I love the San Francisco 49ers. I have for as long as I can remember. Of course, it was quite easy to love the 49ers in the 1980s and 1990s. There were so many glorious teams and wonderful memories. And I can think of no harder task than picking a favorite.
Aside from the Super Bowl teams, there are plenty that hold a special place in my heart, like the 1998 team that finally excised the demon of Brett Favre ruining my playoff experience from the 1995 season (I was AT the game). The 2002 team provided that electric fourth quarter comeback against the Giants that is still stunning to watch.
I also have fondness for recent years like 2006 when it looked like the team was actually turning a corner until Norv left (Thanks San Diego!). Or last year when the 49ers took my advice of turning Mike Singletary into the head coach, admittedly half a season later than I wanted.
But it is the Super Bowl teams that fill my memories.
I would love to say I vividly remember any of the championship teams of the 1980s from first hand experience, but I don't. All I had were videos that I watched as a kid, and still watch over and over again. And each one holds a place in my heart.
The 1989-1990 team was probably the greatest team in 49ers', and possibly the NFL's, History. The roster jumps out as an All-80s team in its own right, and I am more than happy to explain and then argue why it is probably the best team in history. Their postseason dominance was ridiculous, and their combined margin of loss was five points.
The '81 team was a godsend for the championship-starved city by the bay. It was the first reward for the 49er Faithful for their decades of loyalty. They gave us iconic moments in football history, like The Catch, and the goal line stand, with Dan Bunz' great tackle on the one.
This team was immortalized for me on a video that contained the NFL Films Production of Super Bowl XVI. It gave me an appreciation of the Xs and Os of the game, and the minute details that could change the outcome of a game. It's why I learned about "Sweep Pass Right Z Comeback," where Walsh had read the coverage on Mike Wilson and knew a curl route would give Wilson a huge cushion to catch the ball.
On the same tape was NFL's Masters of the Game, NFL Films' production of Super Bowl XIX. This was my favorite as a child. It also advanced my understanding of Xs and Os, For instance, showing how the linebackers followed the guards, leaving the middle of the field open for TE Russ Francis to fill the void.
However, this film was more notable for its narration, with great quotes like, "Dan Marino's year turned into Joe Montana's day" or, "The texture of San Francisco's dominance was clearly woven into the intricate mayhem of line play." I still get goosebumps at the end with the line, "They were not only champions of the world, but Masters of the Game." To this day this team is still underrated, in spite of an 18-1 record.
I also had the video yearbook for the 1988 season, narrated beautifully by the late great Harry Kalas and accompanied by the sweet radio calls of Lon Simmons, and one or two by Joe Starkey. This team is considered the weakest link of the Super Bowl Teams, though it is a team that suffered key injuries throughout the season, including Joe Montana and Jerry Rice (though Rice refused to miss a game).
The aspect that made it hard to watch at the time is what makes it so amazing to watch now. It was a season filled with ups and downs, close games and a few blowouts, miracle wins, and disheartening losses.
Two games into the season, they had an unforgettable finish. Down by four to the hated New York Giants, Joe threw a 77 yard touchdown pass to Jerry Rice and, in the words of the color commentator, "It is stunned silence here in the Meadowlands."
The team was embarrassed at home against the Falcons and followed it up by embarrassing Seattle, in Seattle. Roger Craig had the game of his career against the rival Rams, and they followed it up by losing to the Bears by a point, 9-10. The next game was also nearly a loss if it was not for one of the greatest plays in team history, Steve Young's run against the Vikings.
The season was very back and forth, with highs and lows, including a record of 6-5 before turning it around, winning four of the last five games. They then steamrolled the Vikings and the Bears in the playoffs to compete in one of the most thrilling Super Bowl's ever. Montana's final drive is a thing of beauty, and there is nothing quite like hearing Lon Simmons cry out one last time "Touchdown 49ers!"
