SAN FRANCISCO -- He sat in the cramped, musty locker room and braced himself for a verbal beatdown, a familiar sting of disappointment slicing through the thick, chilly air.
On a glum, early December Sunday in 1980, a young quarterback named Joe Montana and his San Francisco 49er teammates coalesced in crowded quarters as their struggling second-year coach, Bill Walsh, assessed the sordid state of affairs: The Niners were getting manhandled by Archie Manning and the winless New Orleans Saints, 35-7, and the coach's best-laid plans were as shredded and tattered as the soggy, under-the-water-table Candlestick Park grass.
It seemed like an ideal time for a tantrum, but Walsh went the other way, his voice barely audible above the disgruntled grumbles emanating from the stands above the locker room.
"Bill was very calm," Montana recalls. "I tell this story to people all the time. He gathered us and said, 'You know what? Forget it. We're gonna throw the game plan out the window and go back to basics. All I want to do is get the needle going upward.' And we went out and just focused on fundamentals, and kept it simple. We were gonna try to move up the ladder on the way out the door -- and we went back out there, and everything changed."
If the 1981 NFC Championship Game, featuring Montana's iconic touchdown pass to Dwight Clark that would be forever emblazoned in football lore as "The Catch," is considered the birth of an NFL dynasty, what happened on that surreal Sunday 13 months earlier was the conception of Candlestick impudence. Calmed by their coach's counterintuitive speech, the Niners rallied for a 38-35 overtime victory, completing what was then the biggest comeback in NFL history.
To Clark, whose 71-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter came after he ran the most basic of all routes -- a square-out -- Walsh's poise, and the payoff that followed, helped transform both the culture of a franchise and the vibe of its shoddy but uniquely quirky stadium.
"I remember the halftime being different from any I had ever experienced when getting my ass kicked," Clark says. "I was ready for the coaches to blast us, but Bill wasn't upset at all. He said, 'Look, I don't know if we can win this game or not' -- I'd never heard a coach say that -- 'but let's just go out there and do our jobs and see what happens.' And we did. And magic happened. I think we were as surprised as anybody that we had the ability to do that, and I know we all pulled from that game over the years. Somewhere in our psyche, we always had that New Orleans comeback in the back of our minds."
Thirty-three years later, having hosted an inordinate share of magical, unconventional and captivating sporting events, Candlestick Park will stage its official farewell. In what almost certainly will be the last football game at the stadium that has hosted the 49ers since 1971 -- and which housed the baseball Giants from 1960 to '99, not to mention the AFL's Oakland Raiders in 1961 -- the Niners will pay their ceremonial respects before and during their upcoming "Monday Night Football" clash with the Atlanta Falcons.
With former owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., whose stewardship produced five Super Bowl championships and an unmatched run of prolonged excellence in the '80s and '90s, serving as the team's honorary captain, Candlestick will be feted one last time in all its decrepit splendor. Fittingly, the defending NFC champion 49ers will either be playing to clinch a playoff spot or to improve their postseason seeding, transcending the night's sentimental value.
Though the Candlestick legacy includes a slice of rock n' roll history (the Beatles' final full concert in 1966), a Papal Mass (by Pope John Paul II in '87) and a World Series-delaying earthquake (interrupting the Bay Bridge Series between the Giants and Oakland A's in '89), it was the 49ers who brought the big-game buzz that will remain on the rocky shores of Candlestick Point long after the facility is demolished next year.
And this is why, despite the obvious excitement surrounding the team's impending move 30 miles south to a state-of-the-art stadium in Santa Clara, Monday will be a night of emotional reckoning for many of the people in attendance -- even DeBartolo, who famously decried Candlestick as a "pigsty" to then-San Francisco mayor (and current U.S. Senator) Dianne Feinstein at an NFL owners meeting in 1985. "It was terrible," says DeBartolo, who'd already cemented his reputation as a players' owner by standing in the tunnel beyond the south end zone and handing towels to Niner after Niner as they headed into the locker room after games. "It's still a dump. But oh, the memories ..."
When Candlestick opened on the first day of the 1960 baseball season, then-Vice President Richard Nixon, who threw out the first pitch, declared it to be "the finest stadium in the land." As the '70s approached, it didn't take Woodward and Bernstein to uncover the inherent inaccuracy of that declaration. Though the 'Stick had its share of moments -- hosting the 1961 All-Star Game (in which Giants pitcher Stu Miller was literally blown off the mound by a gust of wind, resulting in a balk), the 1962 World Series (which the Giants lost to the Yankees in heartbreaking fashion) and the Niners' devastating, last-minute 1972 playoff defeat to the Dallas Cowboys (the final act of a trilogy of postseason disappointments at the hands of their Texas-based rivals) -- it became known primarily for three things: unseasonably chilly and windy weather; a distinct lack of amenities; and the home team falling short in games that mattered.
The first two issues couldn't and wouldn't be fixed; the bit about the unsatisfying outcomes, however, underwent a major facelift, as DeBartolo, Walsh, Montana and so many other defiant Niners created an uncharted standard of excellence. Beginning with the thrilling triumph over the Cowboys punctuated by The Catch, and ending with an overtime defeat to the New York Giants 30 years later, the 'Stick opened its gates for eight NFC Championship Games and served as the backdrop for all sorts of heart-stopping, remarkable happenings.
