Growing Up a 49ers Fan at Kezar Stadium
By Martin Jacobs
It’s amazing when I was young how simple life seemed to be. Everything was black and white. Yes or no. Front or back., or left or right. My cereal box is full or empty. I can or can’t go.
Like other youngsters, I saw the world in a remarkably simple spectrum of light. I decided very early on that there were only two types of people in the world; those that were 49er fans and those that weren’t. After all, they really seemed to be quite different from one another. Needless to say, but too irresistible not to, I was one of the kids who became a 49er fanatic.
It seems like I became a San Francisco 49er fan before I understood the game, or for that matter, while still in my mothers womb. My dad devoured the 49ers, but my mom could care less. As a two-year-old, any semblance to my comprehension was strictly mimicry; dozing drones, hums, and mumbles, uttering words like: “Nin-ers”, “fut-ball,” “Mac-el-henny”, and so on. By age three, I picked up the cadence as a full-fledged 49er toddler parroting a 49er stanza.
Then as a youngster, playing Hopalong Cassidy or fighting Marines were just not that fulfilling. And when Sundays came around, it was usually a day for me to play with my friends, or maybe bike riding in Golden Gate Park.
At the ripe age of 9, barely old enough to know a forward pass from a lateral, my dad took me to my first real life 49er football game. Now my life would change forever.
On an August Sunday in 1952, we arrived early at Kezar, home of the 49ers. It was a stadium nestled among the big oak trees at the southeastern end of Golden Gate Park. The day was overcast, and the temperature about 60 degrees, typical for weather in the Sunset District. I was amazed at the size of this big stadium shaped like a huge toilet bowl. Then we stood in this long line to buy two 50-cent end zone general admission tickets. All around us were 49ers fans in red jerseys, some with cowboy hats drinking beer. Dad called them lovable 49er fans who were obsessed with the team.
Dad said we were playing an exhibition game against the Cardinals from Chicago. Game programs were 25 cents and dad bought me one. There were great photos of 49er players in action poses. Inside the program there was also a cartoon of a gold miner shooting off two pistols with one pistol aimed at his head! Dad said that this 49ers’ team symbol was designed after a drunken gold miner from the “gold rush” days. I fell in love with the little prospector.
I could feel my dads elation once inside the stadium. It seemed he knew every cranny of the place. The crescendo of boisterous 49er fans filled my ears as we climbed the concrete stairs looking for good seats from a fresh vantage point. Finally, I could view the full beauty of the playing field for the first time. Bright green grass, thick white yard lines and towering goal posts took my breath away.
At 1 P.M. the roar from the crowd swallowed the introductions of the 49ers’ players, as they were introduced one after another over a loud speaker.
“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen….This is Dave Scofield, your 49er game announcer”, he said…“Welcome to Kezar Stadium for today’s game between the San Francisco 49ers and the visiting Chicago Cardinals!…and now the starting lineups….”
Before the kickoff, an armed forces color guard, preceded by the 49ers’ marching band and majorettes, came marching onto the field. After the National Anthem they marched toward the west end zone. 49ers’ cheerleaders, clad in sparking red and gold outfits- five on each side of the field- carried signboards, each with a symbol: “4,” “9,” “E,” “R,” “S.” Each cheerleader would leap up with a letter, and everyone in the section of stands in front of her would give a great shout, “4,” and so forth, concluding with one-give-it-everything cry of “49ERS!” Then the opposite sides would respond. Then both sides would repeat the cheer.
The players’ names were unique too. Had anyone heard of Y.A. Tittle –ever? Or a Bob St. Clair? Hugh McElhenny? Was that the perfect name for a football player? “Mac-el-henny.” His name was unique.
There was magic in their numbers too. Thirty-Nine was McElhenny. Thirty-four was Joe Perry. Fourteen was Tittle, seventy-three was Nomellini. Dad said, John Henry Johnson could be identified without a number, because you could tell him from the shape of his helmet, a snug foam rubber lined-helmet like the other teams used, not the suspension helmet worn by the other 49ers.
