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My dad passed away three weeks ago as of the writing of this article. It was sudden and unexpected, and the result has been a gaping chasm in the foundation of our family. My mom, brother and I are still processing, as are my kids, my brother's kids, all of our extended family, and scores of friends. As I sat numbly, the television playing something that did not even register with me, an ad for the start of the NFL season, the Thursday night game between the Texans and Chiefs, happened to air. I thought about the upcoming season, the fact that it might actually happen, and that the Niners will have a chance to make another run at the Lombardi while their window of opportunity stands wide open. Generally, I would have been pumped, because football season is my favorite time of year. I have lived and breathed 49er football since I was a child. And when I was a child, it all started with my dad.

My dad had two season tickets for the Niners when they were at Kezar, and then got four when they moved to the 'Stick. They immediately went from a playoff team to a laughing stock - this somewhat coincided with Joe Thomas' trading of seemingly every draft pick for several years for a broken-down future murderer who came in and did nothing to improve the team. Because of this, the '70s were positively brutal as a fan. I was a pre-teen then, and only learning about the sport that would one day dominate my sports consciousness, and little registered besides the action on the field and the guys smoking pot on the ramps between the street level and the concourse. I fell in love with Paul Hofer, who promptly destroyed his knee, ensuring that the rest of the '70s would consist of loss after loss. Dad literally dragged us to the games, my brother and I begging him to just give the tickets away ("But daaaaad, they're TERRIBLE!") - but no one would take them, so we went, week after week, sun and rain and cold - and man, did Candlestick park get cold.

While the games were rough, the tailgating began to take on epic proportions. Multiple cars, barbecues, cocktails for the adults and sodas for the kids. We threw the ball the length of the dirt lots, and I marveled at my dad's cannon. He could throw the ball every bit as well as Brodie, and better than DeBerg or that ruptured-duck thrower Steve Spurrier. Yes, Steve Spurrier played QB for the Niners. I fell in love with the games, with the team, with the entire experience, and much of it was directly because my dad made it such a good time. I would peek at him sitting, transistor radio in hand, earpiece feeding him Lon Simmons' play by play as we watched the action live. He constantly fed me information as he heard it, sharing the color commentary, which at that time was almost always apologetic or embarrassed.

Then Eddie D bought the team and he hired Bill Walsh. Things started to change with the 1979 draft, when Joe Montana (and Dwight Clark) joined the team. The 1981 draft, maybe the best in team history, brought in Lott, Carlton Williamson and Eric Wright, who would form 3/4 of the defensive backfield for years. That '81 season was magic, and our family reveled in the newfound success of our beloved team. We cheered and hugged one another on Sundays as we watched our boys grow into something of which we would develop incredible pride, a wave that we rode for more than 20 years. We saw it all - The Catch, The Catch 2, The Pick at the 'Stick and every snap, every down, in between. We left my folks' house in Marin at 9:30 a.m. and were parked by 10:30, unloading and looking for our friends. We parked in the same area for years, and shared countless hours talking about our Niners and the prospects for that afternoon and the season ahead. We went to so many playoff games, so many preseason games, witnessed history, and for our family, for me and my dad, this experience of living through the dynasty brought us closer together in ways that only die-hard fans of a team can understand. The culmination of this was my folks being able to attend the 49ers-Dolphins Super Bowl at Stanford Stadium, a game that was supposed to be the coronation of Dan Marino but which wound up being a showcase for the greatest organization in sports.

Dad's relationship with the team changed during the later years - he was so disappointed in Eddie D when he was indicted and had to sell the team. He was frustrated with the way the Yorks ran the organization. He railed against the parade of bad coaches, from Mike Nolan to Dennis Erickson to Mike Singletary, and believed all along that Trent Baalke was more at fault for the team's decline than anyone else. He was right. His relationship improved when Harbaugh took over, but things had changed forever between him and the team. He didn't like the way sports had changed from what appeared to be a selfless, team game into a me-first situation. It didn't matter how much I tried to explain that the owners had been making billions while the players suffered - he was a man who never put himself first, never pointed at himself, never bragged or showboated, and he could not get past that element. Yet on Sundays, every single Sunday, he was right there, pulling as hard as he could for the Red and Gold.

And then they moved. They left The City. In his eyes, they abandoned their loyal fans. He was heartbroken. He badmouthed the new stadium, refused to pay the PSL to get seats, and decided that he was done with game attendance. The team seemed to realize this and promptly turned into hot garbage. Yet, he still rooted. He still listened to sports talk at times, still watched the games, still read everything he could find about them. When Shanahan and Lynch took over, we talked about the move and he told me that he finally felt like they were going in the right direction. As usual, he was right. That first year was rough, but we watched many games together and talked about the improvement in the team, the organization, and the change in chemistry that was so visible and apparent to us both.

The second year didn't even get started, with Jimmy tearing his ACL against the Chiefs (man, have I learned to hate that team), but still, we talked about a brighter future. That offseason, I somehow convinced the 49ers Webzone editor to give me a shot at contributing, and my devotion to the team became something much more significant. Over a month prior to the draft, I dove in - and my dad came with me (as did my sons). We talked for hours about the options, whether Bosa was the right move or if trading for a bunch of picks would be wiser. They of course took Bosa, the team caught fire, and the last magical season of dad's life began. Our daily calls invariably turned to the Niners and the state of the team. He asked me question after question, both leading me to do more research and to flesh out thoughts that had germinated. He was a sounding board for my pieces, giving me feedback and praise for my writing, telling me how he looked forward to seeing my words on the screen, my name at the top, and how proud he was of me, for this little thing I was doing on the side.

I tried to get him to a game, but his 85-year-old knees, feet, and back just couldn't manage it. Instead, he sat in his chair and once again cheered on his team, my mom cheering beside him, watching them make that run to the Super Bowl. The loss was painful, but he held on to the positives. What a team. What a season. It was a throwback to the old days, the players totally committed to something bigger than themselves, something greater than individual accomplishments, and they all seemed, from the fan's perspective, to truly care for one another. The team was so easy to love, so easy to throw oneself behind, and dad did exactly that. Immediately after the Super Bowl, we talked about the future of our beloved Niners. He felt confident that they would be back, that this year they would reach the summit and hoist the trophy while confetti fell. Then the pandemic hit, and things seemed bleak regarding a possible season. We talked about the window staying open and whether a lost season would ruin the chances for another run. But things somehow got under control, at least enough to move forward with camp, and hope bloomed again.

But dad didn't get to see this season. He won't be able to cheer the team on, won't lament bad calls, won't scream with delight when they score or win a game. At least not with my mom and our family. We will have to soldier on and pull for this team one voice short, one fan fewer, and each win will carry a tiny bit of sadness along with the joy that we feel. I will miss his voice, his insight, his presence, but the games, the season, will go on. And if our boys manage to complete the task this year, if they finish the season with a win and celebrate at midfield, I'll likely shed tears of joy and sadness, adding the memory to the countless others that have accumulated over the decades, knowing that this one is different because I can't share it with him. The games, the seasons, will never be the same for me.

Thanks so much, dad. I love you and miss you.
  • Written by:
    Matt Mani is a lifelong Bay Area resident, having benefitted from attending every Niner home game from 1973 to 1998. Along the way, he developed a deep love of the game and for the team. He is a practicing attorney in Marin County and, aside from pulling hard for the Niners, Warriors and GIants, writes in his spare time. He is father to three sons who all bleed red and gold. He somehow convinced the editors at 49ers Webzone to give him a chance to prove himself as a content provider, which has fulfilled one of his life's dreams.