Los Angeles, CA
When Colin Kaepernick threw the Pick-Six on the 49ers first posession of the Divisional Playoff round against the Packers, my son AJ, 11, pounded his fist into the couch pillows. I managed to raise my own distraught head to look over at him and I could see the first vestiges of tears welling in his eyes. “Stop!” I said. “It’s early.” He started to protest, but I silenced him with a hand, a quivering hand that I attempted to wield as a charm against the very same thoughts creeping into my head regarding his youth and inexperience--Kaepernick's not AJ's--and the worst possible start for the fresh-faced QB. The hand worked on AJ, at least, and he went back to texting with the girl up the street.
AJ has always been hyper-competitive (no idea where he gets that) and thoroughly against any kind of injustice, especially those injustices perpetuated against him (and his teams) by hack referees and umpires and players who make bad plays (he still won't speak the name of Kyle Williams). But the crying thing bugs me. Of course, there is precedent. It’s in his blood.
The first time I ever shed tears of joy (I am far more likely to cry when happy than I am when sad or angry) over a sporting event was “The Catch” game. Montana-to-Clark. Niners over the Cowboys. The strange thing was the tears were not for me, but for my father.
My Dad told me stories about the 49ers for as long as I can remember and in every one of those stories, the villain was the Dallas Cowboys. The 1970 NFC Championship game, where John Brodie threw two brutal interceptions, which Dallas turned into 14 points in the last game at old Kezar Stadium. The next year, same game, but in Dallas, when the Cowboys defense throttled the Niners, holding them to three points. And then the next year--AGAIN!--the worst of all, when Roger Staubach came off the bench to erase a 28-13 fourth quarter deficit, sending the Niners to their third straight playoff defeat at the hands of America’s Team. Dad told me all this as the Niners were suffering through a half-dozen under-.500 seasons. I got the feeling he was trying to keep me interested in rooting for his team ("They used to be good, I swear!"), instead of flirting with the nearby, dangerous--and therefore appealing--Oakland Raiders or more successful teams with cooler nicknames like Purple People Eaters and Orange Crush and Steel Curtain.
He needn’t have worried. For no reason that I can remember, my first football love was Stanford. It might have been the way they threw the ball much more than in the pros. But Cardinal quarterback Guy Benjamin was my first favorite player. Wide receiver Kenny Margerum was my second. Elway? Meh. Anyway, as you all know, Stanford coach Bill Walsh got hired by the Niners. That was the day I truly became a 49ers fan (and I love the symmetry of Jim Harbaugh taking the same path).
I had watched the first half at my friend Jerry’s house and then scooted home for the rest. Instead of watching in the family room, I insisted on being alone, in my parents’ bedroom, quite literally perched on the edge of the bed and viewing the game on a 12” screen. My parents’ room was at the end of a long hallway, which lent itself quite nicely to a game I invented. I’d start running from the other end of the hall (the laundry room), get up a full head of steam, and dive onto their king-sized bed. If my brother was home, he’d be in the area of the vanity firing a Nerf ball at me (we tried it with actual footballs first and... well... there was damage), which I’d try to catch. More often, my brother would be out doing things I wouldn’t do and I’d have to throw the Nerf sometime before the bed, lofting it in front of me before laying out trying to catch it, while also sometimes dragging my feet so they would clip the edge of the bed, thus putting me off-balance and needing to make a Lynn Swann-ian circus catch.
So this really was the perfect place for me to see Clark jump higher than he’d ever been able to jump in his whole life to snag that pass on his fingertips.
There were no cell phones then. I couldn’t call Dad. I just remember wanting to know how he felt when the game ended and to celebrate with him. I couldn’t wait until he got home. Moments like this are the thing we’ll always have. When I talk to Dad on the phone now, if the conversation wanes, I can always bring up the Niners--or any sports, really--because these are the things he taught me. Blitzes and post routes and hit-and-runs and backdoor cuts.
“He’s going!” I screamed. “He’s going!” When Kaepernick stunned the entire sports-loving world last Saturday with his 56-yard TD scamper in the third quarter--mouths agape, heads shaking, nothing but green grass and nary a Packer within hailing distance--I was shouting at the TV and my boy, still focused on his “likes” on Instagram and texting with his classmates, raised his eyes to see #7’s vapor trail. “Wow!” he said and raised his hand. High Five. Glad he was there to watch it with me. And on Sunday, I hope it’s me crying--for joy--and not him.