Thursday, August 02, 2007

Bill Walsh - Thanks from One of the Faithful

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Coach Walsh, Joe Montana, 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo - winning the Lombardi Trophy became a 49ers tradition

I became a 49er fan in 1954 when we got our first TV set. We were living in Point Arena, and the Packard-Bell TV was all hooked up and in operation for the New York Giants – Cleveland Indians World Series. Ron and I came home from Point Arena Elementary School – we lived just across School Street, about 50 feet from the south-west corner of the school yard – and sat down with Mom in the living room to watch the game and eat our lunches.

We were lucky to be able to watch the World Series at all. In 1954 there were three television networks – ABC, CBS, and NBC - but Point Arena is over 100 miles north of the San Francisco transmitters, and the only channel we got a decent picture on was Channel 4, KRON, the NBC station.

The Indian’s batter, Vic Wertz, with two runners on and none out, hit a long drive to deep center field, and Willie Mays made the greatest defensive play in baseball history, racing back, catching the ball over his shoulder, and spinning to throw a strike back to the infield to prevent a runner from tagging up and moving into scoring position from first.

Mom immediately recognized how great a play we had just seen Willie make. Ron and I didn’t at first, because we had little baseball knowledge to measure it against.

In only four days the Giants had swept the Indians and the World Series ended Saturday afternoon, October 2. At that point I had only watched a little of the first three games, which were played during school time, and all of the fourth game. Just as I was all exited about watching TV sports, it was all over, I thought.

Fortunately, all was not lost. The next day, Sunday the 3rd of October, I watched my first televised professional football game, the 49ers playing to a 24-24 tie with the hated (since then) LA Rams. With players like Y. A. “The Bald Eagle” Tittle, “Hurrying” Hugh McElhenny, Joe “The Jet” Perry, Bob “The Geek” St Clair, Leo “The Lion” Nomellini, John Henry Johnson, Gordie Soltau, and Billy Wilson, I was soon hooked.

Many football seasons have passed since that early Fall day in 1954, and through it all I have been a loyal and passionate 49er fan – I was one of the “Faithful,” which we long-suffering 49er loyalists called ourselves.

For many years the 1957 playoff for the Western Division title against the Detroit Lions typified the 49ers. Ahead 27-7 in the third quarter, the 49ers lost 31-27 and the Lions went on to easily beat the Cleveland Browns 59-14 for the NFL championship.

Even when they were good in the early Seventies, they couldn’t get past the final hurdle, the Dallas Cowboys. After losing two NFC West championships in a row to the Cowboys, the 49ers led the Cowboys for the 1972 West championship 28-16 with less than two minutes to play.

The Cowboys won, 30-28.

The 49ers were usually entertaining, but they always came up short.

Until Eddie DeBartolo Jr. hired Bill Walsh to coach the 49ers in 1979.

I was stationed in Hawaii at the time, at Hickam Air Force Base next to Pearl Harbor and the Honolulu International Airport. Because of the time difference, I would wake up as early as 6 am Sunday mornings to watch the 49ers. The first year with Bill Walsh as coach they had 2 wins and 14 losses, the same as the preceding season without him. However, the next year they won 6, lost 10, but played well and most of their losses were in close games.

In 1981 the 49ers were 13-3 in the regular season, beat the New York Giants in the divisional playoff, and then faced the Cowboys. Although everything about the Cowboys game is seared in my memory, as it is in the memories of all the “Faithful,” at the time the game was played I was on a 747 returning from a 30-day Pacific Air Forces inspection tour of Korean bases. On the plane with me were most of the 80 other members of the inspection team, and I was the only 49ers fan.

The pilot gave us game updates over the 747’s cabin speaker system, and my lone cheers were lost in the tumult of Cowboys supporters each of the three times the pilot announced the Cowboys had regained the lead. When the Cowboys went up 27-21, with less than five minutes to play, my inspection teammates were cheering and toasting a Cowboys victory and speculating whether they would beat the Chargers or the Bengals in Super Bowl XVI.