Candlestick Park was where the postgame prayer circle was born, albeit in abruptly audibilized fashion; it's where Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka received the spiteful inspiration for "The Fridge" and, three years later, got so enraged that he threw a wad of chewing gum at a fan's head; it's where an A-list actor did cartwheels in the owner's box, a star quarterback got spooked into taking a career-turning phantom sack and Mike Singletary dropped trou in front of his stunned players in his NFL head-coaching debut.
Most of all, it's where quarterbacks like John Brodie, Montana, Steve Young and Jeff Garcia led classic comebacks; where Roger Craig, Ricky Watters and Frank Gore ran wild; where Clark, Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens and Vernon Davis made heroic catches; where defenders like Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, Charles Haley and Bryant Young snuffed out some of the most fearsome playmakers the sport has known.
And while the fans didn't always go home happy, they usually got their money's worth, especially during the two-decade stretch that spanned Montana's and Young's Hall of Fame careers.
"For 20 years, just about every game played there, it was the game," says Young, who backed up and succeeded Montana. "Sitting in the locker room before a big game, listening to the crowd ... It's leaking and musty, smelling like a mix of low tide and sweat. People are right above you. You can hear conversations in the stands and feet stomping. It wasn't the nicest stadium, but it was charming and wonderful and awesome -- and it was our home. And just about every great memory I have in football is buried in that turf."
Adds Lott, the Hall of Fame defensive back who helped the Niners win four Super Bowls in the '80s: "There are so many great memories underneath -- in that locker room, in the hallways, and of course on that field. The big ceremony is Monday, but instead, I think I'll go there alone on Sunday, take one last walk, and get some dirt and dig it up."
So did we -- at least in a metaphoric sense -- unearthing some compelling stories, many of them previously untold, during interviews with more than a dozen of the competitors who helped carve out the 'Stick's place in history:
Gil Brandt, Cowboys vice president of player personnel, 1960-1989: When we came back to beat them in '72, scoring twice in the last two minutes after recovering an onside kick, Candlestick was not a happy place. I almost got hit by a pair of binoculars that some fan threw. They landed about 10 feet away, but it seemed like about six inches. I got the hell off the sidelines.
Joe Montana, 49ers quarterback, 1979-1992: If that (1980 comeback against the Saints) gave us the feeling we were never out of a game, it was that 1981 game against the Cowboys (a 45-14 Niners victory in October) that kind of pushed us over the edge, to get us to believe that we were now at that level where we could compete for a championship.
Dwight Clark, 49ers receiver, 1979-1987: That was a point in our history with Bill (Walsh) when everybody really started believing we might do something special. After Dallas had run up the score on us the year before, 59-14 ... everybody held onto that game. We were ready for a fight, and some payback. I loved that we just tried to score even when the game was out of hand. That's what they had done to us.
Ronnie Lott, 49ers safety, 1981-1990: We were so hyped up. And then to get (defensive end) Fred Dean ... Fred Dean was the bazooka that they didn't know we had. He kind of just changed the whole tone. It was like, "There's a new sheriff in town." When he got off the bus first, everybody wanted to follow him, and that put us over the top. What he did early in that game took everybody's confidence to another level. One of the first sacks, he went over the center and cracked the guard's leg ... he did all that on one play! We came in at halftime and I remember sitting there looking at him going, "Man, I gotta check this dude out." I'd never seen anybody that devastating. And he pulls out a pack of Kool cigarettes and starts smoking a Kool. You know how they say, "Shaft -- that's one bad mofo. Shut your mouth ..."? For the rest of the year, Fred Dean smoked a Kool at halftime, and nobody said anything. That was one of the great moments in sports for me.
Lott would enjoy another great moment in that 1981 season when, before another game, a San Francisco Giants legend made an unscheduled appearance in the Niners' locker room.
Lott: One of the great moments of my life, before a game my rookie year -- I'm sitting there at my locker, praying, and I hear Willie Mays, arguably the greatest baseball player of all time, saying, "What the hell are you praying for?" He said, "Man, look -- Bob Gibson throws at my head all the time. You've just gotta go out there and play." And you know what? He was right. You can pray, but you've gotta play.
The final home game of Lott's rookie season was a rematch with the dreaded Cowboys, with a trip to the Super Bowl hanging in the balance.
Montana: After we beat the Cowboys (in the regular season), they'd been talking about how they didn't have respect for us, even though we'd just beaten them by a bunch. That was kind of where we left off.
Lott: That week, I was driving down the 280 freeway, and a fan was yelling at me. I literally thought it was road rage. Finally, I realized he was saying, "Frickin' beat Dallas!" And then before the game, (Cowboys defensive tackle and eventual Hall of Famer) Randy White yelled at me: "Hey man, get on the other side of the 50!" I said to myself, "That's Randy White." I was a rookie; you better believe I walked on the other side of the 50. It scared the crap out of me.
Clark: I remember going onto the field to the 11-yard line (with 4:54 remaining, trailing 27-21) thinking, We've gotta go 89 yards against the Dallas Cowboys. That's gonna be tough. But as we marched down the field, Bill and (offensive line coach) Bobb McKittrick were just masterfully calling these plays. A bunch of runs, and a reverse! To take the risk of a reverse took cojones on Bill's part. The offensive line, they were just annihilating people. The throw to Freddie Solomon that got down to the 13 -- Joe was scanning the field and finally saw Freddie and drilled it in between three Cowboys. On the (third-and-3) play that ended with The Catch, we had scored on that play on the first drive -- Sprint Right Option -- from a different formation. This time, Freddie kinda slipped in that Candlestick mud, and Joe's second option -- run -- wasn't there. The third option was me sliding across the back of the end zone. Bill's coaching point on that play was, "This is not a fourth-down play, so don't throw an interception. Throw it high enough where Dwight can catch it or it goes out of bounds." That's about a six-inch spot, and we would practice it and the ball was sailing all over the place. In the game, under duress, with three people on top of him, Joe puts it in the exact spot. Just amazing.
