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From cope to hope: The future is bright for the 49ers

A look back at what the 49ers looked like during my childhood

Kansas City Chiefs v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

When I was a kid growing up in the Bay Area, there was nothing that brought me more joy than going to Candlestick with my old man to watch our beloved San Francisco 49ers play football. When Sunday morning rolled around, I would joyfully jump out of bed at the crack of dawn, overflowing with excitement because I knew my day would be filled with the thing that I loved the most in this world. FOOTBALL.

I’m 26-years-old, mind you, so the majority of my younger years weren’t filled with the glory days that many of you witnessed on that treasured piece of land at Candlestick point. I didn’t have a Joe Montana or Steve Young to idolize. I had Tim Rattay and Ken Dorsey. I didn’t get to see Bill Walsh or George Siefert roam that sideline. I got Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan, and his goofy Reebok suits.

For a long stretch of my childhood, the 49ers weren’t just bad; they were a laughing stock. There was a turnstile at the QB position, coaches came and went, and they missed the playoffs seven years in a row. They were an objectively BAD football team.

You know what the funniest part is? I still LOVED every minute of it. No matter how hopeless things got or how poor the roster was, I went into that stadium BEAMING with optimism that this was the week! This was the season! They were finally going to turn it around and restore this once-proud franchise to the glory years I had been told about around many a tailgate barbecue.

Years and years went by. They continued losing, but my confidence never wavered. Along the way, I experienced some of my happiest moments as a fan of this sport. They may have been losing on the scoreboard, but I felt like I was winning and getting to see Frank Gore dice up defenses with his legs? Watching Patrick Willis, my FAVORITE football player of all time (still to this day, for what it’s worth), play with a level of passion and intensity that cannot be taught.

Then came Jim Harbaugh, and all of a sudden, things changed. This team wasn’t just winning games; they were a dominant team. A squad nobody was eager to face. That long playoff drought was snapped, and the 49ers were not only going to play in a playoff game, but they were also hosting one! This was the first time that I attended a postseason game where I could actually understand the magnitude of what I was witnessing. And boy, did it deliver in the biggest way imaginable.

Alex Smith out-dueled Drew Brees and the mighty New Orleans Saints, capped off by a last-minute touchdown to Vernon Davis. To this day, the intense elation I felt in the immediate aftermath of what became known as “the catch 3” was the happiest moment of my life. The pure and utter joy of experiencing of 60,000 people erupting with pure bliss is a feeling that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I walked out of that stadium feeling like a million bucks.

Then a week later, I experienced total devastation. It’s kind of funny because as much as I’ll never get over that Championship Game loss to the New York Giants, over time, I’ve grown to appreciate just how great of a football game that was. Two hard-hitting Goliath's battling it out on the hallowed ground for supremacy in the NFC. It was cold rainy, and those two teams fought tooth and nail for the opportunity to compete for a Super Bowl title. It was everything you could ask for in a game of that magnitude. It was PERFECT.

Now, if I went back in time and told my 16-year-old self, who was heartbroken, shattered, and in complete shock walking out of that stadium, that this was the PERFECT game, he would have had some choice words for me that are a bit too vulgar to be published here.

I’ll never forget the deafening silence that followed that fumbled punt in overtime. It was literally the polar opposite of what I had experienced a week earlier when Smith and Davis did the unthinkable. The highest level of the duality of being a fan of this game we all love so much.

So, what’s the point, Jordan? Well, I’m glad you asked (and thank you for bearing with me while I set the stage for my ultimate message is in this article). No matter how heartbroken I was after that crushing defeat, I still managed to revert back to the emotion I felt at the conclusion of all those losing seasons I had experienced the seven years prior. Hope. Hey, my 49ers were just getting started, and maybe this just wasn’t their year. But next year would be. And I genuinely felt that way, for a good reason too. That 2012 team was loaded with top-end talent.

We all know how that ended, but even though they ultimately lost in an unforgettable Super Bowl, there was an incredible amount to celebrate along the way. Colin Kaepernick shattering the playoff rushing record vs. Green Bay in the divisional round. The 49ers storming back from a 17-0 deficit in Atlanta in the NFC Championship game. Even the lights going out in the Super Dome. It was a year full of memories that 49ers fans everywhere will never forget.

I have no shame in admitting that I shed some tears after that loss to the Ravens. It was hard, I thought they finally were going to crest that hill, and I would get to see them hoist that Lombardi trophy.

But guess what came next? That’s right, that hope and optimism came back right on schedule, and I just knew that next year was going to be the year they did it finally. And in 2013, it was the same movie all over again. A year full of great memories, a fantastic football team marching deep into the playoffs, and ultimately falling just short. Followed by optimism on my end that they’d find a way to figure it out.

Admittedly even I, the eternal optimist, reached points of extreme pessimism during the playoff drought between Harbaugh’s departure and the season or two following Kyle Shanahan’s arrival. Then the 2019 season happened, and it was the same thing again. A talented team creating a season’s worth of unforgettable moments (I had the pleasure of attending that Week 17 game in Seattle, what an electric atmosphere that was). Then the 49ers find a way to get to the big game, and they just can’t get over the hump—a tale as old as time.

But you know what returned? That uncontrollable belief in what the future held was back like it had never left. That hope in the future was also accompanied by an appreciation for a collection of significant moments throughout the course of that season that still put a smile on my face. I think at times it’s so easy to get caught up in the ultimate end destination (which obviously is ideally a super bowl victory) that we tend to lose sight of just how special the journey is along the way. Those jubilant memories can be extremely powerful in a time like now, on the heels of yet another year that ended just shy of the ultimate aspiration of winning it all.

That brings us to the present, where we sit in the same week that the 49ers had yet another promising season end with an agonizing defeat in the playoffs. Another year that was chock-full of memorable moments that hopefully won’t be forgotten anytime soon (seriously, that punt block in zero degree weather in Green Bay was an all-timer). I am here writing this with the hope that maybe this can create some of that end-of-season optimism that kept me going through so many down years.

The good news? This isn’t some artificial sense of hope like I used to manufacture when Mike Singletary screamed to the high heavens that he wanted winners. No, my friends, this optimism is rooted in cold hard logic that shows that the 49ers are among the ELITE teams in the NFL, and that likely doesn’t change in 2022.

They will return a young core of superstar-level players like Nick Bosa, Deebo Samuel, and Fred Warner. Blue chippers like Trent Williams and George Kittle will be back and hungrier than ever. Trey Lance finally gets his chance to show the world just how special he can be in this offense. Kyle Shanahan still remains one of the brightest offensive minds in the league, while DeMeco Ryans enters year two after one of the more impressive rookie coordinator seasons we’ve seen in recent memory.

That optimism I keep speaking about SHOULD be there for 49ers fans. They SHOULD be going into this offseason feeling like “this could finally be the year.” All signs point to the 49ers being a serious contender for the years to come, and one of these years, they HAVE to finally reach that long-sought-after mountain top as champions of the NFL. For now, don’t give up. Their time will come. Focus that passionate energy that makes this fan base so special on all of the remarkable moments we bore witness to this season. And know that next year will FINALLY be their year.

To quote one of my favorite movies of all time: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.”