For many who grew up along the peninsula, this is a familiar drive, a straight stretch of Highway 101, the AMPEX sign and the ever-sprouting office parks, an interlude of rug shops, a sign advertising the Times, the It's-It factory and the exterminator across the way, the gorgeous airport. Candlestick Park sits on the water as you approach San Francisco. It was once a marvel of modern engineering — our first reinforced-concrete stadium, back when this was something to boast about. But 50 years later, Candlestick feels bizarrely, stubbornly out of place in the Bay Area and its incomprehensible pace of change. It feels like you are driving into the year 1975.
You have a lot of time to reflect on these things, recall how the drab concrete tunnels made the grass seem that much greener the first time you saw a baseball game there, because a major part of going to see the San Francisco 49ers involves sitting in traffic. You remember how instrumental the Niners were to youthful lessons of winning and losing, class, style, and entitlement. You remember how local the team seemed, even though you lived 40 minutes from Candlestick: John Taylor coming to career day; the time Merton Hanks dunked on one of your teachers in the waning moments of a charity high school basketball game and then chicken-danced out the gym door; the day after Super Bowl XXIX, waiting in line at McDonald's and seeing Mike Shanahan standing behind you. (He signed our napkins and told us he was running off to catch a flight. By week's end he was the new head coach of the Broncos.)
In those days, the Niners were the only team in the Bay Area where fans expected to get the breaks and win. At the very least, we expected the team to reload annually with a fresh haul of free agents. Simply making the playoffs was never good enough — success was measured in championships. It's an attitude that has returned, after the past decade of irrelevance and dodgy leadership. While the team has cohered ahead of schedule behind rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh, there will always be a broader context for the team's ascension. This isn't just a team on the rise; this is, potentially, a restoration of the Niners to their rightful position as one of the NFL's flagship franchises.
In the week leading up to the Niners-Giants NFC Championship game, it felt as though there was more at stake than just advancement to the Super Bowl. These were familiar foes from the 1980s and 1990s, when the ready-made storyline positioned the bruising, blue-collar Giants against the flashy, cosmopolitan Niners. The 2011-12 versions may have swapped identities, but the bragging rights remained multilayered. On Bay Area sports talk, hosts delighted in decrying the East Coast media and their ignorance of everything west of the Mississippi, assuring their callers that they would never treat them as coldly as the jocks out in New York do. The crux of the matter was named when former Niner tight end Brent Jones went on the radio Friday morning and began hammering away at the perceived media bias against West Coast teams. "It's friggin' New York. Those cocky suckers. I hate those East Coasters. Give me a break. They put all these friggin' Giants on national commercials ... they suck. I'm so sick of all the New York media thinking New York players are that much better than everybody else. It's a joke. I hate New York.
"I'm tired of this New York stuff ... this is years of pent-up New York Giants, New York media, New York fan ... frustration. What a big spin. This team sucked. This team was 9-7. Give me a break. They had a couple nice playoff games and now they're talking like they're world-beaters. It's just the New York spin."
Jones had a point. There has always been a respectful suspicion between the East Coast and West Coast, perhaps because they offer competing visions of the same good life. In particular, New York and San Francisco are cities that seem to trade citizens freely, for why would you want to live anywhere else? On one side: genius, quirk, people showing up to work in sneakers, a Lexus and a Prius in the two-car garage. On the other: the hustler's ambition, the valor of cruel seasons and cramped quarters, the smell of old money. Two different ways of saying the word "awesome."
It was, as the papers in the Bay Area feared, a blustery, rainy day. This was made worse by the fact that Candlestick Park might be one of the more unpleasant places in Northern California. Strong winds come in off the water, and a hill adjacent to the park only traps and accelerates these gusts. When you're winning, it's part of the 'Stick's weird character, and when you're losing, it adds to your personal misery. When you're tailgating, it's an excuse to consume quickly and with avarice.
1:16 p.m. — I pass the first of many groups trying to mask the smell of medium-grade marijuana by grilling sausages.
1:20 p.m. — In the right context, nothing looks more intimidating than a group of men in tie-dyed shirts.
1:28 p.m. — Is a Tom Rathman throwback the most random jersey I will see today?
1:34 p.m. — I don't know how or why, but the fact that San Francisco must claim Train as one of their most famous local bands makes me feel like we have already lost.
2:45 p.m. — After getting our tickets at will-call, I meet my friend Nate at one of Candlestick's few gates and we spend a good 30 minutes pushing our way through the pileup of bodies that is the stadium entrance. There are heartwarming scenes of interracial friendship around us involving marijuana. Others insist on yelling "PUSH!" the entire time. There are fathers using their sons to charm their way to the front of the line. A middle-aged man in a Joe Montana throwback patiently weaves his way to the front of the line. He is at the gate entrance, finally! And, when prompted for his ticket, he asks: "Where's will-call?" Perhaps the saddest thing I will witness today.
The ordeal of getting into Candlestick is a reminder of why plans are in place for the Niners to move down to a stunning, modern (for real this time) new facility down in Santa Clara in the South Bay, where most of their season ticket holders live, for the 2014 season. But it also reminds you of what going to a sporting event used to be like — that grimy energy generated by fans who head to the game to drink, yell, and shame anyone who sits out a sing-along. The phone reception in Candlestick is patchy, which seems an affront to the Bay Area's reputation for technological innovation. The concessions are spartan. Inside, you are ignorant to the consensus forming in the world of television commentary or live-blogging outside. All you have is what your eyes can catch, and what the one guy with a Walkman might be able to explicate.
