Lighting up Candlestick one last time: Saying goodbye to an iconic venue

Steve Busichio

The excitement of a possible playoff clinching for the 49ers is intersected with a healthy dose of nostalgia and sadness, as it appears likely the team's longtime home will open its doors for the last time this weekend. A retrospective on why it will be so hard to say goodbye to the 'Stick.

Unfortunately, this weekend represents the probable last call for Candlestick Park. The 49ers looks to close out the regular season strong, and will most likely embark on a road quest to bring a sixth Lombardi trophy back to San Francisco in 2013.

It may be an eyesore. It may be a massive, crumbling relic. It may be referred to as a "dump" by observers and those outside of the 49ers Faithful allegiance, but if it is...it's our dump; our lovable pile of moss-tainted concrete which the Niners and fans have called home for the past 42 seasons. And we've loved every almost every minute of it. And we wouldn't have had it any other way....

...because ultimately, it's not about aesthetics or technological capabilities. At the end of the day, it's about the gridiron; the congregation and camaraderie in the sun-soaked (if you're lucky) parking lots during the tailgates; the walk to your seat as rally cries reverberate off the walls and down the escalators; the anticipation of witnessing something great. And the worn and torn interior of Candlestick Park has been witness to some of professional football's greatest games and moments.

Words will never do justice to the pandemonium and significance of The Catch in 1981; it stands as the seminal moment in 49ers history, the beginning of a dynasty. Three years later, the stadium by the bay hosted a 23-0 drubbing of the Chicago Bears en route to the team's second Super Bowl title. In 1989, yet another NFC Championship shellacking took place when the 49ers pummeled the L.A. Rams. Then in 1994, it set the scene for Steve Young's vindication, where we saw No. 8 emerge from Joe Montana's burdensome shadow during a long-awaited, hard-earned victory lap following the Niners' vengeful defeat of Aikman and Emmitt's hated Cowboys. The end of the decade and foray into the new millennium gave a new generation of fans their standout moments with The Catch II authored by Young and Terrell Owens during the 1998 postseason, and a historic Wild Card comeback against the NY Giants in 2002. Of the aforementioned Wild Card game, Jeff Garcia's poignant reflection sums up exactly what it's like to be part of a pinnacle moment at Candlestick:

"That moment right there, I was I could have bottled and saved with me forever. I'll always remember the moment, but you can't (replicate) the feelings that are going through, the emotions that are going through you, the tingling, the goose bumps, that feeling of, ‘Man, I can't believe what just happened today, how we came back, we didn't give up, we fought, we made it happen.'"

More recently, Candlestick has provided a stage for the renaissance and resurgence of the 49ers under commander-in-chief Jim Harbaugh. Personally speaking, it's moments like these that will stick closest to my heart. At 28 years old, I was too young to experience the magic of the 49ers' decade of dominance in the 1980's. I vividly remember the '94 Super Bowl and all that came after, but I was still too young and too accustomed to them winning to truly bask in it. I believe that you don't learn to appreciate the majesty of your team until they've hit rock bottom.

Speaking of rock bottom, my first experience at Candlestick was a November 2005 game against the Giants, with Cody Pickett under center for the 49ers... need I say more? Yes, it wasn't all roses over the years as typified by this example and, more caustically, a handful of crushing playoff losses, but as unfortunate as my first memory of Candlestick was, I was still enamored with the atmosphere of the stadium.

Besides, the bad times eventually fade while the good times indelibly adhere themselves to memory and, for me, the pure, unadulterated euphoria of 2011's NFC Divisional Game against New Orleans trumps the heartbreakers... and that says a lot, considering I was at the unthinkable tragedy that was last year's Super Bowl. Sitting above the 35 yard-line on that Saturday afternoon in January and watching Vernon Davis haul in the game winning catch over Roman Harper is a moment I may never be able to top as a fan. No description will ever be able to adequately convey or capture what being at that game was like (although that didn't stop me from doing my best in an article posted earlier this summer). That's the beauty of Candlestick Park: everyone has their own unique stories.

Back in July, Niners Nation's own David Fucillo asked the 49ers Faithful for those stories and while everyone has their own take, they all share a common underlying theme:

These are pivotal times not just in the sport of football, but in people's personal lives.

