New Year's Eve of 2005 doesn't hold a lot of significance for me; another year closed out with a typical New Year's fighting for a taxi, fighting traffic to get to a typical bar, and then fighting through a typical New Year's Eve crowd of amateurs just to get a beer.
I was single back then, and ready to put the closing touches on a rather lackluster year for me. But what got me through the minutia of another New Year's that didn't live up to the hype was knowing where I was going to be the next day.
Jan. 1, 2006, Monster Park: A wet, sloppy affair that hardly resembled true NFL football being played out in a pillow fight for the ages, that in the week leading up to it came to be known as "The Reggie Bush Bowl."
A laugher of a game being contested by two laughable teams at the time--the Niners at 3-12 and the Texans at 2-13 going in--and it was quite possibly the best time I've ever had at Candlestick Point. I'm pretty certain that two teams as dreadful as the '05 Niners and Texans had never met in a game that late in the season with so much riding on the outcome—the first pick in the coming draft.
Leading up to the game, I was pretty fired up to have found $50 tickets on Craigslist marked down at a measly $30 a pop. I didn't feel so shrewd, however, when I picked them up and discovered the seller had acquired them through a contest with 49er flagship station KNBR at no cost of his own.
Nevertheless, I got my money's worth and more.
Before I get into the "why," I'll need to set the stage with the "who," because the crew I rolled with on that rainy New Year's Day made the game just as memorable as then first-year Coach Mike Nolan's squad.
While I was up at the crack of dawn that day, loading coolers and trying to rally the troops, not only did I have the excitement of a kid on Christmas morning, but I was met with the backlash of that same kid as he tries to drag his parents out of bed too soon.
Coming along with me were my roomates—my cousin Schnick and good friend Philthy Phil—along with Schnick's best friend "All in on a Pair of Twos" Tony, who's nickname obviously doesn't relate to football but shouldn't need any explanation.
These three were accompanied by their girlfriends, who normally could roll with the sports-frenzied crew impressively, but with this being New Year's Day—a cold, gloomy one in which most folks probably weren't bothering to crawl out of bed even for a bathroom break—through no fault of their own, they wound being dead weight for the fellas.
Fortunately for me, two of my most prized fellow fanatics met us at the ball park and rose to the occasion.
The first to meet us was my man Frank, easily the most passionate sports fan I know.
He knows all of his teams inside and out, and somehow backdoors his way into tickets to any event he wants. He actually attended four games during the Golden State Warriors' "We Believe" Playoff campaign in 2007, without having season tickets or breaking the bank.
He also disappeared, dejected, for a week after the 2002 World Series, and to this day probably doesn't know exactly where he was.
Another time, he DID get us kicked out of a casino in Lake Tahoe as we waited for a cab at 3am.
We were standing inside the lobby as a snowstorm blanketed the streets of South Lake when good ol' Frank started hollering about how the Giants had signed Barry Zito, and we needed to get fired up...his aggressive pounding on the lobby windows got us tossed and walking in the blizzard back to our hotels.
Rest assured however, the Niners are a close second in his heart.
He'll often call me at four in the morning and leave voicemails reminiscing about the 49ers of the 80s, naming off his favorite players in tandem with their numbers ("...what about Don Griffin, 29, or John Taylor, 82...").
We all have that friend that takes sports fanhood to previously unseen heights, and I'll put my guy against anyone's.
Joining us as well was another solid sportsman, a friend of mine dating back to middle school named Ari.
He once dumped a girl over the phone after she had called him during the New York Mets-St. Louis Cardinals playoff series. She was naive enough to hop on her hometown Cardinals' bandwagon and call the die hard Mets' fan to rub it in when the Cards finally notched a win.
He ended the call with "...until you can name me THREE players on the Cardinals, I have no need to see or talk to you ever again."
Ari also has his picture posted on a steakhouse wall in St. Louis, the result of him telling the waiter he was Mets' third baseman David Wright, and the joke spinning seriously out of control.
Needless to say, I was in good company.
As we made our way farther up Highway 101 and closer to the stadium, it became apparent that the trend of San Francisco weather being a good 20 degrees below that of our home base in San Jose was in full force. Water from the bay was washing ashore and flooding the Candlestick parking lot like mini tidal waves.
Only the hardest of the hardcore faithful were turning out for this one.
