Well, several hundred. Okay, many. After many 49ers clips and more than a few of the Ravens and Patriots, I am up to the gills with football. It’s a pleasant, still dazed sensation, in that it’s been nearly two decades since my team has lasted this far into the season, years since the golden age of San Francisco pigskin. From 1981 to 1995, my team was an amalgamation of talent, brains, heart, and money. The years before the salary cap were kind to Niners fans, Eddie DeBartolo an owner who loved his team, and spent the cash to keep it together.
For all my high-minded sport hoo-haa, let’s not forget what makes the trains run on time.
When Eddie had to relinquish ownership of the team to his sister, due to getting involved with a shady southern politician, the team went south. Denise DeBartolo York didn’t know how to run a team, except into the ground. She and her husband John became hated figures in the Bay Area. Fans were accustomed to winning squads, five Super Bowls captured from 1981-1995. San Francisco has never lost, which is quite a feat, but it feels like eons since those sorts of heady thrills hovered. The Yorks weren’t able to harness the right coach, Eddie’s ghost weaving as seasons were frittered away, past players recalled for their mythic glories. Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott, Steve Young, Roger Craig, Fred Dean… How many men could I list, but those names were from another era, which felt as impossible to regain as the days upon which they gave their bodies and souls.
Then Denise and John set the reins within the hands of their son Jed. By then I was back in the Bay Area, too close to a team that still had its head in the sand. It was easier being a 49ers fan in England, far away from the tumult. My husband’s Packers had risen from their grave and I cheered for them and felt no guilt, as my team, ahem, sucked. They bit the big one, and it was hard to reconcile. When Jed York took over, I felt little hope. He wasn’t his Uncle Eddie, there was no Carmen Policy at his side. The downswing would continue.
Then came Jim Harbaugh. Jim Harbaugh was coaching Stanford University to incredible wins just south in Palo Alto, my neck of the proverbial Bay Area woods. At the end of the 2010 season, Harbaugh was ready to move from the college game to the pros, where his older brother John had found success with the Baltimore Ravens. Jim was wooed by the hapless Miami Dolphins, as well as Jed York. Who knows what exactly turned Jim’s head, maybe just that San Francisco was a quick trip up the peninsula from Stanford. Whatever it was, Miami lost, San Francisco won. Even with a lockout, Jim Harbaugh took the 49ers to the NFC Championship game, coming within one victory of reaching the Super Bowl in his first NFL season as coach.
The good times had returned.
History needs to be recalled to truly enjoy this moment. As Joe Bonanno noted, art renews people. Sport does too. Yes, I’ve been having trouble swallowing the increased violence in football, and last night was no different. Baltimore’s Bernard Pollard leveled Stevan Ridley in the Patriots-Ravens game, a hit I wish I hadn’t seen, or viewed again in the morass of highlights in which I indulged. Ridley left the game concussed; my husband noted it as soon as he saw Ridley’s arms waving through the air. The hit was legal, but so hard; not sure how many more of those I can take. But the game is the sum, which includes a vast array of superior catches and runs, a ball sailing through the air in temperate domes and frigid stadiums. Football remains within my blood, even if occasionally I’m chilled.
For years my heart was frozen. Those blissful days of yore had faded, then were suddenly resuscitated by a new coach, a resurrected quarterback. Alex Smith had not lived up to his number one draft position, but in 2011 under Harbaugh’s tutelage, Smith led a previously downcast team to a 13-3 season. In November 2012, the team was 6-2, feeling strong. Then Smith was concussed, and as the Chicago Bears came to town for a Monday Night game, suddenly the second year backup QB was called into play. Drafting Colin Kaepernick had been Harbaugh’s choice, but with Smith firmly in control, the young man out of Nevada hadn’t had his shot. Under the national spotlight, Kaepernick would face a trial by fire. I remember that game like it was just last night; Chicago only had one loss coming into San Francisco, were riding high. An untested youngster would step onto the field; anything could happen.
We won 32-7, not only blowing the Bears right back to the Windy City, but many minds in SF; who was Colin Kaepernick, from where did this kid emerge? Then more pressing; was Alex Smith well enough to play in the next game, against the Saints. Harbaugh made the decision to start Kaepernick as San Francisco traveled to New Orleans, winning 31-21. From then onwards the 49ers were led by a second year QB who could run like… Well, like no one San Francisco had seen since Steve Young. Kaepernick wasn’t perfect, but he was exciting, sharp, and learning as he went. When the team got blown out in Seattle in December, a 42-13 drubbing at the hands of Pete Carroll’s Seahawks, doubters had a field day. But a game later, the Niners secured their division, clobbering the somewhat hapless Arizona Cardinals 27-13. That same week my husband’s Packers lost to Minnesota, giving the 49ers the second seed, but more importantly, a week to recover. Injuries had been mounting, and maybe Kaepernick could use a week to consider the events. Mid-way through the season, he was anointed the starting quarterback; just what was going on?
Redemption for Harbaugh’s choice was proven when the Niners met the Packers just last week; apologies to my beloved, but the 49ers shoved the ball down Green Bay’s throat, 45-31. Kaepernick ran and threw, acting the role of a season-starting QB, not a replacement. Yesterday he was calm on his feet, but made throws that pundits said weren’t possible. He had the touch, also the sense to let Frank Gore do the scrambling. Vernon Davis returned as if from exile, catching five passes, scoring one of the team’s four touchdowns. The defense woke up in the second half, not allowing the Atlanta Falcons a single point. And now, the Super Bowl (or the Harbowl) awaits. We’re taking another trip to the big dance, which still feels unreal, years and losses and sorrows and confusion since we were last there. Jed York has learned from his Uncle Eddie, securing the right coach and general manager, then letting those men acquire the correct players and assistants. It nearly feels like the old days, when a winning air permeated the San Francisco Bay Area, when pride for a winning team was thick and heady. It hasn’t been like that for a while.
A team doesn’t win every week, Super Bowls are chances of a lifetime. Yes I know one Baltimore Raven will call this game his last. But on the West Coast are fifty-three men who have earned the right to that victory, suffering through losing seasons, an array of coaches and schemes. And of course, I’m biased; I want my team to kick Baltimore’s butt. I rooted for the Ravens yesterday, but yesterday is gone. In thirteen days, a contest will be decided, one city celebrating intense ecstasy. I really hope it’s mine, or here within my proverbial back yard.