My love affair with the San Francisco 49ers started with a bet.
In June 1984 I started a new job where a met a guy who was to become a lifelong friend. A pretty accomplished punter and jets fan, he would bet on everything…..that included spread betting on American football. Now I like a football accumulator on a Saturday like a lot of people, but spread betting was a system I had never heard of. Couple that with the fact, American Football was rarely reported, never mind broadcast in the UK.
Before then, somehow somewhere, I had heard mention of people called Dan Marino, Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana, without really knowing anything about them. These were sportsmen who had transcended their sport, and that’s a rarity.
In an effort to expand my knowledge, it became apparent very quickly that literature on gridiron wasn’t easy to come by. What was available informed me, gridiron was a sport with 28 teams and a very rich history.
The kraken had yet to awaken…….It was 1983
Sunday the 16th September 1984, I was invited to my friend’s house, bet slip in my back pocket, for the first time. The highlight of evening would be following our selections via the A.F.N. What’s that I questioned. My mentor explained, to follow the teams we had bet on, we had to listen to the armed forces network on am radio. He added that was the only way we could follow games live. The A.F.N was broadcast from Germany to the US troops around Europe. To say the signal was ropey at best was an understatement. I mean a light shower anywhere between Belfast and Düsseldorf was enough to fill the speaker with more hiss than a cobra looking for a mate. However this intermittent stream of radio led to countless moments of did he? Did they? At times you weren’t sure if you were listening to the home crowd roaring or yet another atmospheric discharge. It all added to make those nights frustrating and magical at the same time.
The 49ers were the last leg of my bet and I was hoping for some beginners luck. The niners were playing divisional rivals, the New Orleans Saints at Candlestick Park. They had to cover 5 and a half points in order for me to collect my winnings.
The game begins and my friend of a few months suddenly turns into this complete and utter manic……maybe medication had been missed I thought. I lost count of the number of times he moved the radio and himself around his kitchen, even standing on the washing machine at one point. When he thought the kitchen was a dead loss, he relocated our listening booth to the bathroom upstairs, all in a vain attempt to improve the signal. Despite what seemed like multiple tours of his semi detached, we managed to listen to the broadcast reception which seemed to visit us in waves…..
Somewhere between the bathroom and fridge, Joe Montana and Matt Cavanaugh threw touchdown passes to give the 49ers a 30:20 lead. During the Niners final possession, my friend cried out “take the knee, take the knee” in a pitch delivered so high only myself and nearby dogs heard it. The niners ran out the clock and won 30:20
That was the night the San Francisco 49ers became my Niners.
They had triumphed and I was quid’s in.
The end of the week now suddenly had a new edge, I was hooked.
I thought to myself “gonna need a bigger antenna” chief Brody style for my own radio.
Sunday nights would never be the same again.
In the ensuing years, improving coverage through television and the internet have helped me with my football fix. From Mick Luckhurst and Gary Imlach on channel 4, to sky with Gary o Reilly and Mr. Nick Hailing. Hailing had managed to swap his screensport “Brian Blessed beard” for a Pittsburgh Steelers tie. Sky’s current colour man, Neil Reynolds does a fine job, but what wouldn’t I give to hear hailing belt out his old standard “this one could get ugly early” one more time.
Late night TV coverage has fuelled my fire with so many memorable moments.
I remember my dad banging on my bedroom wall in the early hours, when Montana hit Taylor at the end of the drive. Years later, my next door neighbour followed suit own his walls, when Steve hit Terrell and Alex hit Vernon.
Of course there have been plenty of disappointments along the years, namely any defeat to the giants.
” There will be no three peat” still hurts to this day.
You are fondly missed Pat Summerall.
I remember when channel 4 decided to drop its coverage of American football. It happens to coincide with my friend’s decision to move his family away from Belfast to north Wales. I was crestfallen and angry at the same time. I emailed Gary Imlach who encouraged us all to write or email the top brass at channel 4. However it was all in vain and gridiron for a period of time disappeared from our screens. In the subsequent years, it has been proved that their decision to drop coverage was wrong. American football is now one of the most popular sports in the UK and its getting bigger every year. I guess supporting the niners in those days were the hardest, I felt quite isolated. Apart from bob ledger’s sporting life NFL previews, there was little or no coverage on television or the press. I yearned for a fellow 49er fan to discuss a great game with the following day. There were none in Belfast, they all lived elsewhere. All I really wanted was to be able to share my passion. On the Monday after a game day I would ask my local newsagent to order me a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle, just so I could read the match report. I would take a while to arrive, but I would do anything just to feel that bit closer to the bay area, how times have changed.
Fast forward to 2010 and a dream came true for me when the Niners came back to Wembley. I was actually going to see the red and gold for real. In 1988, I missed the Niners v Dolphins’ exhibition game at Wembley, so this was a chance for redemption. The day before the Denver game, I was at Trafalgar square and stone’s throw away from the stage, where coach Singletary and Jerry rice held court. The next day we beat the broncos 24:16 and I went back home to Belfast, happy as a sandman.
2013 has been a special year and here I am sitting in section 5, row 23 seats 18, watching the 49ers play the season opener against the packers at Candlestick Park. What better way to celebrate your 49th birthday than to go to the city by the bay for three and a half weeks? We took the candlestick stadium tour the very next day and the hardest part was trying to take it all in. I was like a kid in a toy shop. As I looked around the old stadium I saw the spots where the catch 1, 2, and 3 took place. On the way out to the field, I tapped the bill Walsh plaque twice for luck. Standing on the field I kissed the hallowed tuft. The 50 yard line became my starting point as I raced in the endzone where I jumped for an imaginary catch. Clive James filmed a TV special in the late 80’s called “Clive James and the heroes of San Francisco” this tour was giving me the same access Clive had all those years ago, minus access to the cheerleaders unfortunately. After all those years of watching on the box, I would be lying if I said I didn’t shed a tear.
At Pier 39 I met one of my all-time favourite 49ers. Big Bubba Paris, who’s the size of a house, wore his game day number 77 shirt and graciously posed for a picture with me. I still have the smile to prove it. Before coming home we took in the Colts game. Result aside, it was a great day. I said my goodbyes to the old stadium for the last time. It certainly was a holiday I will never forget.
Six weeks after leaving San Francisco, we were on our travels again. London was calling as the Niners played the jags at Wembley. Gameday arrives and it’s fair to say the Niner faithful, team handed, took over Wembley. The result of the game was predictable, but we had a ball none the less. The highlight of the trip for me was meeting the lads from the UK Niner faithful group. Finally I could shake the hands of the guys who had welcomed me into their family. We all had one thing in common and that was our love of the red and gold. The Friday night in the Carlsberg sports bar, Saturday’s fan rally and the Sunday at the green man, will love long in the memory. I made many friends that weekend, I fully intend to see all them all again in the months and seasons that lie ahead.
In 1984 something entered my heart that will always stay with me always. Forever a constant, never demanding or uncompromising, it’s a faithful love for the team that plays in red and gold.
Feeling isolated is no longer an option.