As the 49ers clashed with the Dallas Cowboys in the latest chapter of a fierce rivalry that spans back generations, something special was happening simultaneously. But it was not on the field, but rather in the seats, the promenade, and any area of space within the confines of Levi’s Stadium that was being occupied by fans who showed up to watch this epic postseason matchup.
This was the fourth playoff game that the 49ers have hosted in the short history of Levi’s Stadium since it opened its doors back in 2014. While the building was full of passionate and dedicated fans in the previous three, this was the first game at this venue where it felt like it truly found had an identity that it could claim as its own.
It’s important to remember that the 49ers built their legacy on that hallowed ground at Candlestick Point, which many of us still hold near and dear to this day. Levi’s Stadium was always at a disadvantage from the start because no matter how innovative the new Stadium was going to be, it was never going to be Candlestick, and for many, never going to replace the decades of memories from that magical building.
Levi’s Stadium faced this uphill battle from day one, and all along, the most desirable and realistic outcome was always going to be finding a way to cultivate a new home rather than attempting to replace the beloved one they had just left.
I have to emphasize the word “home” here because it is important to remember that there is a distinction between a home and a house. The 49ers realistically could put a football stadium anywhere in the continental United States, and their passionate fans would still show up in massive numbers to support their team.
The issue with moving to the South Bay was never going to stem from a lack of dedication from those who support the team both locally and nationally. The greatest challenge was going to be cultivating an environment that those rabid and loyal fans could settle into and forge a new era of unforgettable moments similar to the ones they experienced at the 49ers' former home during the glory days of a storied franchise.
After a tumultuous start during the dark days of the Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly years, this current iteration of the 49ers, under the direction of Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch, revitalized what had been a relatively dormant home field during the 49ers' first handful of seasons in their new digs in Santa Clara.
You could feel the momentum building towards the end of the 2017 season, and by 2019 there was tangible progress in the effort to make Levi’s Stadium play host as a venue the home fans could adore while visiting teams would dread the thought of having to play meaningful games in the presence of tens of thousands of screaming, loud, 49ers fans.
I have attended every playoff game that has ever taken place at Levi’s, and I want to make it clear this next statement is not a dig at the games the 49ers hosted in the playoffs in 2019, as they were very special in their own right.
However, these last two weeks, there has been a palpable shift in energy within Stadium and the surrounding areas. It goes beyond just the seismic energy shift radiating from the crowd throughout the game. This increased level of enthusiasm is something that can be felt hours before kickoff, whether it be the drive-in or the tailgates at any number of the surrounding parking lots.
Something is just different this year. Perhaps that was the result of the way the schedule and nature itself unfolded as the 49ers opened up the playoffs against one of if not their most bitter rival at the moment, the kind of matchup that is sure to bring out the fire and intensity of even the most even-keeled fans.
It also could be because the torrential downpour that was forecasted ultimately led to a massive drop in ticket prices, which theoretically provided the opportunity for many fans who would have typically been priced out to get the chance to experience a playoff game they otherwise might have opted to pass on.
Regardless of the reason why that Wild Card game against the Seahawks was the loudest and most electric I have ever heard, Levi’s Stadium in the near decade that it has been open. So much so the Seahawks' offensive line repeatedly got flagged for false start penalties, which one could safely assume was a result of being rattled by the 65,000 or so 49ers fans reaching a decibel level never before seen in the Stadium's history.
As I sat watching that game late in the second half, I thought to myself, “this is the first game in this place that actually feels like the days of old at Candlestick.” Maybe it was the cloudy, rainy weather, or perhaps just more easily accessible to a large number of passionate fans who jumped at the opportunity to attend a playoff game for a cost that is way below the ordinary market value.
Either way, that game was a clear turning point for the 49ers and their ability to cultivate an environment on their home field that leaves them with a distinct advantage over any team before actually breaking down the rosters of each respective side.
This newfound jolt of energy not only carried into the Dallas game the following week, but it also increased even further. I lived near Levi’s for the first eight years it was open, and I cannot ever recall a worse traffic jam hours before kickoff on the level we saw this past Sunday.
This speaks volumes to the number of people showing up early to make the tailgate a special part of the game day experience, something which was an integral part of the days of old at their former stomping grounds.
Windy? Rainy? Cold? Didn’t matter. Once upon a time, if you were at a 49ers home playoff game, there was a certain level of excitement you could feel in the air well before the game was underway.
While the 2019 postseason absolutely laid the foundation for where things stand now, the setting that Levi’s Stadium has provided in this 2022 run has been special in a way that is hard to truly quantify.
Perhaps it comes down to having enough moments after four games to organically get the sense of comfort and pride that any good home field should provide its fans and the players taking the field. Being undefeated at Levi’s definitely does not hurt either, adding to the already ever-increasing list of reasons why opposing teams would much prefer to avoid this Stadium in the month of January.
The bottom line is that for a long time, Levi’s just happened to feel like a place where our favorite team just happened to play their football games. There was a field and enough seats to fit a reasonable number of fans, but beyond that, it felt like something was lacking.
It’s almost like staying at a very nice hotel or Air BnB. No matter how nice it may be or however many amenities it may have, it never will truly feel like home because that comfort is something that is developed over time.
Levi’s Stadium is no different, and it feels like, after all of the ups and downs since it opened its doors, the 49ers have truly found a place that they can proudly call home with the same pride they once did at that historic venue at Candlestick Park.
Sunday’s win over the Cowboys was the final game of the season at Levi’s, giving the 49ers one last chance to put a bow on what has been a massively successful campaign at home, with the 49ers finishing with a record of 10-1 in their own building this season.
Levi’s Stadium has a pulse now. It’s not just a building for fans to come in and watch a football game. It’s home now. Home for you, home for me, and home for anyone else who loves this team and loves this game with the passion and fervor that has been impossible to ignore over these last couple of weeks.