All of these highlights are ingrained in my memory and I cherish them all, but the 1994 season holds a unique place in my heart. Context is crucial in understanding why. My earliest distinct football memory is watching the 1992 NFC Championship game. I remember only one moment of it: Running to tell my mom that Rice had scored a touchdown mere moments into the game. I also remember going back to tell her it had been called back. That is all I remember of those first two NFC championships against the Cowboys.
Also, 1994 was a very difficult year for me personally. Hard to imagine an 8 year-old having a tough year, but shortly before the 49ers would lose their second consecutive Championship game to the Cowboys, my dad told me he had a Brain tumor. To be frank, I don't really remember what he said, or how he explained it, but the gist was, my father was going to die.
By September my father had passed the six-months-to-live estimate and I had no idea what was going on, so I took comfort in the arrival of football season. The season started on a glorious Monday night where all eyes were on my favorite player, and he did not disappoint, as Jerry Rice tied and broke the NFL touchdown record against the Raiders
I also remember getting myself stoked for the arrival of Deion Sanders. I can still picture his first pick-six clinching the game against the Saints, his fighting with Andre Rison, and his subsequent pick-six against the Falcons in Atlanta.
The season was off to an early rocky start with losses to KC and Philly, the latter was one I just had to stop watching. But the team turned it around in Detroit, the team that had dealt the Cowboys their first loss of the season. With our two losses to their one, I knew, as everyone did, that the week 11 match-up would be the key for Home field advantage and the inside track to the Super Bowl.
The game was huge. They had lost three straight to the Cowboys, and this game would indicate if the 49ers had done enough to get over the hump. In this game, they proved that this year could be different as they fought a tough game to win 21-14 to continue on to an eventual 10 game winning streak.
The 49ers faced the San Diego Chargers on the second Sunday in December. I barely remember anything about the game other than knowing the 49ers dominated the game. My dad died two days later. Football was my immediate comfort. The day after we laid my father to rest, the 49ers win, coupled with a Cowboys loss, meant the road to the Super Bowl ran through Candlestick.
The win streak was snapped in the final game of the season in which most of the starters rested with home field advantage already locked up, as the Niners ended their season 13-3. They were also undefeated when wearing their throwback jerseys adopted for the 75th anniversary of the NFL.
While technically there was two weeks of games before hand, everyone had the NFC Championship Game penciled in as 49ers v. Cowboys for the third straight year (a fact that would haunt me a year later at Candlestick). The Bears and Packers were mere formalities each team had to deal with, tune up games for the Game of the Year.
I watched the game in our basement, in the same room my father spent his last few months of his life. This year had to be different. Within minutes of the opening kick, it was obvious it was. Eric Davis, the weak-link in the secondary that the Cowboys would abuse while avoiding "Prime Time" read Aikman's eyes, sliding from the flat to pick off the pass and return it 44 yards for the touchdown.
First blood. The exact opposite feeling from two years before. In the ensuing series, Aikman completed a pass to Irvin, only to have the same weak-link, Eric Davis, strip him immediately, just like Eric Wright did to Cris Collinsworth in Super Bowl XIX. Both led to touchdowns, Joe Montana to Earl Cooper in XIX, and Steve Young to Ricky Waters against the Cowboys.
The feeling of joy I felt quickly jolted up to euphoria as the Cowboys fumbled away the kick-off, recovered ever so awkwardly by the kicker Doug Brian. Halfway through the first quarter, after William "Bar None" Floyd barrelled into the end-zone, the 49ers led 21-0.
The Cowboys fought back, but every 49er fan knew in their hearts this year was different. This year we led early, and we were not going to give it up. We had recaptured the magic of '81, finally beating the Cowboys after repeated post-season disappointment at their hands.
Then there was the Super Bowl, which was viewed by most people I knew as a coronation more than a game. We won the Super Bowl in San Francisco, to a sell out crowd that knew whoever would win would be the first to win one for the thumb.
That win gave me great joy at a time when I needed it most. It is why I will always be grateful for the 1994 49ers and what they accomplished. They gave me a reason to smile.