As far back as Tommy Nello can remember, he’s always lived and died by the San Francisco 49ers. His earliest memories trace back to the iconic Super Bowl blowout of the San Diego Chargers in 1995, he stayed strong through the wilderness years of last place finishes, and celebrated the rejuvenated Colin Kaepernick era. Now, after all these seasons of dedicated fandom, Nello's love of the Niners has become inextricably tied to everything he does. It’s a part of his family, his business, and his music.
This wasn’t always the easiest journey, as Nello spent his formative years in West Los Angeles (and still lives in Southern California to this day). The taunts and side-eyed looks of Angelenos meant to question his allegiance to the Niners were a near constant, but that didn’t stop Tommy from finding his people. He has been a long time member of the Saloon Squad, a group who gathered religiously to watch Niners games at the aptly named San Francisco Saloon on LA's Pico Boulevard. The Saloon was a hangout where devotees lined the block to pack the house before every football Sunday. (My lone attempt to watch there ended because I showed up only two and a half hours before kickoff for the 2019 Divisional Round and they’d already hit maximum occupancy!)
The Saloon’s raucous atmosphere became the stuff of legend. The bar vibrated with anticipation before every big play and exploded in cheers after every sack, touchdown, or victory. Certain fans would arrive wearing large gold chains with 49er logo medallions the size of Flava Flav’s clock, some in cartoon-sized 10-gallon hats, and practically everyone sported a jersey of a current or classic player.
It’s in this environment that Tommy planted the seeds that would change his life. Back in 2012, during the Harbaugh heyday, as Tommy puts it, he was, “broke as hell,” and needed income for his young son, Enzo. Enzo is autistic and required therapy that started to put a financial strain on the family. Tommy had an idea. He’d amassed a collection of Niners’ gear, memorabilia, and ephemera over his time as a fan. He also spent hours every Sunday around people who shared his love for both the Niners and unique merchandise.
Sensing an opportunity, Tommy began running a half-time or post-game raffle, selling tickets for the chance to win a jersey. The experiment became an immediate and resounding success. He coordinated the raffle from around mid-season to the end of the playoff run against the New York Giants in a devastating championship game loss.
Going into the next season, Tommy wanted to up the interest and participation, so he dug into that massive collection of his and put it on the block. “I started bringing out all these old vintage pieces of clothing, like memorabilia, just old things that you’ve probably never seen before.” The raffle became a tradition amongst the Saloon crowd, continuing to this day.
After many successful raffles at the Saloon, Tommy decided to take his vintage game to the next level. In 2018, he created the 49ers4Sale Instagram page, which served the dual purpose of selling rare or interesting items, and promoting next week’s prize. Over time, it gained traction and had over 1,000 followers all vying to land a one-of-a-kind pennant or beloved bobblehead.
Nello continued selling his wares at an impressive pace for the next few seasons. Then, during a moment that quite possibly changed the course of the 2021 season, inspiration struck that changed the course of Tommy’s future once again.
“I went up to a game with my son. We drove up there for the 'Monday Night Football' game against the Rams. It was his first time at Levi’s, and we had a great time being up there together.
“That’s the game, I’m sure you remember, when Deebo [Samuel] scored the touchdown, and he had the chain with the ice, all those diamonds, and we saw it on the big screen. I’m looking at it, and I’m looking at my son, and the vibe. That was, like, the turnaround of the season for us. It felt like Candlestick Park. It was just everyone enjoying it and the energy was crazy. It was like that specific moment ... that’s a pin I’m going to make.”
Nello had already collaborated with his friend, Fathead Tommy, on what’s called a “blip," which is a combo enamel pin/hat clip that you might see on the brim of golfer’s looking to mark their ball on a putting green. With those connections established, he reached out with a picture of the iconic Deebo moment and a plan. He wanted to purchase 50 pins, as a test run. He wasn’t sure just how much interest his followers would have, so he ran a poll to confirm if there was any whatsoever.
The answer soon revealed itself to be a resounding "yes."
“I woke up the next morning, I had, like, a hundred something DMs. I was like, ‘Oh damn.’ So, I went through the first 50 that I saw, and I was sold out. And I was like, 'OK, let me make another run.' Then, that sold out quick. So, I did 150 and by then I was like, ‘Let’s put out another one.’”
From that point on, the pin business has been a non-stop ride for Tommy. He administered a poll deciding on the next design: George Kittle or the YAC Bros. The YAC Bros won, and hit the market, but people’s interest in Deebo never wavered. His inbox flooded with customers asking for another chance to buy it, so he obliged them with another 100.
By this point, Tommy knew he had a hit on his hands. For the first few months, he sifted through every DM personally. As someone with self-diagnosed low level OCD, he loved the process of watching the list come together. However, by this past March, after months of sustained sales, it was time to work smarter, not harder. Thus, 49ers4Sale.com launched. The site allows customers to purchase the most recently dropped pin every Sunday without Tommy having to take addresses down by hand. This isn’t to say that he’s any less involved in the process. In fact, it’s become a true family endeavor.
“... My son, I give him a quarter a pin. He puts on a little thing on the pin back that says thanks for supporting a small business, and it’s got a QR code to the website. So, we still have to do all that by hand … And, then, we’ll print out the slips and he slaps the stickers on the bag.”
For those doing the math, Enzo clears about $25 for every shipment — not bad for a 12 year old. It seems that he’ll be kept busy, too. Tommy has the designs to release a new pin every week through the end of the year. Right now, the sales go live on Sunday mornings at 11 am PT, and once the season starts that’ll be shifted to Saturdays.
The other area that Tommy makes sure to remain intimately involved is design. He explained that his most anticipated future pin, slated to come out on home opener weekend, took over two months of tweaks to get exactly how he envisioned it.
Thankfully, Tommy still has the time and inventory to run his weekly raffles, and he’ll even be taking on more responsibility at this season’s watch parties. The San Francisco Saloon closed permanently due to the pandemic, but the committed crew found a new home. The squad now congregates at the Garage on Motor Ave (where they easily outnumbered an Eagles chapter last season) and you’ll also be able to catch Tommy spinning tracks from the DJ booth each gameday in 2022. (This was born out of his work as a rapper, which includes several Niners themed songs, like “Love Bosa.”)
If you’re in Los Angeles, swing by and test your luck. You never know what you might win and you’ll definitely get to meet Tommy, who described himself as, “a Capricorn who likes long walks around Levi Stadium.” Oh, and he’ll be rocking the coolest collection of Niners swag you’ve ever seen.