After The Catch, which came with 51 seconds remaining, the Cowboys threatened to render it irrelevant. Quarterback Danny White threaded a pass over the middle to star receiver Drew Pearson, who caught it in stride and appeared to be gone -- until Eric Wright, Lott's fellow rookie cornerback, grabbed hold of Pearson's shoulder pad and dragged him down at the Niners' 44. Two plays later, Lawrence Pillers sacked White and dislodged the ball, and teammate Jim Stuckey made the game-clinching fumble recovery. Two weeks later, the Niners won their first Super Bowl, defeating the Cincinnati Bengals.
Eddie DeBartolo Jr., 49ers owner, 1977-2000: Truthfully, there was too much time and the Cowboys didn't give a (damn) about a touchdown. They wanted to get in field-goal range. When Eric grabbed Drew Pearson and held him down, if he doesn't make that play, that could've turned the whole franchise around (in a negative way). And let me tell you something -- if Eric Wright doesn't get the (pelvic bone) injury he gets (in 1986) -- and he was never the same after that -- he would've been in the Hall of Fame.
Lott: I was a nickelback, covering the receiver in the slot. I'll never forget that play that Eric made. I took the wrong angle. Dwight (Hicks, the safety) and I hit each other and (Pearson) split us. I'm sitting there going, "Oh, my God -- oh, no." And then Eric ran him down. It was an incredible play. I thought, "We get to live another down."
Montana: I was down at the far end of the bench, looking at it from behind. Everybody talks about The Catch, but wow -- that was really what saved the day.
George Seifert, San Francisco native, 49ers assistant (1980-88) and head coach (1989-1996): The Eric Wright tackle, which people don't recognize as being that significant -- well, I was the defensive backs coach, and my coaching career would have ended real quick if he didn't make that play. At the beginning of that season, we played San Diego in a preseason game, and we were winning at the end of the game when Dan Fouts threw to a guy named (Bobby) Duckworth, and Eric dove and tried to tackle him the same way, but the guy ran through his grasp and scored the winning touchdown. Bill was livid. He made a big point of, "Don't ever tackle like that again." But it's funny how those little moments come back around.
Lott: It's like "The Wizard of Oz": Ding dong, the witch is dead. A lot of people in that movie never thought you could kill the witch. And yet, it happens. (Eric) could've quit, and usually in situations like that, most people do. Most people don't have the courage to go get somebody. That was the reason that team won those kind of games. Guys had the courage to be different. Dwight didn't know that you weren't allowed to jump that high. Joe didn't know you're not allowed to throw that ball.
Seifert: To see the excitement and the exuberance, in the stands and in the city, that was a highlight. After the game, I drove to see my mother-in-law in the Upper Mission and there were people on cars, people climbing up poles -- it was a zoo. The corner of Geneva and Mission, it was like Mardi Gras.
Three seasons later, the Niners went 18-1 and won their second Super Bowl, throttling the Miami Dolphins at Stanford Stadium. Two weeks before that, at Candlestick, they'd rolled to a 23-0 victory over the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship Game.
Mike Walter, 49ers linebacker, 1984-1993: That '84 game was what gave Ditka the inspiration for "The Fridge." Bill unveiled a goal-line formation with (guard) Guy McIntyre as a blocking back. He called it the "Angus Formation," because Guy hung out so much at the Black Angus, at the bar. Ditka didn't like that, so when they beat us in Chicago in (the '85 regular season), he took it to another level and had (defensive tackle William Perry, a.k.a. "The Refrigerator") run the ball on us. And a craze was born.
After rupturing a disc during the 1986 season opener, Montana underwent career-threatening back surgery, sending Niners fans into a protracted state of sweat-inducing stress. He returned two months later, throwing for 270 yards and three touchdowns (all to second-year standout Jerry Rice) in a 43-17 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals at Candlestick. On his first touchdown throw, Montana absorbed a late hit from Cardinals linebacker Charlie Baker -- and, to the relief and delight of fans and teammates, popped up clapping his hands.
Montana: I just remember the excitement of getting back to the field, and the big concern -- they told me everything seems to be OK with my back, but I just hadn't taken any hits yet. I think Bobb (McKittrick) was gonna have a heart attack. I was about 187 pounds when I came back. You always want to take that first hit, but I was never more relieved than after (Baker's), I'll tell you.
Lott: Oh, my God ... all I remember is I cried when I saw him after the surgery, in the hospital, hooked up to all the IVs and he couldn't walk ... Because I didn't expect him ever to play again. And then to see him run out on the field that day -- if there was one guy that really showed you, "Hey, just follow me," and he showed it when he got hurt, in close games ... it was Joe. People forget about what he suffered through.
In December of 1987, the 49ers blew out the Bears 41-0 on "Monday Night Football." As an irate Ditka left the field, he was taunted by a group of Candlestick fans -- and he allegedly removed a wad of gum from his mouth and struck a female spectator on her head. The gum was booked as evidence as San Francisco police investigated the Bears' coach for assault.
