The Niners (or: Sports? We Do That, Too)

Rooting for a baseball team is a heart-soul function nourished by one’s childhood or community, ideally both. Same goes for a college team in any sport. I am one with the point-of-view that says unless you went to the school you’re rooting for, you’re not a legitimate member of that school’s fan base. I’m willing to expand the rules to include spouses or children who attended or are attending the school in question. But that’s as far as I go.

 

Professional tackle football, on the other hand, is a different animal; a bigger, furrier, wealthier animal with retractable claws, a broad reach and a twelve-room mansion in Amagansett. The National Football League is a brand-name product with thirty-two littler brand-name products that, whatever their regional loyalties, have the same mass recognition as Colgate, Nissan and Olive Garden. Loyalty to the home team is, for many, a consummation devoutly to be wished. But no one seems to make a big deal if you glom onto a sexier, sleeker product playing the same day as your regional telecast. Hence, your Green Bay Packers fans shouting about the power of cheese in Albuquerque, your Philadelphia Eagles fans in a midtown Manhattan bar throwing darts at LT’s picture or Dallas Cowboys fans in Warwick, Rhode Island who wouldn’t venture south of Delaware on a bet.

 

So do I have to explain why, this weekend, I shall be rooting for theSan Francisco 49ers to beat the New York Giants?  I might, rabbit, I just might…

I am not from the Bay Area, NoCal or anywhere else west of West Hartford,Connecticut. I have visited San Francisco a handful of times in my life and, as has been the case with many visitors before and since, came away every time more in love with it than before. I wanted to live there, maybe could have lived there, but didn’t. I have a few good friends and at least one relative living there now. But I have no ancestral link to Baghdad-on-the-Bay or any of the surrounding territories now served by BART.

 

Nevertheless, I am a 49ers fan of forty years standing. If you’re counting correctly, that pre-dates the Camelot that came into being thirty years ago last month with Joe Montana’s epoch-making heave at Dwight Clark’s out-stretched hands in the NFC Championship game against the Dallas Cowboys, to whom (as any true red-and-gold-veined Niner fan knows) the team used to perennially lose in perennially heart-breaking fashion in those same title games in the early seventies (and would again in the early nineties, but I digress…) I mention this at the outset to prove I didn’t clamber onto the bus when Bill Walsh and Eddie DeBartolo put it into high gear. I remember rooting for John Brodie launching surface-to-air-missiles to Gene Washington and Ted Kwalik. I know who the Fudge Hammer was and read up on enough team history to know who constituted the Million-Dollar Backfield of the fabulous fifties. I never went to Kezar when the team played there, but showed the proper reverence when I actually encountered the place on one of those aforementioned visits. And I made the trip to Candlestick for the 1984 NFC title and screamed like a banshee when the Big Bad Bears were shut down 24-0.

We get it, you say. You like the 49ers. But why?  A good question, given that I grew up in a New York Giants household. My late father lived and died and, every once in a while, rose from the dead by the G-Men since the distant days when you actually had to say, “New York Football Giants,” to distinguish them from the baseball version, Every fall, through several decades, men-in-blue named Andy Robustelli, Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, Alex Webster, Dick Lynch, Ernie Wheelwright, Homer Jones, Joe Morrison, Pete Gogolak, Carl “Spider” Lockhart, Dave Jennings, Harry Carson and many others showed up for Sunday dinner to either get chewed out or backslapped by the Old Man. In the wilderness period between 1964 and 1980, a.k.a. “Sixteen Years of Lousy Football,” Dad was especially fond of Lockhart, Carson and the now-forgotten Morrison, an all-purpose player whose dogged, unassuming excellence at the nadir of the Giants’ decline was a source of solace and pride.