The tailgate was up to par, and fortunately everyone we came with put in a solid effort for the pregame party.
The beers were ample, the bloody Marys were strong.
It didn't quite measure up to the 100 beer debacle myself and six other lads held before a Niner-Redskin tilt in 2004 (please reserve judgement until you recall or imagine what it was like to have Dennis Erickson leading your pro team and Ken Dorsey under center), but the parking lot scavengers took a nice haul from our space that day.
Upon entering the stadium, it became almost embarrassingly clear that the scattered and scarce tailgates were indeed an indication of what the game's attendance would be.
You would have thought we were at an indoor lacrosse game based off the amount of empty seats.
There was a mysterious buzz in the air that day amongst the 25,000 or so that turned out. Everyone was debating whether the 49ers should sell out and try secure another No. 1 overall pick for the second consecutive year, or play like the proud franchise the Bay Area is accustomed to and force the Texans into the pick.
I was a little conflicted, as I couldn't help but live the pipe dream of Reggie Bush bringing the same ridiculous heroics he displayed at USC to the dismal 49er offense.
Deep down though, I was there to see a freaking win.
We made it to our nosebleed seats, perched like Gargoyles overlooking the field as the rain pummeled us from above.
From those seats, in the last game of the year, we saw a first for the season (depressingly), and a career—Alex Smith throwing a touchdown pass.
You would have thought it was Montana to Clark in the back of the end zone that day based off the elation in the stands, and to be honest, when Smith's pass went up there was probably more uncertainty in the crowd than with Montana's playoff game-winner against the Cowboys so many years earlier.
And creating a bit of meaningless trivia was the man on the receiving end, none other than Brandon Lloyd, laying out for the circus catch because it was the only way he could ever haul in a pass in the first place.
It was a glorious moment, so much so that most fans there forgot how pathetic it was to begin with that it took Smith and the Niners until the final game of the season to net that elusive TD.
By halftime, much of the rain-saturated crowd was starting to clear out already, costing themselves witness to the most gutsy performance the Niners had put on in years.
I received a call from Frank, who had met up with his buddy in the lower reserve earlier in the game, letting me know it was open season on the best seats in the house. Ari and I sprang up and left the couples behind to the comfort of their blankets in the cheap seats.
It was during the second half that the 49ers made a breakthrough, not just for the game, but for the sake of ending the season on a high note.
While we sat behind Houston's bench amongst an army of first-class hecklers, the Niner defense dug in and started playing as a complete unit. It was also during the second half that a future superstar began to make his statement.
I don't have the stats handy for this game, and for all I know Frank Gore may not have had spectacular numbers that cold afternoon.
What is clear in my memory is that number 21 eased the concerns of everyone who doubted that Kevan Barlow was the future for San Francisco.
While we spent the entire second half standing on the rain-drenched seats hoping to avoid pneumonia, Gore finished off the season by staking his claim in the first string offense, and the way he ran the ball that second half went a long way to helping the defense keep the team in the game.
The ultimate star, however, was Mike Adams (whatever happened to THAT guy?) who picked off backup Tony Banks to set up Joe Nedney's game-winning field goal with 3:52 left in the game.
As the final seconds ticked off, we spilled onto the field like a bunch of wide-eyed college freshman, having for just one afternoon forgotten how miserable that season, and several before it, had been for 49er fans, and celebrated with the players and fellow hardcore fans.
Both the thoughts and desire for the first-round pick that year were erased; all that was fresh on our minds was the reminder that the best Sundays are the ones that include a 49er victory.
In the end, it wasn't even "The Reggie Bush Bowl" after all; with the top pick, Houston took defensive end Mario Williams, and despite the heat the team took for passing on the "sexy" pick in Bush, all indications are they made the right call. And as it turns out, a loss wouldn't have netted the top pick for the Niners anyway.
What stood out for that game is that the players never quit. Whether it was fresh on their minds or not, they had a rich tradition to live up to in San Francisco, and for at least one game they did just that.
It was also a moment Coach Nolan could be extremely proud of.
For all his missteps on the sidelines and beyond, 49er beat reporters have repeatedly said his players never stopped competing for him, and New Years Day of '06 was the first prime example.
It was also a truly memorable example of how the most passion of 49er fans, the hardest of the hardcore, will never quit on the team that has provided them with so many incredible seasons and memories.