DeBartolo: He was walking past those risers outside the tunnel to the locker room and somebody said something and he hit somebody in the head with his gum. Crazy!
That January, the top-seeded 49ers were stunned by the Minnesota Vikings in a divisional-round playoff game. With Montana struggling, Walsh put Young into the game in the third quarter, and the mobile backup led the Niners on a pair of scoring drives in a 36-24 defeat -- sparking an enduring quarterback controversy.
Young: Bill used to throw me in there. He'd tell Joe before the game that he planned to throw me in, and literally, if Joe's head could have exploded, it would have. The first time I got into a game at Candlestick, against the Saints (in the '87 regular season), Bill put me in on this play, and at the line (center) Randy Cross was yelling, "Get out of it, get out of it." So I thought, Oh, crap, it must be a bad play, and I audibled to a pass ... and I overthrew (tight end) John Frank by about a mile. Jerry Rice came out of nowhere and made an awesome fingertip grab and we scored, and when I came to the sideline, Bill said, "How did you know? How did you know to get to the pass play and to get it to Jerry Rice?" I had this key moment to decide: Which way am I gonna go? I told myself, No, just go with it, and I shrugged and said, "Coach, I just felt it." Later I asked Randy, "Why did we have to get out of that play?" And he said, "I wasn't talking to you. I was talking to (offensive tackle Keith) Fahnhorst."
The two quarterbacks alternated through the first two-and-a-half months of the 1988 season before Montana seized the job and led the 49ers to their third Super Bowl championship. Prior to that, however, Young secured a dramatic, late-October victory over the Vikings at Candlestick thanks to an indefatigable, 49-yard touchdown run in the final minutes.
Young: As I stumble into the end zone, I'm physically finished. If it was five more yards, there would be no way.
DeBartolo: That was probably one of the great things that happened at Candlestick Park. He stumbled into the end zone. I think about that '87 playoff game against the Vikings. Joe had a bad game, and I don't know if we ever could've come back, but maybe if Steve comes in earlier, I don't know ...
With the Bay Area enjoying a sporting renaissance in the late-'80s, many Niners players became immersed in the 1989 World Series, which featured the Giants and A's. The A's eventually won in a four-game sweep, but only after the Loma Prieta earthquake struck just before the scheduled start of Game 3 (the first at the 'Stick), causing a 10-day delay to the Fall Classic.
Walter: One of my great memories of Candlestick was a baseball game. I had become friends with (Giants outfielder) Candy Maldonado, and he got me tickets to Game 3 of the Bay Bridge Series. I went with Doug Cosbie, whom I'd played with in Dallas, and we met a bunch of my (49ers) teammates in the parking lot and we tailgated. We were like, "Oh, this is what it's about. This is awesome." We had just walked into the stadium and we were up the third-base line, under an overhang, and the place started shaking, and dust and sandy debris started falling on us ... stuff was literally crumbling on my head. There was a big cheer -- and we were out of there.
In '89, the Niners split a pair of games with the rival Los Angeles Rams, who returned to Candlestick for the NFC Championship Game as a trendy underdog pick, having won there in the regular season. Early in the game, with the Rams up 3-0, quarterback Jim Everett faked a reverse and threw a deep ball to fleet-footed receiver Flipper Anderson, who appeared to be wide open. Lott, however, somehow managed to break it up after sprinting all the way across the field.
Lott: (Former Rams coach) John Robinson (who coached Lott at USC) calls me "MF" every time he sees me now. He says, "You're an MF for getting that ball." John just knew that I was gonna bite on that one. They had run that same play early in our game in Anaheim during the regular season. They ran the reverse and I tackled Ron Brown for maybe a 2-yard gain. And they're like, There is no way that he should be able to fly up there and make that play. Everybody's still trying to figure out how I got there (to break up the pass). It's because Jim Everett ducks his head. The first time (in Anaheim), he didn't do it. Hey, man -- this ain't "Duck Dynasty." It's like he was trying to give that extra duck to show me that he really did hand it off. When anybody ducks like that, they're not giving the ball up. It didn't look right. He sold it too much. I thought, "Oh, my God, there's Flipper Anderson all by himself." And I just started running.
DeBartolo: That turned the whole game around.
Spurred by Lott's deflection, the Niners roared back to win, 30-3. The defense's other signature moment came in the fourth quarter when Everett, who'd been under pressure all day from a ferocious San Francisco pass rush, went down without being touched, a play that would become known as the "Phantom Sack."
Lott: The inside story on that was (star pass rusher) Charles Haley, when we played 'em down there, had told Jim Everett, "You know something -- next time we play you, I'm gonna break your (expletive) leg." Jim Everett thought he was serious about it; no one ever knew whether Charles was serious or not. Anyway, it was late in the game and Charles had broken free and was coming toward him. My man said, He's not gonna break my leg ... and he just went down. That was why.
By the late '80s, the Niners were a huge attraction, routinely drawing actors, musicians and other celebrities to the 'Stick, shoddy luxury boxes and all.
