The San Francisco 49ers play a must win game this Sunday against their Bay Area rivals, the Oakland Raiders. Both teams have had great success in the past, but the recent history of both franchises is quite poor. Nevertheless, I will be pulling for my team, the San Francisco 49ers to get their first win of the season and somehow make a run at the playoffs.
I grew up in Oakland, California, so how did I become a 49er fan? Here is the story from the eyes of a nine-year old boy.
The year was 1968 and already I was a sports fanatic. It was my first opportunity to attend a professional football game. As luck would have it, it was a 49er game.
My great uncle, Kazuo Mori was a decorated World War II veteran. He was a member of the 442nd Infantry Regiment, who were fighting the Axis powers in Europe. This unit, made up of mostly Japanese Americans was the most highly decorated in the history of the United States military.
Unfortunately, in his final month of service, before he was due his release, Uncle Kaz was hit by a mortar shell. This was quite ironic in that parents and family members were in an internment camp in Topaz, Utah. They had basically lost everything, yet he was serving the very country that relocated his family and took their possessions.
Uncle Kaz originally was a quadriplegic but worked intensely hard and was able to regain the use of his arms and hands. He was wheelchair bound for the remainder of his life.
The San Francisco 49ers had a special injured military veterans section at the very top of Kezar Stadium. Finally, at age nine, I was deemed old enough to go to a game. My dad or my Uncle Jim would always drive us to the game.
We got to Kezar Stadium and the first task was to find parking. They did not have the handicapped parking, like they do now. We found a place to park somewhere in Golden Gate Park and set off to the stadium.
It was very hard for Uncle Kaz to get in and out of the car and he needed a lot of help from my dad. Nevertheless, he too was excited to see his beloved 49ers. I was happy to be able to push the wheelchair over the uneven pavement, as we neared the stadium.
It was late September in 1968 and the 49ers were playing the St. Louis Cardinals. We got to the stadium and took an elevator to the very top of the stadium. The elevator doors opened and my jaw dropped open, as I saw the beautifully manicured field in person for the first time.
I would later learn that Kezar was considered a second class place for a pro football team to play. It was a dingy place, with wooden benches, fans throwing bottles at players and seagull droppings hitting people from the sky. However, to me on that late September afternoon, it was beautiful.
The 49ers were in their red jerseys and gold pants. I marveled at how the end zones were painted to perfection.
I can still remember the smell of the hot dogs and sitting on the top of a wooden chair, with my feet on the actual seat part, so I could see the game. The injured military veterans were placed in front of us, and we would be behind them. The nice thing was this section was covered, so we were safe from any rain and also the seagulls.
The 49ers won that game and I was hooked forever. My Uncle Kaz would make sure to invite me to every 49er home game from then through 1970, the Niner's last year at Kezar. The other veterans and attendants all thought I was his son, as I was now a regular at the games and a true 49er Faithful.
I had always disliked the Oakland Raiders, even though all of my friends and cousins were big Raider fans. I felt they were a dirty, mean-spirited team and I would always root for them to lose, no matter who they played.
I will never forget what sealed the deal for me. I was probably about 10 or 11 years old. Mel Farr was a great young running back for the Detroit Lions. I think of him as a poor man's Gale Sayers.
Big Ben Davidson, a defensive end for the Raiders and known as one of the dirtiest players in the NFL, drove his helmet into the knee of Farr, after he was a good three yards out of bounds.
Mel Farr's knee was destroyed and he would never be the same player again. I had no allegiance at all to Mel Farr, but when I saw the brutal Davidson hit, I told myself I could never root for the Raiders.
In 1971, the San Francisco 49ers would move to Candlestick Park and the wounded veterans were promised a similar setup. However, that never materialized and Uncle Kaz would never be able to attend another 49er game.
I remember watching my 49er heroes like John Brodie, Ken Willard, Gene Washington, Jimmy Johnson and Dave Wilcox. Many of the 49er teams of my youth were not very good, except for the three playoff teams of 1970-72, under Dick Nolan. The Dallas Cowboys were our nemesis and would knock us out of the playoffs every year.
Through thick and thin, Uncle Kaz always rooted for his 49ers. He followed the team passionately for the next decade. I never saw him get too upset over a bad play or tough loss, but inside, it was eating him up. He loved his 49ers and would be the eternal optimist, always vowing that we'd get them next time.
Sadly, Uncle Kaz passed away just prior to the 49ers' Super Bowl winning season in 1981. Somewhere I know he was looking down and smiling, knowing that his boys finally did it!
Thank you Uncle Kaz for inviting me to all those 49er games and sharing the love for your team with me.