Sunday, November 18, 2012

Not Just a Game, Not Just a City

Alternately titled: The Post 23 Years and One Month in the Making

Tara and I recently took a trip. Not just any trip, THE trip. This trip has been a dream of mine for almost as long as I can remember. But, before I tell you about the trip, you need to understand the  significance. Enjoy!

When I was about 6 or 7 years old, I fell in love with the San Francisco 49ers. I’m 29 now and in those 23 years, I’ve forgotten what originally made me a fan of a football team that was about 3000 miles away. I suspect it was the 49ers victory in Super Bowl XXIII in 1989 (I was six). Maybe it was their victory in Super Bowl XXIV in 1990 (I was seven). When combined with their SB victory in 1984, that made 3 SB victories in my short 7 years of life (not counting their SB victory in 1981 before I was born). I was drawn to their dominance.

My love of The Niners, and football itself, grew. I began playing Little League football at age eight.
Outside of organized football, my friends, my brother and I would play football any chance we got;
in the park across the street and if that field was taken, in the street itself. We would play in the
schoolyard before the opening bell, in the schoolyard after the closing bell, during recess and gym. We
would play in rain, sleet and snow – described simply as “football weather”. We would play until it
was so dark we couldn’t see the ball and then we would break out the glow-in-the-dark Nerf football
and sneak in another game. Anytime, anywhere. We were serious about the game and rare was the
moment we didn’t think about it in some way. My room became a shrine to the 49ers. The walls were
covered with official plaques, pictures cut from magazines and newspapers, even pictures I drew and
colored myself. The bed sheets – 49ers. Trash can – 49ers. Window clings – 49ers. Pins, stickers,
banners, jerseys, you name it. It was never ending. Since you couldn’t possibly imagine, here are a couple of pictures of my room at the time.

When we played football, I would imagine I was Jerry Rice or Joe Montana; and eventually Steve Young. The NFL Films VHS highlights tape of the 49ers 1994 Super Bowl season is the only reason I still own a VCR. I still watch it from time to time – including once more just before we left for this trip. The image and sound of Steve Young holding the Lombardi Trophy, speaking to his teammates and saying “No one can ever, ever take this away from us. EVER!” is still fresh in my mind. And, I’ll never forget Young carrying the game ball and running around the field after finally beating the Cowboys in the 1995 NFC Championship, after losing that game to the Cowboys the prior two seasons. His pure passion for the game still resonates with me. He was and is, undoubtedly, my favorite all-time player.

Over the years, I moved into different bedrooms throughout the house and each time, a little less of
the 49ers stuff made the trip. When I went off to college and packed up my room, most of the 49ers
gear stayed behind or got discarded. I kept the most valuable items and I still display the plaque with
a team picture highlighting the 1994 Super Bowl team. Many would say I’m a “fair weather fan” who
quit cheering for the team during their struggles of the 2000’s. I say, it’s tough to cheer for a team
that’s 3000 miles away when they consistently have a losing record. Not because you don’t want to but
simply because no local store sells 49ers gear unless they’re winning playoff games. No local TV station airs their games when they’re not competitive. And, teams don’t get Monday Night Football spotlights unless they’re winning games. I didn’t stop cheering; they just weren’t around to cheer for.

Through the 1990s, the 49ers were always playoff contenders and received a lot of TV time as a result.
I watched every game I could and I always loved when sites throughout the city were highlighted. My
love of the team evolved into a love of the city. I can still hear John Madden talking about Lombard
Street or many of the great places to eat in Fisherman’s Wharf in his usual colorful, dramatic fashion. I
can still picture the TV screen when they highlighted the sponsors during timeouts; often showing shots
of the Golden Gate Bridge in the background as the camera rolled during a drive across the bridge. I can picture shots of Alcatraz or the huge, steep hills of the city. The shots of the Victorian homes on every episode of Full House captured my attention. In 1996, the movie The Rock highlighted the cable cars, the Palace of Fine Arts and, of course, Alcatraz. It seemed like such a great place and I often dreamed of visiting the city and especially the stadium – Candlestick Park.

Oh to see a game at The Stick: the place where Dwight Clark caught The Catch, the place where Jerry
Rice caught a long touchdown pass from Steve Young just before half time during the 1995 NFC
Championship game – arguably sealing the victory. The place where so much history was made –
history that I had only ever seen on TV or in highlight reels. I would observe features of the stadium on
TV; reminders of the stadium’s baseball years like the dugouts, the odd shape to one side of the stadium
that didn’t have any seats, etc. I always wondered what it really looked like, what was behind the TV
cameras. I never really thought I would get to see a game there. It’s 3000 miles away, I was young with
no money and I hate to fly. Then I grew up, graduated college and got a job. Now I had the means to
get there but, I was married with a young child. The dream would have to be put on hold. There are
more important things to tend to first and anyway, everyone else sees it as just a game, just a city; a
waste of time and money. They wouldn’t understand, and I wouldn’t blame them. Someday, I thought,
someday I will get there. I’ve still got time. They’re not going anywhere.

Then came the announcement. The 49ers were building a new stadium and the 2013 season would
be their last at Candlestick Park. What? It can’t be true. That’s not enough time. I’ll never get to see
the stadium before it’s imploded, probably to make way for some stupid strip mall. I was bummed,
heartbroken really. A life-long dream would be lost. I couldn’t possibly have imagined what would
come next.

In February 2012, I got the chance to speak at a conference in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a great
opportunity and I’m thankful for it. But, I didn’t realize the chain of events it would kickoff.

When I was finished speaking at the conference, one of the organizers mentioned that she thought
my presentation would be a great fit for their annual conference in San Diego, California. I didn’t think
much of it beyond what a great work opportunity it would be, if it materialized. And, I never really
thought it would materialize.

Months went by before I received a formal invitation to speak at the San Diego conference and several
more weeks before I received company approval to attend. Initially, I was just excited at the chance to
see the west coast, something I’d never seen. But, then it dawned on me that there could be a chance
to get to San Francisco. And, if I was going to be in San Francisco, maybe I could catch a game! I was
getting ahead of myself. I didn’t even know when the conference was scheduled. So, I began planning.

To my surprise, not only was the conference scheduled in October, smack in the middle of football
season, but the 49ers just happened to have a home game the weekend I would be there. New York
Giants vs. San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park. I immediately went online and snatched up two
tickets. Nose bleed section but who cares? I was actually going to be there! I couldn’t believe that all
the pieces were fitting together. The dream was coming true.

To be continued...

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