There is never a good time for someone to pass on, but my dad picked a real doozy.
For starters, it was 17 days before Christmas. Nothing sucks the joy out of the holiday season like the specter of death.
Second, it was exam time for two of his three kids. I was lucky; I had just finished up the semester when the day arrived. His son, however, was just getting started with his first round of freshman exams. It’s a good thing he’s an ace student; the first taste of real college stress paired with the sucker punch of a parent’s death would flatten anyone less.
Third (and I only found this out the day after), the most scandalous event of the NBA offseason had occurred that very day. The Lakers had pulled off a coup by arranging a trade deal that would send New Orleans Hornets star Chris Paul to L.A., among other things. Before the deal went through, however, NBA Commissioner David Stern vetoed it, citing “basketball reasons.” This sent the whiplashed bloggers, analysts and sports writers into an outraged furor, claiming “basketball reasons” was code for “the Lakers have enough talent already and New Orleans doesn’t have enough.”
Although Dad wasn’t particularly partial to the NBA, a controversy like this would certainly have sparked an interesting conversation about whether Stern had overstepped his bounds. So much for that.
Finally, when my dad died on December 8, 2011, his beloved San Francisco 49ers had a 10-2 record (second-best in the league only behind the defending champion Green Bay Packers), and were kings of the NFC West.
For as long as I can remember, Dad had been a Niners diehard. He collected team photos, footballs and other memorabilia. He watched every game he could, even after moving to the East Coast pushed kickoff times considerably later. He even stood in line for hours to meet and have his picture taken with Joe Montana after the team’s latest (and last) Super Bowl win in 1995.
My fondest memories of Niner-philia, and the ones which marked my first awareness of this strange TV show Daddy liked so much, consist of him coming downstairs on Sunday mornings for breakfast wearing an SF shirt (and, when he was particularly excited, a helmet) and yelling in a primal growl:
My brother crossed over to the dark side before I did. (It must be a father-son thing, or at least a guy thing.) There is photographic evidence of him, no older than five and missing several teeth, posing for a picture on Christmas morning in a 49ers T-shirt and helmet, both of which about swallowed him whole.
Soon enough, though, I began to catch on. According to my mom, when I first started watching football games, I would imitate the referees by stretching my arms straight up and saying, “It’s good!” after every field goal, whether it was actually good or not. Around age 8, I pledged my allegiance to the Oakland Raiders because they 1) had cool team colors, and 2) were the team my mommy loved. The boys can have their team; we girls can have our own. When Mom announced that a new sibling was coming, I fantasized about having a new playmate and a tiebreaker to tip the scales in the Black and Silver’s favor forever and ever SO THERE!
As I got older, I began to realize that football was more than jersey colors and people hitting each other. The rules became clearer, little by little: the point of the game is to score touchdowns by running to an endzone on either side of the field. Touchdowns are worth six points; field goals are worth three. The offense tries to get to the endzone. The defense tries to keep the offense away from the endzone.
I learned about football like one learns to ride a bike. Dad provided the training wheels by explaining the basics to me, and then I learned to guide myself, through game after game of observing players’ movements and referees’ calls, and by simply keeping my eye on the ball.
As the pieces of football began falling into place for me, they were falling apart for the 49ers. After finishing the regular season 10-6 and losing the divisional round to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002, they spent the next eight seasons hovering in various depths of despair, including a brutal 2004 season in which their only two wins came in overtime against the division-rival Arizona Cardinals.
No matter what the situation, though, Dad never turned his back on his beloved team. Not his family’s 2002 cross-country move. Not year after year of helpless flailing. Not the departure, one by one, of the team’s idols. (Jerry Rice’s move to the dreaded Raiders was the most painful blow, and one that Dad never fully forgave him for, even after Rice entered the Hall of Fame in 2010.)
Regardless of how much analysts, former players and coaches, and even his own wife and daughter hammered against San Francisco, Dad never strayed. He teased and taunted Mom and me that Oakland had no chance in Super Bowl XXXVII, and teased and taunted us even more when he was proven correct. (That didn’t stop us, however, from pulling out the line, “Well, how many Super Bowls have y’all even been to in the last decade?” when the Raiders began their own downward spiral after that failed effort.) The next year, he enjoyed the Carolina Panthers’ efforts against the Patriots in the big game after tentatively adopting them after the family’s arrival in the South. Regardless of whatever changes in his life, though, he followed the team’s mantra of “Forever Faithful” until the sudden end.
That end came after a bloody-vomit spell sent him to the ER on December 4. His liver was acting up again, but this time was different. He started having seizures, and was induced into a coma two days later. A CAT scan discovered that most of his brain function had stopped. He was taken off life support after two days.
December 4 was a Sunday. Fittingly, I got the news of Dad’s hospitalization via a text from my mom while watching an overtime death match between the Packers and the Giants with my friends, one last bit of relaxation before four days of exam-cramming.
That day, the 49ers shut out the St. Louis Rams for their 11th win of the season and the seizing of the NFC West. There is no way of knowing if Dad knew of this achievement before his hospitalization, but he surely suspected it would happen. St. Louis was 2-14 at the time.
The more I watch football, the clearer the rules become. After both dad and brother tried endlessly to explain the meanings of lines of scrimmage and first downs, it finally clicked (only recently) that “1st and 10” meant the offense was on its first attempt to get the first down, 10 yards away. Football is now as much a part of my life as my family and essay due dates. This past season, I joined my first fantasy football team online, finishing 4-10 (mainly by not taking bye weeks into consideration when drafting my players). I’m still working on mastering the whole thing.
The San Francisco 49ers have finally risen from the dumps of the NFL. They finished their season on New Year’s Day by beating the Rams a second time. This cemented a 13-3 record and home-field advantage in the divisional playoff round against the New Orleans Saints.
On January 14, in weather so beautiful only God and his angels could have made it, and after a tense 4th-quarter shootout in which the lead changed four times in four minutes, the Niners beat the Saints and moved on to the NFC Championship, a game they have not played in since the 1997 season, after the dynasty days but before the collapse.
Thanks to their upset of the defending champion Packers, the New York Giants will travel to Candlestick Park to face the Niners next Sunday, January 22.
If Dad were here to see that heart-stopping win against the Saints, he would have yelled “YEEESSS!” for the whole house to hear.
If he were here to see the Giants’ upset land the NFC showdown at the Stick, he and his son would spend the whole week beforehand strutting and gloating and pumping themselves up for a fight to the death and, hopefully, vindication for all those years of faith and loyalty.
If he were here to see next week’s showdown, he would be glued to the screen and reacting to each and every play, as was his style for big games.
He did (and will) see all that, though.
I know he’s still around because he helped make that picture-perfect weather over Candlestick Park yesterday. He made the place a mid-winter utopia, as it often was for him over the years, and he started partying after that last-minute touchdown pass that’s already being labeled “The Catch III.” And he will watch his team play at the Stick again next Sunday. And he will watch his family, the only thing he loved more than his Niners, watch it, too. And Raiders vs. Niners will disappear, however temporarily, and we will all be together again.
By the way, little sister, I’m still waiting for that tiebreaker vote.