When the game started, I was more interested in watching the 49ers’ mascot—a mule, named “Clementine” parade around the stadium. I can still remember the smell of popcorn in the air, the ice-cream vendors chanting, “Yummy, yummy, good for the tummy.”
Then there was the barrage of seagulls that would swoop down, picking up hot dog wrappers and paper cups off the wooden benches. I still can remember the one seagull that swiped a hot dog right from the bun of a fan, sitting only a few rows down. The seagull flew off and I laughed hysterically. Dad said the seagulls were very well trained and only dropped their castings on the visitors’ heads. Of course, dad was just being facetious.
My first thoughts of the football game were: Why were all these guys running around in circles and in different directions knocking each other down? All these people were yelling and booing, it seemed after every play. Some were arguing with each other. Two men right nearby, spent the entire time drinking beer and screaming obscenities.
The 49ers were the center of my dad’s cosmos. He never missed a thing that happened on the field and wanted to share it all with me. Dad had a knack for sensing big plays as they unfolded. Most times he could even anticipate the quarterback’s play calling. He’d poke me with his elbow, or simply lean his forearm against my forearm, just in time for me to see a receiver materializing under a deep pass or a runner breaking free for a big gain.
I was able to coax my dad into buying me popcorn and a soda, but after a few hours I was asking dad to go home. I buried my face against dad’s shoulders. I still remember the feel of his wool overcoat against my nose. He kept saying, “be patient.” But this boring game made no sense to me. Surely I could be having more fun with my friends than this. Then something happened that changed my life forever.
It was the second quarter and dad told me to watch this player with number “39” on his red jersey. From where we were sitting behind the goal post in the end zone, number “39” looked like a tiny ant.
Dad gave me his binoculars to look through, and as I focused my eyes on number “39” something interesting happened. He got the ball on a pitch out and cut wide to his right, heading up the sidelines toward the west end of the stadium. Then he cut to the center of the field, swerving directly away from two defenders but head-on toward two others. I finally could see his every move. Would-be tacklers aimed at his long legs, but he suddenly stopped and started up in a new direction, slicing back toward the sideline and escaped from everyone. He scored a touchdown without a single person touching him.
A big roar from the crowd broke my concentration. It was a spectacular run. This guy was really fun to watch. Dad said it was Hugh McElhenny, and this was his first game playing for the 49ers.
The 49ers ended up winning the game 38-14, but it didn’t really matter. From then on, it was a time for me when mortality and immortality were so close, I had dreams almost every night of being a 49er player. Once I learned the players’ names, I could imagine the texture of a football in my hands, as Y.A. Tittle faded back to pass. Or the elation of watching my favorite 49er hero McElhenny catching a screen-pass, and going all the way for a touchdown!
So why am I so connected to this team? I’ve never met most of the players or staff, yet I have an unspoken bond, a bond shared by millions of other 49ers fans all over the country. The cities and the teams may change, but a “fanatical” fan like me stays the same. I share in their elation and I feel their pain. I still go to the games, but I shun the usual hoopla, like tailgate parties. I’m definitely not a fair-weather, jump-on-the-bandwagon kind of fan. To me it’s all about loyalty and devotion, not kegs and dressing up. I guess maybe I deserve a gold medal for keeping my 49ers attendance streak alive—686 straight games, despite not having season tickets since 1980. Now I simply go to the stadium on game day and buy a ticket from a scalper. I always get a prime location and I’ve never paid more than $50.00.
Watching the 49ers is not a matter of life and death, for me it’s more important that that. My friends, my relationships and even dreams have come and gone, but 49ers football is constant for me. I now have a greater clarity and wisdom for the team I love. From all the great moments I’ve witnessed at Kezar and Candlestick Park, and our five Super Bowls victories, it all began. when I was a kid sitting in the end zone. I’m just proud for sticking around. Maybe it’s because life is so full of repetition and tediousness, while 49er football is so melodramatic. For whatever reason, it was all worth it.