When the pilot announced the 49ers had won 28-27, my cheer rang through an otherwise silent plane.

It wasn’t until a day later, when I played the videotape Marilynn recorded for me, and read the newspaper, and watched the sports commentary on TV, that I knew about “The Catch” or the 89-yard drive it culminated, then the game saving tackle Eric Wright made on Drew Pearson, the sack and forced fumble by Lawrence Pillars on Danny White, and the fumble recovery by Jim Stuckey.

After following the 49ers for 27 years, a new era, the winning era, the Bill Walsh era had arrived.

In the years that followed, my “49ers Faithful” cup runneth over.

They won Super Bowl XVI thanks to the heroics of “The Stand,” stopping the Bengals four times inside the three-yard line, and featuring Dan Bunz’s open field tackle on Charles Alexander at the one-yard line on a swing pass.

The 1984 49ers team was the greatest football team ever assembled, up to and including the present. Their offense was 2nd to the Dolphins in points scored, and their defense was the best in the NFL for fewest points allowed. The 49ers were 15-1 in the regular season (their only loss by three points to the Steelers) and easily beat the high-scoring Miami Dolphins led by Dan Marino, 38-16, in Super Bowl XIX. Eleven 49ers went to the Pro Bowl, including the entire defensive backfield and most of the offensive line, and more could have gone but Coach Walsh was so deep in great defensive linemen – Fred Dean, Gary “Big Hands” Johnson, Michael Carter, Dwaine “Pee Wee” Board, Lawrence Pillars, Louie Kelcher – that he continually rotated them to keep them fresh. He had great linebackers too – Keena Turner, Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds, Riki Ellison, Dan Bunz, and Jim Stuckey.

For an offensive genius, Bill Walsh put together a pretty good defensive unit.

I watched Super Bowl XXIII at Alice's house in Dublin, California, about two months after she accepted my proposal of marriage. With a little over three minutes to play, and the 49ers trailing the Bengals 13-16, 49ers ball on their own 8-yard line, I interrupted Alice baking cookies and told her, "watch this."

"The Drive" brought the 49ers their third Super Bowl victory, and added to the legend of Coach Walsh and Joe "Cool" Montana.

I can't believe how calm I was watching "The Drive" unfold. When I think about it now I get nervous, even though I know the outcome.

By far Bill Walsh's greatest legacy was that for sixteen years in a row the 49ers won at least ten games each season. No NFL team will ever beat or even tie that record. In fact, no professional team in any sport has or will ever achieve the equivalent of at least a 62.5% winning percentage for sixteen consecutive seasons, and an overall winning percentage during the streak of 75%.

The 49ers played in and won five Super Bowls. Bill Walsh selected and groomed the best quarterback of all time, Joe Montana, the second best of all time, Steve Young, and three-time Pro Bowler (and still playing very well), Jeff Garcia.

Along the way Bill Walsh also brought the Faithful the greatest defensive back of all time, Ronnie Lott, and greatest receiver, Jerry Rice.

Unfortunately, Coach Walsh was not stingy with his talent, and many of the top coaches in the NFL were his pupils, which makes it more difficult for the current 49ers to continue his winning tradition.

The greatest misfortune was that Coach Walsh retired too soon. He later regretted his decision, and so did the Faithful. I can understand the pressure and frustration that led to his early retirement. The Bay Area sports reporters became spoiled by 49er success, and began to write about 49er games as if they were recitals, not competitions. Even when the 49ers won, the writers faulted them and took away “style” points. “They passed too much.” “They ran too much.” Too many short passes to running backs.”

My comments after reading of 49er victories over twenty years ago was that I didn’t know the 49ers had lost until I read the game summaries the next day in the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Once again,” I wrote, “Chronicle sportswriters have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”

“It is not the critic who counts, nor the man who points how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly...who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at best, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt, 1910

Thanks for making the NFL a 49er arena.

To the memories of Coach Walsh, from one of the Faithful.

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