They supersede the game itself, conjuring up feelings of great times shared with friends, family, and fellow fans. in some cases, they are so monumental that they unite us with complete strangers. I personally remember my girlfriend and I doling out high-fives to everyone around us during that epic 49ers/Saints game as if we were old high school buddies. I also recall hugging a vintage gold-jacket clad season-ticket holder and his wife next to me, as tears of joy welled up in his eyes. "I guess this is why they gave us towels," he quipped to me as he pointed down to his rally towel. That's what it's really all about, isn't it?

Yes, that is what it's all about. It's not about cup holders, or Wi-Fi capability, or colossal flat screens, or concession upgrades. Those are all fine and good, but It's about the game, it's about the people who love it, and some of the best memories I have are from that stadium. As a displaced fan, I may hold even more stock in Candlestick's legacy than your average Bay Area native. Ever the misfit living amongst Giants, Jets, and Eagles fans in New Jersey, I naturally have always felt at home as a 49ers fan when I visit San Francisco, walking through the lots of the 'Stick and relishing the opportunity to chew the fat with people who shared a vested interest in the team. There, I could finally join in with the masses and exchange high-fives after a great play. There, I wasn't the only one standing up after a 49ers late 4th quarter touchdown, as I'd routinely become accustomed to doing in local Jersey bars and away games in the Tri-State Area.

Oh so much has gone on inside of the house that DeBartolo and Walsh built, and while I look forward to a new state-of-the-art facility next season, those feelings of excitement are tempered with wistful melancholy. It's a bittersweet finale for a place (and city) that's just as much a part of the 49ers to me as the red and gold they wear on gameday. It gets me thinking about years from now, when I'll reflect on and pontificate about that lovable heap to my kids and grandkids, much like my grandfather did with me about the days of watching his NY Giants play at the Polo Grounds. As a fan of the New York baseball Giants (and subsequently the San Francisco Giants thanks to a loathing of the Yankees and Dodgers that I share as well), I'm sure my grandfather would be a bit sad to see Candlestick closing its doors as well.

Like Harbaugh, the stadium represents old school football. It harkens back to the days of Montana, Craig, Rice, Taylor, and Lott. From a fan perspective, Candlestick is like that old, worn-out, reliable pair of jeans that you still wear much to the chagrin of your significant other. Your friends may poke fun at them but damn it, you love that pair of...how about Levi's for some irony, and even though you know it's long since time they got thrown out, you still don't want to give them up. Tried and true, they've been through some tough times-maybe not the Loma Prieta earthquake of '89-but you get the idea.

Barring a miracle finish to the regular season or a wacky scenario in the playoffs, fans likely won't get the opportunity to see another playoff game played at the 'Stick, which is an unfortunate and unbefitting curtain call for a stadium rife with prior postseason glory. Then again, had Jed York, Jim Harbaugh, and Trent Baalke not revitalized this franchise a couple years ago, there would have been no historic 2011 victory against the Saints, or the beat down of the Packers at the 'Stick last January. Those milestones scribed a satisfying final chapter of the stadium's story and, in looking back on watershed moments in Candlestick, fans will fondly recollect those games as the rebirth of a downtrodden franchise. Despite the presumable lack of a postseason game at Candlestick, this weekend's matchup against Atlanta presents the 49ers with an opportunity to beat a former division rival at home, clinch a playoff spot (which may already be in the bag heading into the game, should the Seahawks take care of the Cardinals in Seattle), and send the 'Stick off in style.

Kezar may have been the 49ers' first home but Candlestick is where the 49ers became The San Francisco 49ers; the team we've lived with and died by as fans. It was the birthplace and delivery room of the famed West Coast offense. It was the breeding ground for the greatest quarterback, wide receiver, and head coach the NFL has ever seen. Now, it's almost time to turn out the lights (for good this time) and bid it farewell. In paraphrasing The Beatles, the band that changed it all and held their final concert at Candlestick Park in 1966:

All these places have their moments...
I know I'll often stop and think about them...

Like many, I know I'll always look back fondly on Candlestick Park, reliving the incredible times I had there; and although it may be gone in a physical sense, it will forever remain cemented in the hearts of fans and NFL history.

What are your thoughts on Candlestick's final act? What does the stadium mean to you? What will you miss the most?

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