The 1998 San Francisco 49ers: When I Became Faithful

S LCorrespondent IMay 12, 2009

3 Jan 1999:  Terrell Owens #81 of the San Francisco 49ers gets helped off the field by J. J. Stokes during the NFC Wild Card Game against the Green Bay Packers at the 3 Comm Park in San Francisco, California. The 49ers defeated the Packers 24-17. Mandatory Credit: Jed Jacobsohn  /Allsport

When I relive the classic days of the 49ers, a lot of memories return to the 1980s when Joe Montana led the team to four Super Bowl wins. Some of it goes back to the 1994 season when Steve Young finally reached the mountaintop.

But it’s hard for me to relate to those memories since I did not start to follow football until after all those great moments. In fact, I truly started to follow the 49ers and football during the 1998 season.

At that time, I was 12-years-old and I had finally gotten grasp of the majority of the rules of the game. I was really optimistic of the team for that season after what had occurred the previous year.

In that previous season in 1997, the 49ers lost Jerry Rice and Steve Young both to injuries in the first game. Despite all that, the team produced the top rated defense in the league. Jerry came back for one night against the Broncos as the 49ers retired Joe Montana's number at halftime. But after another disappointing exit from the playoffs with a loss to the Packers, I felt that the team could be better.

The first game of the season featured the 49ers (switching back to gold pants after two seasons in white) at home against the New York Jets. I was actually in Oakland that day at an A’s game. I had just gotten to my friend’s house after the A’s game to catch the latter part of the 49ers game. In overtime, Garrison Hearst broke a 96-yard touchdown run to win the team’s first game of the season.

What a start to my first full-time commitment to the 49ers!

The season was a blast for me to watch. The 49ers had another winning season, finishing at 12-4. Steve Young finished the year with a team record 36 touchdown passes and Jerry Rice came back from knee surgery from the past season to grab nine touchdowns while leading the league in reception yards.

But what was great to watch was the development of Terrell Owens at wide receiver. In his third season, Owens caught 14 touchdown passes and it looked like the 49ers offense was going to be unstoppable.

The 49ers were also blessed to have the solid running game of Garrison Hearst and Terry Kirby in the backfield. Throughout the remainder of the season, I watched every game without missing a snap.

I guess I was somewhat spoiled since the 49ers had always been a winning team to me. Those four losses during the regular season were things I did not expect from the team. At such a young age, I had no idea how to react to losses.

Any hiccup on the road to the Super Bowl scared me during the season. Losses to the Falcons and Packers during the regular season made me realize that the team might not be ready for the playoffs just yet. But I still hoped that the 49ers would end up on top.

The 49ers had lost to the Packers in the past three playoffs and this fourth meeting ended up being my favorite 49ers moment in my very young life as a fan.

After a seesaw battle, the 49ers prevailed with one of the most memorable plays in 49ers history. Steve Young threw this perfect touchdown pass to Terrell Owens with three second remaining to secure the 49ers’ win over the Packers.

The following week, both Garrison Hearst and Terry Kirby suffered injuries early in the game and the 49ers didn't have enough juice to beat the upstart Atlanta Falcons team. My first full season as a 49ers fan ended.

Still during that time, I remained a loyal 49ers fan and continued to cheer for them. But I don't think until recently, after 10 years, had I realized how important that one season made me love the team.

I had no real fond memories of the 49ers prior to the 1998 season. All I could remember was my dad telling me that Steve Young was a joke. I knew of the Super Bowls and all the players. But I wasn't part of a Super Bowl run until that 1998 season.

Now as I reminisce, I think that my first connection to this team made this my favorite team of all time. I grew up with this team and this team taught me the highs and lows of being a football fan.

This was Steve Young's final great season (he would suffer a career-ending concussion the following year). This was when Terrell Owens emerged as a superstar (before the ego settled in). The season had Jerry Rice and a victory over the Packers in the playoffs.

I can almost pinpoint every major victory during the 1998 season and those memories will last a lifetime with me. Everything prior to that year was just knowledge and history to me. But for this one season, I became part of the 49er faithful.

Most people will call back a Super Bowl team as their favorite team. But for me, it was the team that made me believe that we could win the Super Bowl again.