DeBartolo: The craziest thing I ever saw in all my years was when George Clooney was doing cartwheels. He always used to come to the games and (my wife) Candy and the women spent time with him. He and Candy got pretty chummy. This was in the late '80s or early '90s. One game, things were going (badly), and I went into my back office, which was connected to the owner's box. At that point, the only thing you can do is smack somebody that's near you, or go back to have a beer and a shot, so I chose to go back and watch on TV. And I'll never forget the sight: There was George Clooney, wearing a mid-length, brown trench coat, and they had him doing cartwheels.
Walter: There were all these areas that were kind of hidden. Upstairs from our locker room, where the Giants' locker room was, we'd use that room to stretch before games. Jerry Rice would come up, and he's primping -- re-doing his hair, fixing his socks, changing his hairline. He believed you had to look good to play good.
Jerry Rice, 49ers receiver, 1985-2000: Of course -- once I put my uniform on, I had to go look in the mirror to make sure everything was in the proper place. My socks had to be a certain length. My hair had to be right. The tape had to be perfect. My pants had to fit right. My jersey had to be tight. That was like a little ritual thing for me. Also, I had to go to the stadium early and weigh myself. Whatever weight I'd decided I wanted to play at that week -- say, 189 -- if I was not at that number, I would work out before anyone got to the stadium. I'd ride the bike for a while, then go outside and run around a little bit until I hit the number.
After crushing the Broncos to win their second consecutive Super Bowl, and fourth in nine years, the Niners rolled to a 10-1 start in 1990 before hosting the 10-1 Giants in an epic "Monday Night Football" clash. San Francisco held on for a 7-3 victory in the NFL's version of a classic pitcher's duel. The game ended with Lott and Giants quarterback Phil Simms locked in a facemask-to-facemask shoving match; the two were ultimately pulled apart by teammates.
Rice: Oh, my God, you talk about a physical football game. You had guys taking out each other. We didn't like the Giants, and they didn't like us.
Eric Davis, 49ers cornerback, 1990-95: I remember standing on the field and listening to (Giants coach Bill) Parcells and Seifert yelling at each other across the field. We had a fourth down near midfield, and Parcells was saying, "Go for it," and throwing in some profanities. Seifert was yelling back at him. I remember the intensity of that game. It was one of those deals where you learned, "These matter." Every game in that stadium mattered at that time, because it was about when we see you again. Every team that walked into Candlestick walked in there to make a statement -- we can play with those guys or we'll be ready next time. No matter how we made it look, or no matter what kind of score we put on them, it was never an easy game. There was never a lull. We always got a team's best shot. And that was a hell of a shot.
Lott: That was a good game. Matter of fact, if you're a football historian, that game was like the Alan Ameche game (the 1958 NFL Championship Game, a.k.a. "The Greatest Game Ever Played," in which Ameche's 1-yard touchdown run gave the Colts a 23-17 overtime victory over the Giants). It was a close game, a physical game, and they had to score to win the game -- that game was a lot like that. It might have been one of the few games where, when people talk about defense, that actually was the story. It was arguably one of the most physical games that was ever held in that stadium. It was one of those epic battles -- two great defenses duking it out. And from my rookie year 'til when I left the Niners, it seemed to me that every time we played them, it was more about that side of the ball than the offensive side. I finished that game with two sprained knees -- a second-degree sprain in one of them -- and I wasn't coming off that field. It was epic.
Brent Jones, 49ers tight end, 1987-1997: People don't realize this, but that was the first-ever postgame prayer in history, where players from both teams huddled after the game on the field. We'd talked about doing it in Bible study; it was set up by the two team chaplains. Nobody ever knew where that started -- well, it all came back to that night. The Giants were gonna do it with us, and then the game ended, we all got out to the 50, and bam -- Ronnie pops Phil Simms, and all hell breaks loose. We actually had to move to the 30. The Giants guys couldn't find us for a while. It was like, "Hey, can we pray with you guys?" ... BAM! And I knew that (two years earlier), we'd played a game at the end of the season against the Rams after we already clinched, but the Giants needed us to win for them to get in. We lost, and Phil had said "the 49ers laid down like dogs." Don't think Ronnie didn't remember.
Davis: That was competition at its highest level. We were the two best teams in the league. We knew, "This is for home-field advantage." We were out there fighting. We had a ton of respect, but a strong dislike. Those guys were going at it, yelling at each other. If it hadn't been broken up, it would have been an old school, all-out barroom brawl, where guys would've been thrown out of the saloon one by one. What they were saying, you can't print. It was guys essentially saying, "The next time I see you, it's gonna be worse."
The two teams met again that January at Candlestick in the 1990 NFC Championship Game, this time with Jeff Hostetler playing for the injured Simms. In the fourth quarter, Giants defensive end Leonard Marshall blasted Montana on a blind-side hit, leaving him with a bruised sternum, bruised stomach, cracked ribs and a broken finger on his throwing hand.
Young: When Joe got hit, I was standing right there. I was like, "Oh my gosh; he might be dead." My instinct was to run on the field and see if he was OK. People don't realize how tough some guys are. Joe was. But that was bad.
Montana: I already knew that if we won the game, I wasn't gonna play in the Super Bowl. My little finger was stuck underneath my other finger. We went into the training room, and at first they told me they didn't think it was broken. I told the doctor, "I don't think my finger belongs under there like that." Oh yeah, it was broken.
With the Niners up 13-12 in the final minutes, Young entered the game and threw a 25-yard pass to Jones. A 6-yard run by Craig gave the Niners another first down. But on the next carry, Giants nose tackle Erik Howard popped the ball out of Craig's hands with his helmet, and star linebacker Lawrence Taylor rolled across the pile to recover it, setting up Matt Bahr's game-winning field goal on the final play.
