out, don't forget that. Remember to enjoy the ride, 49er fans.