During the lull of summer, football news comes at a snail's pace. You know it's slow when the signing of Raymond Ventrone and the removal of Michael Crabtree's stitches are the week's highlights.
In keeping things exciting on Niners Nation, Fooch has been posting a few fan-centric posts. The most recent asking fans what their favorite piece of 49ers memorabilia is. That post had me sifting through a few of my most prized Niners possessions. At the top of the list, are two of my most recent additions: the rally flag my girlfriend and I ripped through the air at Candlestick during the 49ers' legendary win over the Saints in the 2011 Divisional playoff game, and a framed photo of Vernon Davis making the famous catch to win the game.
I've been fortunate enough to see 13 Niners games in my lifetime: seven at Candlestick, seven at various places on the road, and the last (unlucky number 13) being the Super Bowl loss to the Ravens.
And of all those games, the 49ers/Saints historic showdown at the 'Stick ranks at the top of my list by a country mile. It even surpasses watching the Niners march onto the big game in Atlanta at last year's NFC Championship game.
I don't know if I'll ever have the opportunity to see a game like that in my lifetime. As the 49ers' near-decade of despair wore on, I made a promise to myself that I'd go see their return to the playoffs live, wherever it may be. Well, Baalke and York brought Harbaugh to town, they turned the organization around on a dime, and before I knew it, I was on a flight to San Francisco with my girlfriend to see the Niners take on Drew Brees and the high-octane Saints.
It was a classic matchup: the Saints offense-an unstoppable force, meeting an immovable object-the vaunted Niners defense. The atmosphere at Candlestick was like nothing I've ever seen. Everyone was amplified beyond belief, full of optimism and confident the Niners could do it even if league observers had the Saints favored. "Who's Got It Better Than Us?" chants echoed through the packed parking lots at the 'Stick.
Bay Area natives Huey Lewis and the News belted out the Star Spangled Banner as fighter jets soared high above the field. The weather was perfect and the crowd, electric. The Niners started out hot, giving Drew Brees fits, knocking Pierre Thomas senseless, and causing turnovers in a frenzy. Unfortunately, the dominance didn't complete carry over to the scoreboard. After taking an early 17 point lead in the first quarter, the Saints crawled back to go into halftime down three points.
As a quiet third quarter came to a close, the 49ers sat six points ahead. The fourth quarter was much of the same... and then the final four minutes came. A combined 28 points were scored during that final four-minute roller coaster. Sproles took a 44 yard pass from Brees to the house to give the Saints their first lead of the game. The Niners roared right back, with Alex Smith scampering down the sidelines for the go-ahead score. Then, with 1:37 left to play, Jimmy Graham nabs a Brees bomb out of the air and takes it 66 yards to pay dirt, giving the Saints a lead. My girlfriend and I sat above the 35 yard line in disappointed disbelief as the crowd went silent; all the life and magic escaping from the stadium. But it was only a three point lead and San Francisco still had one timeout left, so we clung tightly to the hope that the Niners could drive down for a field goal and take the game into overtime. Alex Smith completed a few passes to Frank Gore to get San Francisco to their own 33 yard line. After a deep pass to Brett Swain fell just out of reach, Smith connected with the game's MVP, Vernon Davis on a gorgeous 47 yard bomb down the far sideline to bring the Niners into field goal range at the Saints 20 yard line. After a six yard pass to Frank Gore and a spike on 2nd down, the 49ers stood at the Saints 14 yard line for 3rd down and 4.
In a play that harkened back to Montana-to-Clark, and Young-to-Owens, Alex Smith threw a career-defining dart to Vernon Davis in the front of the endzone. Colliding with Roman Harper, Vernon Davis hauled in the pass and fell to the ground for the game-winning touchdown.
When people say that time stands still and sound drowns out, I now know what they mean. I stood and watched, expressionless and dumbfounded. I looked to see if there was a flag, or if the ball had come out. Then, it set in. The roar of the crowd and my screaming girlfriend flooded into my ears. I turned to my girlfriend and hugged her, jumping up and down; still in absolute shock. I turned to the older season-ticket holder and his wife who we had been conversing with throughout the game and he hugged me. "Now, I know why they gave us towels," he said, wiping tears of long-awaited elation from his face. The eighty-year old man (a true champ, on his feet on third downs throughout the whole game) there with his children sitting behind us, was ecstatic; yelling and throwing up high-fives like he was 20 years old again.
My cell phone blew up with calls and texts from friends and family as the game clock expired. We took pictures and funneled through the boisterous Candlestick crowd, making our way onto the BART to get back to the city. Once there, it was Candlestick all over again. The streets were filled with people in red and honking cars. We stopped by a favorite haunt of ours on Polk St., Bigfoot Lodge for some signature "Sasquatch" drinks and lagers in celebration. A fellow fan talked with us about the game and how long she had been waiting for the Niners to get back on track. She spoke about the DeBartolo family and truly knew her stuff. About a half hour later, the bartender slid two shots across the bar and said, "these are from her", pointing to the girl we chewed the fat with earlier. She pointed to her hat, raised her shot glass, and we toasted the victory.
After a couple of other stops, we went back to the hotel feeling exhausted; but the thrill hadn't worn off yet. I watched the TV coverage, showered up, and by the time I was out of the bathroom my girlfriend had passed out. I was too excited to sleep, and I didn't want the day to end. So I walked across the street to a New York bar called Ace's for a night cap. I ordered a pint and a shot of bourbon, had a great conversation with a fellow Niners fan, and stumbled back to the hotel.
I'll never forget that game, nor the vacation as a whole. It was the best trip of my life. For eight long years, all I yearned for was a decent season out of the Niners. After witnessing history, I have to say that it was well worth the wait.
What's the best game you've ever been to? Share your story!