Young: That's a brutal memory. Brent makes that catch, spikes it in LT's face and screams, "It's over!" And it was over. I remember seeing him spike the ball, and then he turned to me and screamed, "I've been open all day. It's about time!" He was just letting everybody have it.
Jones: Yeah, nice try. That's funny, but it (yelling "I've been open all day") isn't true. I did spike the ball. When Steve came in the huddle, he was like, "Holy crap." We called 23 Texas: Woody (fullback Tom Rathman) usually gets the ball on a delay route, and I run down the seam -- and if it's two-deep coverage, they're gonna take a shot. Youngster was freaking Rudolph; his eyes were deer big. He stood up at the line and I saw two-deep coverage, which we used to call Cover 9. I started yelling, "Nine! Cover 9! Cover 9!" ... He looked at me like, Oh, OK. LT was standing over me, screaming at (Giants linebacker Gary) Reasons, "Watch Jones, watch Jones!" I didn't care. You know me -- I didn't say much out there. But after I caught the ball, we were going back to our third Super Bowl in a row. After I spiked it, I walked right by Lawrence Taylor and said, "LT, I'm going back to the Super Bowl, baby."
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Davis: When Roger fumbled, you could feel the air go out of the crowd. I had my back turned to the field. Charles Haley was saying, "You're going to the Super Bowl." I saw his facial expression just change. That's the thing about Candlestick, the highs and the lows. We had that feeling that we were invincible. We couldn't lose a game like that. But we did.
Young: I honestly think that part of the problem is that everybody was such a veteran that they knew it was over ... and maybe they let down. Maybe that's what happened with Roger.
Montana would miss most of the next two seasons with injuries to his throwing elbow. In '91, the Niners, despite winning their final six games to finish 10-6, failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since '82. The following season, Young led the Niners to the NFC's top seed while earning league MVP honors. However, Montana's arm healed in time for him to play the second half of the regular-season finale, turning an otherwise meaningless "Monday Night Football" game against the Detroit Lions at Candlestick into a surreal spectacle. Montana threw two touchdown passes in what would be his final appearance in a Niners uniform, as he was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs after the season.
Montana: It was a lot of fun. It was emotional, knowing I wasn't gonna play there anymore, that they were going to get rid of me. Basically, it was an audition for my next team.
Jones: I caught his first touchdown pass. The place was bedlam. I went over to hand him the ball and I kind of hesitated. Here's a guy who had all these Super Bowls, MVPs ... but hey, that might be the last one.
Young: The crowd was going nuts. How weird is that? People don't realize the year I was MVP, Joe was on the sidelines. I was talking to Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay during his MVP year, and I said, "Now let me get this straight -- where's Brett?" And he said, "He's in Mississippi ..." And I said, "Oh, cause when I was doing it, Joe was on the sidelines ... think about that. I've lived through some stuff.
That included the Niners losing consecutive NFC Championship Games to the Cowboys -- falling at home in '92 and at Texas Stadium in '93 -- with Dallas going on to win the Super Bowl each time.
Michael Irvin, Cowboys receiver, 1988-1999: The first time I set foot in that stadium (for the '92 NFC title game), I remember watching Jerry Rice, totally in awe. I was watching Jesus In Cleats, in his home. That meant Candlestick had to be heaven.
Davis: Losing that ('92 title game) was just crushing. It stayed with me and most of the team, carried over to the next year, and then the next year. It was, "When do we get those guys again?" Every time we walked through that tunnel or got dressed in that locker room, no matter who we were playing, all we thought about was getting that game back there -- so we could win it. It didn't matter who stepped out in front of us. It was about us getting through them to win a championship. It was, "You are in the way." Like George used to say, it was a nameless, shapeless, faceless object in front of us. "I am going through you." It had nothing to do with them.
In '94, the Niners, who had loaded up over the offseason with veteran free agents like Deion Sanders, Richard Dent and Rickey Jackson, fell to 3-2 after enduring one of the worst defeats in Candlestick history -- a 40-8 drubbing by the Philadelphia Eagles in which Young, after being benched by Seifert during the third quarter, reacted with a conspicuous sideline tirade.
Young: I freaked out on George. He told me, "Look, we're getting beat, we're gonna take a bunch of starters out and play the second stringers." So I didn't think much of it. The next series, I look up, and no one else comes out. It was like, "Oh, Steve, I forgot to tell you -- it's you." And I lost it.
Davis: Before the championship game, the weather was bad, so we went to Arizona. So it was just us, removed, and there was nothing to do but think about that game. Now the guys that had come in that season were starting to understand what it meant to be a Niner -- and the distinct hatred had grown within them also. The Cowboys had beaten us when it mattered. And we hated them. I sat down with (safety) Tim McDonald, the smartest player I've ever played with, and watched every throw that they had made that entire season. Something popped out -- in certain third-down situations, at certain distances, we kept seeing this pass they liked to throw. On game day, I remember Deion asked me a question in the locker room -- we were talking about scenarios -- and I said, "I got you; don't worry." He looked at me and he smiled. He knew I was ready. For three years, we'd been waiting. This was the day. There was no way possible we could leave that field without that win. When we hit that field, it was like an eruption.
