Just 10 years old and having recently completed my first year in Pop Warner football, my love for the game was just beginning to brew. Through playing and watching that ’94 NFL season, I had learned the basic concepts on offense and defense and the toughness it takes to play the game. Ironically my Pop Warner team was the Raiders, the 49ers cross-bay rival, and I had declared the Dallas Cowboys my favorite team the year before, following the lead of my then bandwagon-jumping brother who of course rooted for the back-to-back Super Bowl Champions. My 49er-loving father even reluctantly bought me a Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt for Christmas. Treason, I know. An odd thing happened that year though, even though my brother, and in turn myself, were still Cowboys fans, I found myself constantly rooting for the 49ers. They were an exciting team no doubt, with Ken Norton Jr. and his goalpost-punching shenanigans, and Neon Deion and his high-stepping touchdown celebrations. From the very beginning it felt like the 49ers year. However, my fan-hood conflict came to a head in the NFC Championship game where Steve Young and the 49ers faced Troy Aikmen and the Dallas Cowboys at Candlestick in an attempt to avenge two straight Championship losses. I rooted for the 49ers, who went on to win the game 38-28. Now, this could be seen as once again jumping on the bandwagon of the better team, however it was the first time that I was simply following my heart and not my older brothers’ team allegiance. There was just something about the Red and Gold that got the heart racing.
Back at Super Bowl XXIX, Young opened the first 49er play from scrimmage with a deep post over the middle to Jerry Rice who walked in for the touchdown and the rout was on. The 49ers went on to win the game 49-26 and claim their then NFL-leading 5th Super Bowl Championship. The next time I visited Oregon to see my dad we painted a large, red circle and cross over the Dallas Cowboy logo on my sweatshirt. He felt much better.
The following years of my adolescence as a 49er fan were a bit of a mixed bag. Steve Young always gave the team a chance, but there was never again the feeling that we were the best team in the league. Dallas went on to win the Super Bowl the following year, and the years after that seemed to always be spoiled by Brett Favre and the Packers. Then in 1999 Aeneas Williams of the Cardinals came untouched on a blitz and in one play ended Steve Young’s career. For the first time since 1981, 18 great years of competitive, championship level football, the 49ers didn’t have a Hall-of-Famer starting at quarterback. While Jeff Garcia did an admirable job in the following four years, even making three Pro Bowls, the 49ers were no longer an elite team, and were about to go into one of the worst losing spells in the franchises’ history. While those peaks and valleys were expected for many teams, the seemingly constant success the 49ers had during the previous two decades made it difficult on 49er fans. We had been spoiled. For a long, long time. The 2003-2010 seasons were a blur of bad teams with revolving quarterbacks and differing levels of disappointment.
Fittingly, one of the strongest memories I recall during those early football-watching years, was the 1995 season after the 49ers Super Bowl victory. A man by the name of Jim ‘Captain Comeback’ Harbaugh led the Indianapolis Colts within an almost-caught hailmary against the Steelers of reaching the Super Bowl. Something about Harbaugh’s toughness made it hard not to root for him. His white Colts uniform seemed to always be covered in mud and the grittiness with which he played the game seemed admirable, even to a 10 year old. So, 16 years later, when he was announced as the 49ers head coach going into the 2011 season I was surprisingly hopeful given that I had learned to tame my expectations.
My dad surprised my brother and I with tickets to the opening game of that season, and the first game of Harbaugh’s tenure vs. the Seattle Seahawks. My brother, you should know, has long become a Seahawks fan due to growing up for the first 12 years of his life in Mt. Hood, Oregon, and the Seagulls being closest in proximity. While the game was close for a while, a pair of late Ted Ginn touchdown returns sealed the victory as the 49ers won 33-17. Two of us left feeling happy.
Now most of us know the rest of the story. The 49ers had a magical run in 2011 under Harbaugh and new General manager Trent Baalke and nearly made it to the Super Bowl, following it up with a trip to the big game last year, and coming just 5 yards short of the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history. The turnaround under Harbaugh was so immediate it's hard to believe how far the team has come in just two, short years. (A great piece by Bill Barnwell of Grantland was put together showing a timeline of the 49ers and Seahawks rise to prominence.) With Kaepernick at the helm, it feels like the first time since Steve Young went down in 1999, that the 49ers have a signal caller that could lead them back to the big game for years to come and perhaps put together a HOF resume of his own when its said and done. Sure, it may be too early to tell all that, but there is feeling in the air around this team that has been building the last two years which hadn’t existed since I was a just a baby 49ers fan back in 1994. I am also proud to announce that despite his fathers Seahawks allegiance, my 7 year old nephew Shaun (born in 2005 so try and guess who he’s named after) has followed his Grandpa and Uncle’s lead, and sleeps comfortably under his 49er blankets every night. Needless to say, it feels good to be back among the NFL’s elite teams, and this Sunday night against those ‘Hawks will certainly be fun. Go Niners! Packers vs 49ers coverage