Born to an immigrant family that resided in the South of Market area, my love for the Niners grew from my family. My uncle, a former police officer for S.F.P.D., used to watch the Niners at Kezar during the late '60's. When the team moved to Candlestick, he would take my older cousins to watch John Brodie finish his career. In the lean years, my Uncle continued his support.
Early in 1977, my other older cousins (Raiders fans) and I had accompanied my Aunt and my mother to a Thrift store. We were told to pick out anything under $5.00. My cousins had taken the liberty to find NFL kids helmets and swapped the prices out on them so that they would be under $5.00. There were four helmets: two Raiders, a Packer helmet and a stripped down Niners helmet. The other helmets had ear pieces and chin straps. The Niners helmet did not. Worse yet, the Niners helmet was $2.99. When my mother asked me what I wanted and seeing my cousins had their helmets, I hesitated. Without blinking an eye, my mother stripped out the Packer helmet and placed the pieces in the Niner helmet. I was set and for $2.00 less than those filthy Raiders helmets. That was my first taste of being a fully committed Niner fan. My mom is still a die hard Niner fan to this day.
The following year was 1978 and my cousins were football players at Galileo High School. They were destined to win the Turkey Day Game that year. As good as they were, all my cousins kept talking about was how the "The Juice" was coming home. For you youngsters, "The Juice" was Bay Area native, Galileo, City College, then later USC legend Orenthal James Simpson. Prior to all of the trouble he had gotten into in the Nineties, O.J. Simpson was the first running back to reach 2,000 yards and he did it in a 14 game season.
Why were my cousins talking about "The Juice"? Because then General Manager, Joe Thomas traded five draft picks in March of 1978 to bring O.J. home. I will be honest. I didn't know a thing about him, but the excitement my cousins had was infectious. I had bought in.
Then the season began...and O.J. was done. I have to admit there were some flashes, but overall O.J. was a broken man. OJ’s last game in 1978 season was against Washington. In 1979 his second season, OJ’s first game back was against Rams. He rushed for 73 yards in a three point loss. OJ’s last game was a loss against Falcons. He got two carries for 12 yards.
I was not deterred though. In 1980, my fandom was sealed. Not only was it a magical season going worst to first and winning the Super Bowl. The best was beating those damn Cowboys. My Uncle watched those hard seasons as the Cowboys ousted John Brodie and the Niners in three consecutive years. I grew up hating the Cowboys and still do.
When the team returned from Detroit and met its adoring fans at the Civic Center, I had never felt the electricity in the air like that before. There were some tough times for San Francisco during that time: Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk were assasinated, there was the Iran Hostages situation, the Gas limits where if your vehicle had license plates with odd numbers, you could get gas on odd days and even numbers for even days. The Niners and their magical season seemed to lift us to a new level. Even past the awful Disco music that was played all of the time on the radio.
As time progressed and the players changed, my love for the Niners continued and endured. There were times that were tough. Losing to the hated Cowboys two NFC Championship games in a row was a dark time. But man did it feel good for us fans and for Steve Young when he ran around Candlestick after defeating those Cowboys to make it to the Super Bowl.
Even during the Donahue/Erickson, then McCloughan/Nolan/Singletary days, I wore my Niner colors with pride. Boy did I get made fun of, but I was good with it. I knew the Niners would rise again and here they are.
What helped me during those hard times was that I fell in love with not only the legends, but I also loved the role players like Carlton Williamson, Dwight Hicks and Eric Wright. Those three with Lott made a really good Defensive backfield and didn't have to hold on every play to be effective like that team up in the Pacific Northwest. The only Niner Secondary that was better was the one with Eric Davis, Merton Hanks, Tim McDonald and Deion Sanders.
With that said, there were two players that I absolutely loved: Fred Dean and "Hacksaw" Jack Reynolds. Dean came over in a trade from the Chargers were Walsh fleeced them. Hacksaw was a Ram reject and boy did they miss him. Hacksaw was the heart of the Defense where Dean was the unstoppable pass rushing force. Make no question about it, when Lott was a Niner, he was the heart of the defense. But that would be later. He was a rookie in 1980-81.
In later years, the Niners had players that filled those roles that Dean and Hacksaw began: Haley, Andre Carter, now Aldon and Cowboy, and hopefully Tank and Lemons. Mike Walter, Matt Millen, Gary Plummer, Derek Smith and now Bow and Bam Bam fill that no nonsense linebacker role. Lott made his mark felt as well as later Tim McDonald, Lance Schulters, and now Donte Hitner patrol the middle of the field. Maybe Deonne Buchannan can join this elite group - yeah I'm talking to you Baalke. Make it happen.
On the offensive side of the ball, I fell in love with Bill Walsh's idea for what a TE should be. When he talked "All World" Russ Francis out of retirement, I saw an element of the West Coast offense evolve where today's teams take it for granted. Francis was able to take advantage of the middle of the field and used crossing routes effectively. After him, John Frank took up the mantle, then Brent Jones, for a brief time Eric Johnson did, until Vernon arrived and changed it again.
When you look up fullback in the dictionary, it states: See San Francisco 49ers. I never watched John Henry Johnson play, but from what I hear, he was awesome. I did see Tom Rathman play and he is the epitome of what a fullback should be. Moose Johnston tried to be Tom Rathman. "Bar None" Floyd, Tommy Vardell, and Nolan Morris were ok, but they weren't close. This new kid Bruce Miller has a chance.
The Niners current offensive line is good, but it is nowhere as good as the line in the 80s. Coach Bob McKittrick was a master of the cut back block. In a time where big lineman were coveted, Coach McKittrick took agile lineman like Jesse Sapolu, Guy McIntyre, Steve Wallace, Harris Barton, Derrick Deese, Chris Dalman, etc and made them into a machine. His loss was never replaced.
Another loss that was never replaced was when Bill Walsh retired. George Siefert inherited a very talented team, but with Carmen Policy, Vinny Cerrato, and Bobo the Clown picking for the Niners, the drafts came and went without replenishing the talent. Walsh was a master at identifying talent, maximizing that talent, and judging the character of good men. I love Bill Walsh. I think he would be proud of Harbaugh and his team.
For us long time Niner fans, there are some similarities from the players of yesteryear to today's version of the Niners. A good football player transcends all time and can play in any era. I bet you Jerry Rice would be unstoppable in today's "defenseless receiver" era. Shoot, he was unstoppable back then too.
I guess all of my rambling comes down to this: To be a true fan, it doesn't matter when it started, it should just never end. Especially in the rough times. Losing three years in a row to "lesser teams" is this version of the Niners trial. When they finally win, it will be just as great as when Dan Bunz stopped the Bengals on the one yard line or when John Taylor caught that game winning TD in '89 or when Steve Young removed the "monkey off of his back" or anytime the Niners beat the Cowboys. Stay Faithful and Go Niners!!
I would love to learn when you became a Niner fan. Please share.