Sunday, January 22, 2012

Nobody on this 49ers team has experienced the expectations of the 49ers' glory years

The 49ers had it easy this season.

And I mean that in a nice way.

When I traveled with and covered the 49ers for the Marin I.J in their last three Super Bowl seasons, the franchise, at its peak, was smothered with expectations the size of Montana, the state not the quarterback or the Scarface or that “Achy Breaky Heart” guy’s daughter.

I mean we’re talking megabyte Madden Cruiser-sized expectations. They were an ominous cloud over hovering over the 49ers like Chaz Bono over a dance floor. You wondered when they would crash and succumb to the pressure.

It wasn’t enough to just win games during those glory years. No, sir. The 49ers had to win them with style points. With authority. With pristine perfection. Their games were scrutinized and analyzed like every promise in a presidential debate. They were like super models on the NFL runway being criticized for not wolfing down cheeseburgers.

Those expectations crushed Bill Walsh. They forced the team to trade iconic Joe Montana in order to get better. They put King Kong on Steve Young’s back. They led the franchise to try to replace George Seifert with Mike Shanahan, mere hours after Seifert coached the 49ers to his second and their fifth and last Super Bowl win.

Thank you, man. May I have another?

Those expectations were passed onto 49ers fans. The 49ers would win games in bunches, home and away, routinely 10 a year, and yet people would dial in on Monday and fret about what’s wrong with the team. They took nit-picking to needle-in-a-haystack proportions.

Imagine how trying and tiring it was for those 49ers teams? They had to compete harder than Charlie Sheen parties. They had to play division games in New Orleans and Atlanta, not Seattle and Phoenix. The Rams for the most part were formidable. The 49ers won one NFC championship game in bone-chilling Chicago. They had to beat Dallas – again – for another.

They had superstars with egos bigger than Donald Trump’s steroid hair and an owner who was beloved when the team won championships and he lavished them with gaudy Super Bowl rings, all-expense paid Hawaiian vacations and Neiman-Marcus certificates. But lose a big game and he might attack something like an innocent Coke machine or an insensitive Packers fan.

Every 49ers season began with Super Bowl expectations, not aspirations. It was Super Bowl-or- bust a lip.

That is why this 49ers season is so remarkable. It’s so refreshing. No one expected this. No one. We saw this one coming down the tracks like we saw how a nation’s media would bow to … Tim Tebow?!

All the while the 49ers have won under the national radar and without expectations. The Packers couldn’t lose forever and that took up everybody’s time. Then Tebow kept completing passes to the Almighty Receiver in crunch time and mesmerized the nation.

While everyone was looking elsewhere, the 49ers snuck into the playoffs without too much fuss or recognition.

Now read this and roll it around in your mind: The 49ers are one win from the Super Bowl playing at home on Sunday against a team this season that lost to the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins at home.

Who knew?

This is a magical time. Like Buster Posey and the This Is Torture Giants of 2011. Like Captain Jack and the We Believe Warriors of 2007. Like Huey News and the Heart-Of-Rock-And-Roll News of the 80s.

There is a sudden love affair with this 49ers team. Their losses this season stung but the hard feelings lasted about as long Kris Humphries on Kim Kardashian’s couch.

Maybe the expectations have changed this week now the 49ers won’t have to go to Green Bay are playing in prime time back in the Big Apple. But, really, how many of you expected Alex Smith last week to lead the 49ers on two 80-plus yard touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, much less one. C’mon. Show your hands. Admit it. You didn’t see that coming. Shock then awe.

And that’s what makes it all so beautiful. The lower the expectations, the greater the reward. Alex Smith was a No. 1 pick who never lived up expectations and never figured to still be here this year after last year. Joe Montana was the 82nd pick who never encountered any such expectations until he won a Super Bowl.

Dwight Clark’s “Catch” got the 49ers by the Cowboys and over the proverbial hump. But, beyond that hump, came constant expectations. The 1984 team started the rise. The 1989 team raised it another level by going 18-1 and winning a Super Bowl practically in its own back yard, at Stanford Stadium.

The expectations for the 49ers then went into orbit until the Mike Nolan/Mike Singletary Error lowered them.

It wasn’t until this season that expectations realistically returned to Earth. The 49ers hired a promising new head coach, Jim Harbaugh, but, because of the NFL lockout, he had only seven weeks to practice with his new team before the season started. He and his team ultimately recaptured the hearts and imagination of 49er Faithful and with that came confidence and a passion that had 49ers fans chanting “Defense” before Drew Brees took his first snap last week.

Feels pretty good to be a 49ers fan today, huh?

