On January 11, 1995, our family pulled a U-Haul van out of a driveway in Ripon, California and made the move up I-5 to the Seattle area. Due to a governor limiting us to a max speed of 55, and a couple of stops, the four of us settled in to our temporary digs in Maple Valley, Washington with just a speck of daylight remaining in the cool, overcast sky.
For context on how long ago that was, I watched the recently released Dumb and Dumber as my going-away-party of sorts with my best pals. I'd miss those guys, not just for the adolescent laughs we summoned from our bellies during silly movies, but because I knew I'd soon lack Faithful friends.
Luckily, my cousin -- with whom we'd moved in with -- was also a 49ers fan. Having grown up in Oregon, he was amongst the folks from the northwest not tied to the perennial-loser Seahawks by state border. Instead, like many Oregonians, he grew up rooting for the red and gold as well.
We talked about the team during a previous meeting in Eugene when I was younger, over the phone on occasion as we grew up a state apart and finally in person on a daily basis as we resided under the same roof.
Just 18 days later, an earthquake of significant magnitude struck the Seattle area for the first time in three decades. Later that day, the San Francisco 49ers won Super Bowl XXIX. Let's just say that the next day at school marked the first time of many that Seahawks fans weren't too fond of the kid from California.
Fast forward a half dozen years. Just a few days away from my 21st birthday, my cousin and I were doing what we did most nights -- partying at my buddy Ryan's house. Somehow, the prompt of what I'd like to do for my birthday came up. Just floating out the first day-dream idea, I responded: Go to San Francisco, of course!
Seeing as how the three of us were, ahem, between jobs, we packed ourselves and a few changes of clothes into Ryan's red Honda Civic and began the drive south. Literally, late at night, we just left. We had no plans of where we'd stay, what we'd do or how long we'd be there. The rest of the party thought we were joking around until we zipped off.
It was spontaneity that only your youth is brave enough to handle, leaving all your cares and responsibilities behind.
After driving most the night and a good chunk of the next day, we'd eventually arrived in the Bay Area. It wasn't difficult figuring out what to do once there. Alcatraz, Fisherman's Wharf, Coit Tower and your standard list of sights were on the docket. But then, of course, we'd have to go see Candlestick Park.
I'm not entirely sure how what happened next actually happened. Ryan wanted to climb the hill. My cousin had ideas of going inside, even if it meant scaling the stadium walls. I chose to neither, and walked off in a different direction.
While mozying around the perimeter of the stadium, some sort of contractor was buzzing about the grounds on one of those long-bed golf carts. A bit concerned that he may chase me off, I just kept my head down and continued moving. He spotted me, and made his way over.
He asked, "Want to go in?"
Before I could even think about screaming yes, he continued. "Go ahead. Just don't go on the field."
Once inside, I moved through the concourse, and then into the seating area. I had just a few moments to take in the glorious view and think about all the history. As I scanned around, I saw my cousin. He was already inside, down at the bottom of the lower bowl. He was climbing over a wall and onto the field.
Sorry, contractor dude. I can't pass this up!
There I stood. In the center of a completely empty Candlestick Park. After some time, Ryan found his way in, too. There were exactly three people in the entire stadium; we were those three lucky souls.
To this day, it remains one of the most phenomenal experience of my life. It's just not the same going to a game. Certainly, that experience is rivaled by few things. This, though? The silence inside this football cathedral allowed my mind to run wild.
Moments of nothing but thoughts of Montana throwing, Rice catching, Young scrambling, Lott hitting and Deion high-stepping. The only sound being the wind swirling about, giving a greater appreciation of what our quarterbacks dealt with every week.
It wasn't an actual game, and trying to convince myself that it was on the same level would be silly. But, how cool is it to know that you planted your foot in the same patch of grass as your hero? That you stepped into a pass and sent a ball through the same brisk air? That you were able to complete a pass into the same end zone that helped launch the franchise's iconic dynasty?
Bliss. Pure sports bliss.
The paint that depicted the team's logos in the endzone was starting to fade. After all, since the club missed the playoffs, the stadium had been idle for several weeks. We were entering the dark years after the glory days slipped away. To make things worse, losing the best player in franchise history was becoming a reality we all had to grasp.
Jerry Rice played his last game in front of the home crowd on December 17, 2000. That was 27 days prior to this story happening on January 13, 2001. Just four weeks after the greatest of all time departed The 'Stick, carried off the field by his teammates, I was able to claim a little piece of that history.
Leaving was difficult. But we had run every pattern in the book, pretended to field punts and clocked our 40 yard dash times. Reality awaited us as we left this fantasy world and headed back to real life.
I gather the statute of limitations has passed if taking that painted grass was theft, or if going onto that field was trespassing.
The photos were captured with a disposable camera and affixed inside of a dart board cabinet turned Niner shrine. Removing them could lead to them being ripped, so scanning them for higher quality is out of the question for now. The ones I've shared are actually photos of the photos, taken with my phone.
It's been nearly 13 years since that return journey. While the pictures are faded and lacking sharpness, the memories are clear and vivid.
I'll miss you, 'Stick. But you'll never leave me.