I did not grow up in the Bay Area, or even on the West Coast, but I did grow up, sort of, with Joe Montana. Not in a literal sense (though we ate in the same restaurant he was in once!), but when I was learning to appreciate football, he was in his prime. Already a legend because of “The Catch,” the addition of Jerry Rice made him something really special. He was a football player for the 80s: TV-ready, with a great smile and beautiful eyes that endeared him to the ladies (and young guys who didn’t quite understand why yet) as much as his confidence and accuracy endeared him to the men (and football-loving women). The friend who taught me to appreciate football told me, “You’re going to tell your kids that you saw this guy play.”
I grew to love the red and gold from a distance. The Niners were never MY team, but they were top of the list of teams I’d root for when my teams were gone from contention. I remember sitting in a car during the NFC championship game in January 1990 listening to how the Giants had beaten up Montana all game, had knocked him around and made him leery of contact, and I hated them for it. I mean, I already hated New York, but this made it worse. I listened as the Giants’ kicker (Matt Bahr–still remember his name) lined up for the field goal, down 14-12. It wasn’t a gimme, and I sat there, listening, hoping he would miss…
He didn’t, of course, which led to the famous New York-Buffalo Super Bowl, also decided on a kick that did miss. And that was the end of Montana in San Francisco. He played another year or two and then moved on to Kansas City to make room for Steve Young, who brought the Niners one more championship(*).
* Steve Young, unlike Montana, has remained active in Bay Area sports media and politics; though a Mormon, he donated to the fight against Prop 8. He’s a good guy.
After that, the Niners went up and down. I moved to the Bay Area in the middle of a long streak of irrelevance; Young and Terrell Owens, who had briefly made magic, were both gone. I went to one Niners game in my time here, mostly to see the visiting Colts and Peyton Manning (who won easily).
And then Jim Harbaugh arrived, and turned things around. Living in the Bay, with those old Montana memories still kicking around in my head as well as memories of Jim Harbaugh nearly taking the Colts to the Super Bowl (one of my closest friends is a big Colts fan), I of course adopted the Niners.
Here they are, back in the Super Bowl, nearly twenty years after Steve Young set a record in beating San Diego. And while I don’t wish Baltimore any ill will–in fact, most of the teams in the playoffs this year were teams I would not have minded seeing hoist a championship trophy–I am going to be rooting for the red and gold.
But if there is one player I will be talking about in a post twenty years from now, I don’t think he’s wearing red and gold. I think I will be telling people that I saw Ray Lewis play, and that, win or lose, he was a marvel in his last game.