The expectations are now rising again with the Giants in town. There is still wonderment about this team – can they do it again and wouldn’t it be swell if they did? – but there is not the notion that the world will end if they don’t .

Whew. Isn’t this refreshing?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Me and Muhammad Ali

The first time I laid eyes on Muhammad Ali was in 1973 when he was getting into an elevator in the Prudential Center in Boston where I was going to college.

It was my first brush with greatness (other than seeing Johnny Cash in the Bangor, Maine airport terminal) but there were about 20 people between me and Ali.

He was that famous. He had that large of an entourage.

I saw only one of his fights live and it’s one I’m sure people never remember. It was in the middle of Mile High Stadium in Denver and his opponent was the late Lyle Alzado. The Denver Broncos’ defensive star was holding out of training camp, trying to get a new contract, when he somehow convinced Ali to get into the ring with him for an exhibition match on July 14, 1979.

Alzado, a former Golden Gloves boxer in South Dakota, said he was considering retiring as a NFL player to become a professional boxer and insisted his fight with Ali was not a stunt to call attention to holding out with the Broncos.

Wink. Wink.

Anyway, I was covering the fight at ringside for the Loveland (Colo.) Daily Reporter-Herald and the ring was staged in the middle of the field at the 50-yard line. Ali, who weighed something like 230 pounds at the time, was out of shape so he just toyed with Alzado, who was a Chuck Wepner-like brawler.

Ali won the exhibition with shear skill, though Alzado made a nice account of himself. He wasn’t bad, but it was obvious he should keep his day job, which he did with the Broncos.

That was the last time I saw Ali in person. He turned 70 years old this week and he reminds me of my youth growing up in Maine where I first knew him as Cassius Clay and he was beating Sonny Liston and the only way then we heard about it was via radio. This is before ESPN and cable TV and we had only three local television stations we could watch. The first time I saw Clay on TV was on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”

There of course was a fascination about Clay because he ran his mouth. He was so brash but so good and the legend grew.

I’ll always remember the Opening Ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympiad in Atlanta and the mystery surrounding whom would be chosen to light the Olympic torch. When Ali appeared to do it, there was just one word that overcame me in that moment.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Bravo for 49ers fans in 2012 but not like Broncos fans in 1977

I covered four of the five 49ers Super Bowl seasons, but wasn’t around the San Francisco Bay Area when the Niners won their first one.
I’m hearing that the surprising rise of the 49ers this season rivals the excitement of the 1981 season when they won their first one.
However, nothing I’ve seen or heard will approach the fanaticism of the Denver Broncos’ first Super Bowl season in 1977 when I was living and working in Colorado. “Orange Crush” loving Broncos fans didn’t just paint their faces to show their crazy support of their team. There were stories of people so obsessed with the team’s Super Bowl quest that season that they were literally painting their cars and houses orange.
I was living and working in Illinois in 1986 covering the Chicago Bears’ Super Bowl Shuffle season and the excitement of that never matched what I saw and heard and felt in Colorado in 1977.
That said it was so great and gratifying to hear 49ers fans chatting “Defense” the very first time Drew Brees and the Saints had the ball on Saturday. That showed me how invested 49ers fans were into the game.

· Best thing about the weekend’s results? No more Tebow (over) analysis and no more Discount Double Check commercials (I only hope)

· The 49ers amazing “Hags-to-Harbaugh” season has largely been overshadowed by Tebow-mania and Aaron Rodgers and the Packers this season so beating the New York Giants on Sunday should assure that the 49ers will finally get their due respect and recognition.

· Get ready for Spike Lee, San Francisco. He’s on the Giants bandwagon riding West this week. Pay no attention to him.

· As much as I hate all New York professional sports teams, I think Eli Manning, in big games and pressure situations (under a blitz), is every bit as good as his brother Peyton.

· Are the Giants destined to go to the Super Bowl if Madonna is going to be there?

· Is it me or was Joe Buck excitedly rooting for the Giants to win today? My guess is he was secretly wishing for a trip to San Francisco rather than a return trip to Green Bay

· Thank you to Tom Brady for turning Tebow Time into Te-blow out Time.

· I’m a Tim Tebow fan but not a fan of the media who have spent the past 10 weeks flip-flopping trying to (over) analyze him.

· Media Overkill? Although Brady had a playoff record performance against Tebow and the Denver Broncos, there were clearly 3-4 times more TV cameramen following Tebow off the field than the Patriots quarterback.

· Did anyone watch the Playoff Game Nobody Cared About between the Ravens and Texans? I thought so.