 

My younger brother, however, had adopted the then-Los Angeles Rams as his team. I always assumed it was the helmet design that initially grabbed him. (And I admit, the logo’s coolness has traveled well to St. Louis, whether the team sucks or not.) As has been historically the case with younger brothers, he became protective of his Rams to the point of being utterly obnoxious about it. So one October afternoon during the 1969 season, I watched as his belligerence began to wither under the televised assault of a Rams-Niners game during which L.A., by far the better team that year, couldn’t shake their long-time rivals loose, even though the game ended with the Rams winning by a touchdown. I figured any team that could shut my brother up was worth adopting as one’s own.

 

It was an impulse buy that grew on me in a relatively short time. And here, basically, is why I kept faith: The 49ers played, to me, like artists. Their methods, on both sides of the ball, appealed to my aesthetic sense of what pro football should be: a ground game based on quicksilver slashing over head-first pounding, defense that dueled more with swift, martial-arts flair, especially in the backfield, than with relentless, stone-fisted pummeling. And an aerial attack that looked especially grand when going long and deep in several directions. Win or lose, that style of play was what made the 49ers distinctive, especially during the dynasty years when the Niners were habitually labeled – or, to some, slandered – with the classification of “finesse team.” Fine, we Niner fans insisted. We’ll be your “finesse team” as long as whatever you imply by that image keeps your teams from noticing how beat up and bruised they get from trying to outrun, outshoot and outwit our guys.

 

Now the 49ers are emerging from their own wilderness years – and doing so mostly with a hard-assed defense and a formidable ground game. As long as I’ve been conscious, I’ve never known a 49er team that entered the playoffs wielding the most dominant defense of any other NFC title contender. Not that our team has never engaged in effective brutality (or do you all need to be reminded after all these years of the Greatest Free Safety in Human History?) But this swaggering brick-wall-and-mailed-fist image is something one will have to get used to, especially now that it seems to have brought the team to the brink of its sixth Super Bowl.

 

Do I think they’ll get there? Of course I do. That last couple of drives Saturday almost screeched “Destiny!”  I can already imagine an episode of “America’s Game” with Jim Harbaugh, Alex Smith and Vernon Davis, the latter still getting choked up over what I’m calling, “The Catch 3.” Who at this point can you imagine appearing in a comparable installment for any of the other four contenders? I thought not.

The Catch 3

Still…oh, hell, as long as we’re here, let’s weigh all the possible combinations for the Rilly Big Shew in Indy:

 

1.)    Pats vs. Giants – This is the re-match everybody wants, most especially the respective constituencies of each franchise; the former, to avenge the shocking denial of their bid for undefeated immortality; the latter, to prove to America, the world and maybe even (especially) themselves that the 2007 championship wasn’t a fluke. I’d throw a party for that contest, but you KNOW what happens to games that everyone wants to happen, right? The football gods, including former commissionersBell and Rozelle, believe granting fans’ fervent wishes makes mortals too soft, too spoiled. (In case you’re wondering, in a pinch, the G-Men can always count on my vote in situations such as this. I ate too many Sunday dinners with those guys to cut them out of my life completely.)

2.)    Giants vs. Ravens – This is the re-match that hardly anyone cares about, not even the two franchises. Who’s left of the 2000 Giants on the team now? On the other hand, there are at least a couple of Ravens still active who played in that game. But what’s in it for them besides a sentimental journey to their finest hour? Which, for what it’s worth, won’t be repeated in this hypothetical bowl. Different teams, different times…

3.)    Ravens vs. 49ers – Bro vs. Bro helped fill a couple of Thanksgiving pre-game TV dinners for a day or two. America, be honest: Do you really, really, really want two whole weeks of talking heads breaking down the Harbaugh family tree in search of exotic blood compounds? Me neither, so let’s move on.

4.)    49ers vs. Pats – Unimaginable – and hard to hype unless you want to make it all about Tom Brady playing against the team he grew up idolizing and, by the by, getting psyched to match his hero Joe Montana in the number of Super Bowl wins (four). You know what? That would be altogether ideal for the Niner Nation since the gasbags would be so busy talking about Brady that they’d barely notice the relatively anonymous slugs on the other side of the field. Guess who wins that one.