The 49ers jumped out to a 21-0 lead, spurred by Davis' 44-yard interception return for touchdown, and rolled to a 38-28 victory, setting up a Super Bowl blowout of the Chargers in which Young threw a record six touchdown passes.
Davis: Early in the game, when they came out in that formation we'd seen on film, I looked at Tim, and he looked at me, and we said it at the same time: "It's coming." It wasn't luck. It wasn't anything other than studying. Now the trick was to make (Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman) not know that we knew. When I turn my back to Irvin, he's got the out route. Troy's thinking it's man coverage ... and I just turned around and took off, knowing he was gonna look at me and then throw that ball. When I caught it in stride, I'll never forget the noise that crowd made. I wasn't there for The Catch, but that was one of the loudest things I'd ever heard.
Rice: We had to beat them to feel OK. When you get knocked out, a team takes your dreams away, you know the magnitude of that game. I couldn't sleep the night before. I was up pacing around, playing the game over and over in my head. I could barely eat, maybe a bowl of cereal.
Davis: There was no "maybe." There is not a player that understands what it means to be a Niner that could have survived losing that game. The release came on that last play, when I tackled Jay Novacek on that fourth down, 2 yards short. And we knew it was over. The King is dead.
Jones: The Youngster was the least likely guy to take a victory lap, and yet there he was running around the field. I wanted to bust him so badly for taking the lap, but I understood. Nobody'll ever truly know the pressure he felt, following Joe, a legend.
Deion Sanders, 49ers cornerback, 1994: The fondest memory I have was after winning that championship game, which was ultimately the Super Bowl, because we were the two best teams: (Defensive coordinator) Ray Rhodes was sitting outside in that dugout where you go in the tunnel. Everyone else was celebrating on the field, but Ray Bob, he's not gonna be in all the ruckus. I remember just going over to Ray and sitting down and going, "We did it," and sharing a moment.
As the Niners remained a perennial contender throughout the rest of the decade, the men who suited up in the increasingly obsolete stadium created and cultivated some peculiar traditions.
Jones: One day I found a hot chocolate maker from the '60s or '70s tucked way back into some crevice. I took it out, plugged it in and it worked! So I decided to make some before the game, and I'm serving up hot chocolate from a machine that probably used to serve Willie Mays. It had cobwebs, dust and dirt and probably could have caused so many diseases. I was a big (Fred) Biletnikoff guy, and Stickum had been outlawed, so instead I would make hot chocolate and pour it all over my hands on cold days, to get the ball to stick.
Walter: I also remember the hot dogs. If you were ever on injured reserve, or you weren't suited up, always the thing would be to go eat hot dogs underneath the stadium at halftime. They'd have a little place for the helpers to eat, near the visitors' locker room, and we'd go in there and grab a dog, then come out on the field and show it to the other players, like, "This is the life." Brent would yell things like, "Get your buns going, guys," or "Make sure if you fall behind the receivers you ketchup" ... We'd basically make fun of the guys playing.
Young: The Sunday night walkthroughs before a Monday night home game were great. In the dark, everybody got out their drivers and tried to hit golf balls out of the stadium. Brent couldn't hit it straight, but he could kill the ball. He was a slicer. We'd be aiming from literally behind home plate, and he'd crush it over the player parking lot.
Jones: I invented that. Those Sunday night walkthroughs, we had to inject some excitement. This is before Jerry Rice was a (golfing) stud. He could go out and barely short-porch right field. No one besides me teed it up in the ditch and hit it dead center to Section 61, 12 times in a row. We'd hit it from way behind home plate, right against the backstop. Some guys were afraid to hit it. The jumbotron was down the left-field line, and it would probably cost 20 grand if you messed that up. Guys were afraid. A duck hook would have been trouble. We'd get there two hours early. Who does that? I'd pull my driver out and a couple of bags of balls and head inside.
Walter: There were a lot of laughs. One time, Seifert got mad at halftime, kicked the chalkboard and broke his toe. The next week, they laid out the coaches' clothes and (assistant equipment manager Ted Walsh) put one tennis shoe and one of the old kicking shoes with a square toe in George's locker. It was classic.
After the Niners suffered consecutive playoff defeats to the Packers in 1995 and '96, Seifert was fired and replaced by Steve Mariucci. In his first game, Mariucci saw his star receiver, Rice, go down with a torn ACL while running a reverse in a 13-6 road loss to the Bucs. Both men, however, would embark upon unlikely comebacks: Mariucci guided the Niners to a 13-3 record and the chance to host another NFC Championship Game (in which the 49ers would suffer yet another loss to the Packers). Rice, defying medical science, returned to play in a mid-December "Monday Night Football" victory over the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos at Candlestick, catching three passes for 40 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown pass from Young, on the night when Montana's jersey was retired. However, Rice broke his kneecap while landing in the end zone.
Rice: I remember coming back for that Monday Night game, for Joe, and I was so excited. I made that (acrobatic sideline) catch and I was like, OK. Coming back from an injury like that, you want to try to get into the game as quickly as possible, to test it, and after that I felt, I'm all right now. Then I caught a post and somehow I was in an awkward position and my knee slammed into the ground and I heard a pop. The next day I was back in surgery.
