All football fans will always remember their first trip to see their favorite team play at their home field. For some, it happens when they’re a little boy or girl and maybe some of the details get fuzzier as years go by. For others, it may happen later on in life after he or she is more experienced in the ways of the world making it more important to take in and cherish every aspect of the experience. Some go to a game and have a great time but end up seeing their team lose the game in the end. Others go to a game and have an even better time because their team comes out with a win. For me, my first trip to San Francisco to see the 49ers play couldn’t have gone better.
Since the day I started following the NFL back in 1986 at the ripe old age of 6, I was a fan of the Red and Gold. They were quarterbacked at the time by one of the greatest QB’s to ever play, Joe Montana, who just happened to grow up not too far from where I grew up. Year after year, I’d anxiously await football season so I could cheer for the team and dream of the day I could go see them live at their home field. 25 years later, I finally made it happen.
With the 49ers in the process of building a new stadium in the city of Santa Clara, there are only two or three more years to go and watch them play in the city by the bay, San Francisco. Who knows if they’ll make the playoffs again between now and then because season after season in the NFL we learn that anything can happen. Free agency, injuries, and sometimes just dumb luck can spoil an entire season and take away any hopes of postseason play. This past season the 49ers put together a huge turnaround season under the rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh posting a 13-3 record. They won the NFC West and secured a first round bye with the #2 seed.
As the team sat idle in their bye week waiting to see who they would be playing, I was at home doing research. I was busy looking for pricing on flights across the country, hotel rooms, and tickets to the game for my girlfriend and myself. After finding all of the best deals and breaking down the cost, I decided to make the purchases and head to San Francisco to see the divisional round of playoffs.
We flew out from Harrisburg, PA and made a mini vacation out of the trip. We left time to do some sight-seeing around the city so we could get the full experience. When game day arrived, I couldn’t wait to get to the stadium. We took a cab over to Candlestick Park and arrived around 9am. We walked around the parking lot checking out the sights and the fellow fans ‘pregaming’. We found where players drove into the stadium and hung out long enough to see Patrick Willis make his way into the stadium. Patrick Willis is one of my favorite 49ers and I just happen to be wearing his jersey that day. After that, we made our way to the entrance where we were going to enter. Everything I had read in the week prior to the game said the gates would open at 11am, which was an extra 30 minutes earlier than normal games. As we stood waiting with 30 minutes until the gates were supposed to open, security and staff members gathered and opened our gate early.
My girlfriend and I were one of the first few people through. We got our free red rally towels, grabbed two beers, and headed for our seats. We got inside the stadium and made our way to our seats in the corner of the end zone so we could get some pictures. The stadium was empty with the exception of a handful of people. Quickly we were told we weren’t supposed to be inside yet so we made our way back to the entrance to our section. After waiting 15 minutes, we made our way back down to our seats. One of the security guards on the field yelled up to ask if I had our passes so he could see them. I walked down to show our tickets and he explained only those with pre game field passes were allowed in at the moment. We were escorted back to the entrance to our section again. I asked a few people when we were allowed to officially sit in our seats but they weren’t sure. Another 15 minutes later, we noticed a few other people heading to their seats without pre game field passes stuck to their chests so we followed. Just as we got back to the seats, a man in a suit was headed towards us. Expecting to be escorted back out, my girlfriend decided to ask him to take a quick picture of us with the field in the background.
He gladly did so and we began to chat a little bit. I explained that this was my first time to San Francisco from the Harrisburg PA area and that I had been a fan since the day I started watching the NFL. After hearing our story, the man in the suit replied with “Well since you came all this way, how about we make this an extra special trip.” He went on to introduce himself and explain that each game, they select two random fans out of the crowd of 68,000 as the early fans of the game. Those fans get pre game on field passes to walk around the sidelines taking pictures of the players and coaches. The only rule was we were not allowed to ask players to pose for pictures or to sign autographs. We were led down to the field and taken to a camera crew where we did filmed introductions to be displayed on the jumbotron during the game. The film crew then followed us around recording us from afar while we enjoyed ourselves and took pictures. After a few minutes of footage was recorded, we were free to roam. We got hundreds of photos up close with coaches and players as they went on and off the field and did their stretches and warm-ups. As they made their way out of the locker room, I stood by the entrance and high fived each and every one of them as they ran past. When it got close to kickoff time, we made our way back up to our seats to get ready for a wild shootout.
Right from the opening drive, the 49er defense set the tone of the game with a huge hit from Donte Whitner on Pierre Thomas which would result in a fumble recovery by the niners inside their own 10 yard line and Pierre Thomas being done for the day with a concussion. After forcing 5 turnovers, the 49ers got out to a fast start and built a nice size lead. Everyone in the stadium still remained uneasy because the Saints were lead by Drew Brees who was in the midst of a record breaking season for passing yards by a quarterback. The Saints offense was one of the best of all time and could pile up points in a big hurry. They did just that by fighting through the five turnovers and coming back to take a lead late in the fourth quarter.
The final 4 minutes of the game involved 4 lead changes, 4 touchdowns, one two point conversion, and one crazy emotional roller coaster ride. With 1:37 left in game, Drew Brees hit tight end Jimmy Graham down the seam. He shook off two defenders and rumbled 66 yards for the go ahead touchdown. The Saints added a 2 point conversion pass to Darren Sproles and gave themselves a 32-29 lead. I sat down into my seat in a state of shock. I said to myself “after the way this day has gone, there is absolutely no way the niners can lose this game. They just can’t. The universe would be out of sync.” In just a few plays, Alex Smith led his team down the field and into field goal range. They started to settle in and run some time off the clock before what looked like a game tying field goal to send the game to overtime. There was time to take one shot at the end zone before kicking the field goal but the niners had to be very careful not to turn the ball over. On that one last chance, Alex Smith brought out his inner Joe Montana and threaded a perfect pass to Vernon Davis on a skinny post right in between a linebacker and a safety. Davis took a hard hit from safety, Roman Harper, and held on to the ball falling into the end zone for the game winning touchdown with 9 seconds left on the clock. The stadium erupted and I could barely cheer after screaming so hard over the course of the game. Everyone in the place wearing red and gold was high fiving each fellow fan within reach whether they knew them or not. The dramatic ending guaranteed the game a place in history as one of the greatest playoff games ever played by any two teams. The 49ers had pulled off the upset with a 36-32 win over the favored New Orleans Saints.
When we finally made our way out of the madhouse and back to our hotel, I sat in disbelief at what I had just experienced. This trip was more memorable than I could even imagine. It was my first visit to San Francisco to see the 49ers play in Candlestick Park and it will never be forgotten. We threw together a quick webpage with the pictures from the game at: www.wix.com/teamniners/49erspics#!