I’ve never been a big sports nut. I’ll enjoy a baseball game or series, or get a kick out of the Indy 500 or the Olympics, or get excited for some kind of foreign wackiness like the FIFA World Cup or cricket, but I’ve never been a really passionate fan — with one exception.
The 49ers of the 1980s were an extraordinary football team that seemed perfectly in character with their quirky hometown. Accused of being “cerebral” and “effete,” they nevertheless defeated their challengers to win the Superbowl in 1981, and then in 1984 crushed everyone in their path to win it again. They never had the QB with the strongest arm or the rusher with the most yards or the defensive line with the most power; they never made a rap record. What they had was a glamorous combination of finesse and superb athletic skill that made them the dominant team of the decade. Bill Walsh was revered as the eccentric genius behind it all, a perfect exemplar of the kind of rugged, off-the-wall brilliance San Francisco liked to believe was its specialty.
I was a kid back then. I can hardly remember the 1981 season, but that year’s Superbowl Sunday I will never forget. We had tickets to see Yitzchak Pearlman at Davies Symphony Hall, purchased months earlier with no regard for the possibility that the Niners would make the Superbowl. Luckily, my dad had recently bought a VCR — a bulky JVC with big silver switches — so we could tape the game and watch it later. But Pearlman kept giving out scores during the concert. And then, as we drove home, there was no way to avoid the pandemonium sweeping the city, as people leaned out of windows and ran down the street screaming and cheering, waving banners and giant foam #1-hands. We watched the game that night anyway, savoring the victory.
Over the years, I came to love that team. I cried when the Minnesota Vikings beat up Joe Montana on his big comeback from surgery in 1987. And I reveled in the many victories they stacked up over the years.
Thanks, Bill Walsh. You were a great San Franciscan and a great football coach.