The following season, the Niners hosted the Packers in a first-round playoff game and seemed to be headed for a fourth consecutive postseason defeat to Green Bay, until pulling off a last-gasp miracle: With eight seconds to go, Young stumbled after taking a snap from under center, somehow steadied himself and fired a pinpoint pass between four Packers defenders to receiver Terrell Owens, who cradled it for a game-winning touchdown. DeBartolo, whose view of The Catch had been obstructed by a police horse as he stood on the sideline, also missed "The Catch II" 17 years later, as he had gone to a bathroom in his owners' suite. Was the man simply nervous?
DeBartolo: No, I went to the bathroom because I had to piss. I just made it back into the box to see the celebration. Steve, he threaded the needle there.
Mariucci: What I remember most about Candlestick is the beginning and the end. We won our first 18 (regular-season) home games after I became coach, which was an NFL record. It was like, Wow, I love this place. Then the finale, my last game, down by 24 points to the Giants in the third quarter, and we pulled it off.
In that 2002 playoff game, quarterback Jeff Garcia engineered a frantic comeback that featured 25 consecutive points. Then, leading 39-38, the 49ers saw the Giants drive into field-goal range, only to have 41-year-old long snapper Trey Junkin -- who'd been lured out of retirement and signed four days before the game -- skip the ball across the turf, derailing a potential 40-yard, game-winning kick. The officials didn't help the visitors, missing an obvious pass-interference penalty after holder Matt Allen's desperation heave downfield.
Mariucci: When Jeremy Shockey dropped the (end-zone) pass and they settled for a field goal to go up 24, I remember looking at the scoreboard and thinking, "Oh, my God -- if we don't start stopping those guys, they might put up a 60-burger on us." I was having bad thoughts. We went no-huddle on 'em, got some momentum. We scored and went for two and got it, and there were a lot of mathematicians out there. It built and it built. TO caught one at one point and said something to Michael Strahan, and Strahan said, "Look at the scoreboard." It started to get a little bit chippy. I was so glad they were on their fourth long-snapper of the season, and when they botched the field goal and we finally won, it was crazy. Afterward, everybody was in our locker room -- wives, kids, neighbors, their dogs. And that was it for me; I never coached another game there. The next day at my press conference, when the media informed me that the league had admitted there should have been a pass-interference call, they asked me my reaction, and all I said was, "Bummer." I mean, what are you gonna do, play it again? Then we went to Tampa and got beat, and when I got fired the next week, I got a note from one Giants fan, "Hey, Mooch -- you just got fired ... Bummer."
The Niners wouldn't win another playoff game at the 'Stick until January 2012, when "The Catch III" -- Alex Smith's 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis with nine seconds remaining -- gave San Francisco a thrilling, 36-32 triumph over the Saints. Clark, a broadcaster for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area, watched the play from a broadcast platform near the entrance to the visitors' locker-room tunnel.
Clark: It was just a weird, emotional feeling. I just felt this overwhelming emotion ... I guess it was of joy and happiness. I was happy for all those guys who had struggled for so long, and for the fans. It was so nice to get caught up in that moment of ecstasy. The place was going nuts. It was a lot like the old days. I didn't even know Vernon Davis had gone running to the sidelines crying. I just know I felt something. I couldn't quite get a grip on what had happened. It was an odd thing to feel after a victory. I didn't cry, but I felt like I could have. In the end, when Vernon caught that ball, they had overcome nine years of futility. My wife was right there with me. We were hugging and kissing and had our arms up in victory. There were high-fives all around, with everyone I could find.
With the Niners having risen back to prominence under Jim Harbaugh -- and the leadership of owner Jed York, DeBartolo's nephew, who spearheaded the effort to land the new stadium -- the men who helped forge so many stellar Candlestick moments will pay their respects on a positive note.
Montana: I'll miss the memories. I'm not sure I'll miss the 'Stick. It wasn't exactly the best stadium to play in. The baseball dirt, the dust storms. Then they put in the crushed red brick; when you got tackled on it, it felt like cement. They finally raised the field three feet, but before that, it was constantly soaked.
Young: I don't have a lot of emotion about it, because it's something that's used up its whole life. There's nothing left of it. If I thought it could be salvaged or its best days were ahead of it, that'd be one thing. But it's time.
Clark: It's like Candlestick Park, the hallways always remind me of a basement of a home built in the 1920s in Wisconsin or something. It's so cold, so damp -- it's that damp cold that goes through all the clothes you have and through the soles of your shoes. It wasn't a great stadium, but we loved it. We could talk bad about it, but we didn't want anybody else talking bad about it.
Davis: It was old, but it was ours. It's your crazy uncle. You could call him crazy, but no one else can. It was our dump.
Rice: It was a really, really old stadium. The locker rooms, they were just so small, and everybody was so up on each other. But maybe that was why we had so much success -- having that tightness, being around each other, being cohesive.
Walter: That musty smell as you walked up the tunnel, and then going out onto the field. It's dark. One of those emergency-light things is hanging on the wall. And then the roar ...
Davis: You didn't have rats and roaches like some of the other stadiums did, but walking through that tunnel to come out of the dugout, it was cold and tight. There was a light at the end of the tunnel -- and you knew when you came through that tunnel, someone was gonna get their ass kicked.
DeBartolo Yeah, I'll miss it. I left a lot of blood, sweat and tears on that field -- not like the players did, but still ... I'll be very emotional (on Monday night). It's gonna mean a lot to me and my family.
Has DeBartolo considered paying his respects by standing near the locker-room tunnel and handing out towels, like he did back in the day?
DeBartolo: Yeah. I should hand out towels -- to cry into. I know I'll need one.