Saturday, February 2, 2013

Making The 49ers Choice

I've been asked a couple times recently how I became a 49er fan. Typically these questions come from 30-somethings too young to have lived -- and others that simply don't know -- the 49ers' 15-year run of NFL dominance. Poor miguided souls. But the question did get me to thinking back to those early days of my sports fan life, so on the eve of the franchise's 6th Super Bowl trip, I thought it might be fun to take a trip back down memory lane.

To start, when I was a freshed-eye 8-year-old football fan, an early-season rising Niners came into New York and <a href="">beat the Jets</a>, my dad's favourite team. Two months later, the 49ers played and <a href="">beat the NY Football Giants</a>, who just so happened to be my godfather's favourite team. That those two NY wins bookended a long 8-game losing streak is, of course, of no relevance; I was, again, 8 years old and likely too busy acting out scenes from "The Empire Strikes Back" to follow the league's weekly happenings. And though it's equally-unlikely that these two games made me notice the team on my own, what *was* extremely likely was that it made my two most prominent male figures notice them, laying the foundation for what would come soon thereafter. A team that was 2-14 beating the Jets? Losing to a team that had been on an 8-game losing streak? I can only imagine the conversations in NY and between those two.

The following season, those same 49ers <a href="">beat my godfather's team again</a> in a regular season matchup. Then, for good measure, barely one month later they <a href="">beat the Giants yet again</a> in the playoffs, this time a 38-24 smoking unlike the earlier defensive struggles. At this point, any Giants fan was disgusted with this team from the Bay Area, and impressionable 9-year-olds were irrevocably turned off by the local team's repeated failures against them. Especially in light of what came next.

With the single most celebrated play of the 1980s, those 49ers <a href="">took down America's team</a>, Joe Montana-to-Dwight Clark's "The Catch" halting the Dallas Cowboys' run at dominance (and beginning their decline to irrelevance, but that's another story). And, of course, when the 49ers proved they were more than mere Cinderellas by <a href="">winning the big game</a> two weeks later, a wide-eyed soon-to-be 10-year-old couldn't help but be swept in fully. That it turned out to be the best sporting "choice" one could have made at the time, well, just blame fate, or clairvoyance.

Two years later, the Jets did actually manage to beat the Niners in the regular season -- not that it much mattered, seeing as how (1) the Jets were going nowhere fast (7-9 that year) and (2) the Niners did end up making it all the way to the conference title game, losing to the eventual-champion John Riggins, Joe Theisman Washington Indigenous Persons team.

The following year, 1984, saw the 49ers win the (otherwise meaningless) revenge game vs. the Washingtonians, as well as beat the NY Giants twice yet again (regular season and playoffs) on their way along a *tremendous* 15-1 march to their 2nd Super Bowl. The last 12 weeks featured 8 blowouts and only 2 game decided by less than 7 points. That team is in the discussion for best team ever. 2nd ranked offense. First ranked defense. Just think about that for a second. The top offense *and* defense in the league? Crazy. 15-1? Insane. And then to top it off by destroying the league's darlings, the blinding flash that was the Dan Marino Miami Dolphins, in the Super Bowl?

Well, that was it for me. The final door had been hung on the foundation that was laid in 1981. My gold 49ers starter jacket was as prominent in my days as was suede Pumas and shell-top Adidas. I had a football game for my Commodore-64 ("4th and Inches" I believe is the name), where you essentially played offensive and defensive play-caller, that only solidified my connection with the team, and helped me know it better than any 12-year old fan back then normally would. Just thinking about the names instantly transports me back to junior high school. Roger Craig and Wendell Tyler running hard. Freddie Solomon and Renaldo Nehemiah catching passes. Dana McLemore returning punts. Ronnie Lott smashing into people everywhere. Dwight Hicks, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson locking people down (the entire secondary went to the Pro Bowl. Just chew on that). Keena Turner, Riki Ellison...I could go on for days. What a team. I used to play that game endlessly...almost always as my Niners of course.