Before kickoff, Train sets up on the side of the field and performs "Save Me, San Francisco." I imagine that someone in this stadium feels that this is the best confluence of events ever for one day. Bailey, a master of the sub-genre of playoff raps, does "Who's Got It Better?," and at some point Eddie DeBartolo Jr. walks down the sideline, an assistant protecting him from the drizzle with a large umbrella.
I remember watching Kyle Williams skip to his place in the end zone for the opening kickoff, so full of confidence but also joy. There was something to be envied in his enthusiastic swagger. Here was a second-year player on the rise who, by circumstance and through talent, was getting an opportunity at the most crucial time of the year. He beckoned the crowd for noise, more noise. Lawrence Tynes' kick was a bit short, and Kendall Hunter fielded it instead, returning it to the 23.
Alex Smith's 73-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis was an encouraging way to start, especially since the Giants had made neutralizing Davis their priority. But at some point, "Old Alex" entered the local lexicon. The Niners' offensive possessions felt perfunctory, as though they were merely preludes to more Andy Lee punts. Frank Gore was running effectively and Smith took off on some key scrambles. But other than Smith's two touchdowns to Davis, there was no promise at all to the passing game, no versatility to the offense. Michael Crabtree was enigmatically, unfathomably bad. If there was ever a game when the defense or special teams was going to win, then this was it.
There were three moments of quiet Sunday afternoon. The first moment was during Brad Paisley's halftime show.
The second was when Tarell Brown was lying on the ground after being accidentally leveled by his own teammate, Dashon Goldson, with about a minute left in the third quarter. This was a game when Goldson's aggro, mad-for-it style might have occasionally hurt the Niners. As the scrum unpacked itself and Brown stayed on the ground, Harbaugh ran from the sideline to see how Brown was doing; soon, kicker David Akers jogged over too. We waited in ignorance, for the JumboTron was never going to replay the collision. It's a strange sensation, waiting to see if someone is seriously wounded. On television, the replay — or the commentator telling you that the replay is simply too gruesome to air — offers some shape for our speculation.
I watched for signs of movement, but what I really wanted was a commercial break or something to distract from the potential horror of what we had not quite witnessed. Instead, we were deep in the moment, hoping to see Brown's legs or arms move on their own accord, fearing what it would mean if they did not. Behind us, two Giants fans whispered through a provisional game plan, assuming Brown was out and the Niners had to insert a backup corner. Brown was eventually helped off the field and hobbled into the locker room.
The third moment was when Kyle Williams was stripped of the ball in overtime. He had already muffed a punt in the fourth quarter, mere minutes after Brown's injury. That mistake had come on the heels of a dominant third quarter by the Niners' defense, and it had resulted in a Giants touchdown. When Williams lost the ball in overtime, there was a sense of 60-some thousand people snapping awake from a dream. Disorientation gave way to instant devastation. At the game, the experience of time is different. There is no announcer regaling you with time-of-possession statistics, no commercial breaks or promos for new sitcoms to enforce a rhythm on those hours spent in front of the TV. Instead, there was rain, a cool breeze, and murmurs. A sense of déjà vu, watching the Niners continue to pass on first down, gain three (or nothing) on second, pass on third (and fail), and punt.
So when Williams was stripped, it was like a return to the real, a reminder that this string of defensive stops and 40-second drives was not sustainable. Someone was going to lose. All of a sudden, we were returned to real life, where tomorrow was Monday, our clothes were wet, and it was very cold outside. We would soon be sitting in traffic, cursing whoever it was that designed Candlestick. The game was oozing away. The various stages of denial were explored quickly; I finally realized that I was incredibly cold.
We mustered a final holler for an improbable stand. Two Giants fans sitting behind us — one in an Eli Manning jersey, the other channeling the spirit of Mark Bavaro — chattered nervously to each other about how Tynes still had to make the kick, so as to not jinx the moment. From where I was sitting, the ball flew toward the uprights with a certain ambivalence — was it drifting rightward or was I imagining it? But Tynes' liberated sprint toward midfield told us all we needed to know. "We are going to the Super Bowl. I am going to the Super Bowl!" one of the Giants fans behind me quietly shouted, as his friend congratulated the Niners on a tremendous season.
"See you next year," two season ticket holders next to us said to each other before heading their separate ways. An usher sat along the aisle, shaking hands with everyone as they headed toward the exits. "Take off your jersey, Williams," a still-seething fan shouted toward the field, as the players returned to the locker room. One imagined him snarled in Candlestick traffic for the next hour, anger consuming him, calling in to the postgame show and getting all of his thoughts bleeped out.
We're entitled to feel that way. But Williams didn't lose the game himself. The Niners' receiving corps didn't give Smith much to work with, and Manning did an amazing job in pressure situations. Williams suffered the dark side of the child's dream, the one nobody tells you about. Sometimes your future seems wide open and full of promise, and you falter. Sometimes you require the comforts of the past.
Nate and I stayed behind in our seats, admiring Candlestick. It's a dump, everyone admits, but it is our dump. Where you could sit in the bleachers and smoke cigarettes and never be bothered. Where we had watched Barry Bonds, the Niners dynasty of the '80s and '90s. A guy in a Tai Streets jersey won our private contest for the most random jersey of the day. "Manning" and "Bavaro" pushed their way against traffic, down toward the field, searching out all the scattered Giants fans still in their seats, desperate for strangers to high-five.