There was something else about rooting for the Niners that was appealing: the uniqueness of it. There wasn't anyone else I grew up with that claimed a team 3000 miles away; it allowed me to be an individual, to stand out, be different. As the 80s rolled on, the 49ers were always in the thick of things, and I could always put on that starter jacket and be like no one else around me. After losing to the Giants twice and watching a couple of once-and-dones get the crown, 1988 came around. Time for the Niners to claim team of the decade once and for all. An unlikely 10-6 run to the Super Bowl closed my senior year in high school in style; a dominant repeat season allowed me to start my college career with the same unique, dominant team identity.

So there, in a nutshell, is how I became a 49er fan and why it stuck. A team that constantly stuck it to the teams of my mentors. A team that went from fashionable Cinderella to the indomitable beast. A team that, for all it's offensive accolades, was typically *even better* on defense -- which is why I never got swept up in the Saints, Packers and Patriots of the past 2 years. Defense wins championships. Always. A dominant defense backing a merely half-decent offense has a great shot to win a title. A flashy offense carrying an average-or-worse defense on its back? Not so much.

A couple more years that I might as well cover on the 49er glory years. After putting Super Bowl parties to sleep by <a href="">dancing all over John Elway's Ponies</a>, we lost an incredibly tight NFC title game to the Giants, a team that rode that blueprint all the way to a ring.

The following year, 1991, will however always remain a what-if. After sleep-and-injury walking thru the first 10 games, the Niners became a beast. They won the next 6 games in increasingly-dominant fashion by the week, culminating in a 52-14 mauling of the Bears on the final weekend. They were rolling. They were ready, the proverbial hot team no one wants to play. Alas, their early swoon doomed them and they didn't qualify for the playoffs. You can't tell me other teams didn't breathe at least a small sigh upon seeing them miss the postseason.

Anyways, here's to those great 1980s 49er teams that are an indelible part of my youth. And here's hoping that the 2012-2013 San Francisco 49ers are also that proverbial team getting hot at the right time. And here's hoping that they can add to their other unique mark: an undefeated multiple-Super Bowl record. Quest for Six! Who's got it better than us!!

My Final Word On The NFL's Washington Franchise

We here in the Martian sports landscape believe in respect for all peoples of Earth, so I'd like to note a quick thought on the mascot of the NFL franchise that occupies the Washington, DC area. The nickname is dumb. It's offensive. Period. This is not up for debate. No one would ever accept the Detroit Darkies or the Houston Honkies or the New York Kikes. That we have allowed our sensibilities to become dead to the offensiveness of the Washington mascot does nothing to relieve or lessen its...offensiveness. On that note, I will make it my personal rule to never use the name when referring to the franchise, or anything else for that matter -- unless my intent is to be offensive, of course. Greg Easterbrook, an ESPN writer known as "The Sports Guy", has taken such a stance in his writings, referring to them (in longform) as the Potomac River Basin Area Indigenous Persons. Naturally he abbreviates most of the time. (The Potomac Persons, while not descriptive, does have a ring to it doesn't it?) I'll follow his lead and do the same, referring to them in word only by the city they represent, and in type in various ways, none of which will include that childishly-derogatory name. Group-think hasn't infected us all.

Random Numbers Game (unfinished entry)

As I'm reading article on the upcoming NFL divisional weekend matchups, which looks as trends while trying the handicap the games.

* John Clayton notes that the Packers "only run the ball 40% of the time." Well, that's only true because they ran it 20-30% of the time early in the season, but have been running it at damn-near 50% for the majority of the year. Why quote an overall number when for 9, 10 games it doesn't hold? Right, because you're just randomly looking a stats.

* A number of people have noted that Aaron Rodgers is a "master" at winning road games, offering his 3-1 record as evidence. However, as someone on an ESPN board noted, those 3 wins all happened in one postseason run. While taking absolutely nothing away from the impressive nature of that run, let's not quote this as some career-long type of trend. We have had a number of wildcard-weekend Super Bowl runs over the past decade, meaning each one of those QBs have a minimum of at least 2 road wins under their belt.

...there were a few other silly stats thrown about throughout the playoffs, but I got distracted and never quite finished this blog entry...but, for the two that were included, I'll just post an incomplete entry for once...