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Sideline At The ‘Stick

Sunday an hour before kick-off, Niners vs Seattle, I’m on the sideline behind the Seahawk bench. A few players for both teams are on the field, running practice routes, playing soft toss, punting balls high into the ozone. The sideline is a beehive of camera crews, security guards uniformed and not, equipment managers checking tape, phone lines, and gatorade cups… Look, there’s Pam Oliver, Fox sideline reporter, hurrying by, all business, with a 100-yard stare in her eyes. “There’s a big time agent,” someone whispers. Then a few Seahawk legends from years gone by. A small roar from the gang of Seattle fans congregated near the front rows, like autograph seekers in a baseball bullpen. They cheer Seahawk coach and Redwood High (Marin) alum Pete Carroll, the anointed Moses who’ll lead Seattle to the Promised Land. Carroll also coached for the New England Patriots, a mostly unsuccessful stint. And, famously and more successfully, USC. Due to the lack of wins, and his laid-back, upbeat personality he was derided by the Boston press as “California Pete.” His Seattle fans are yelling, “Pete! Hey Pete, kick the Niners’ ass!”

Another local kid who made the big-time trots onto the grass to boos and cheers: it’s Marshawn Lynch, the Oakland native and former Cal star tailback known for his punishing running style. He looks like he’s carved from a solid piece of angry granite, thighs the size of Ionic columns, biceps like cannonballs. Known for going what he calls “beast mode,” Lynch attacks defenders with piston-like knees and straight-arms that any Golden Glover would be proud of. Beside him is a teammate back named Durbin, who somehow seems even bigger than Lynch.

One of our cheerful young female minders asks if we’re in a band, perhaps due to my cousin's red alligator shoes and my crimson combat boots. I admit that I’d rather be a player, but depending on the hours will consider rock star.

We are ushered back upstairs to the luxury box level, where waiters pass out trays of mini-burgers and thimbles of asparagus soup. I’m standing there alone, staring at the five Super Bowl trophies behind glass, when a friendly man sticks out his hand. It’s Hall of Famer Jimmy Johnson, one of my grandfather’s favorite players from the old Kezar days. Johnson played for 16 years in the NFL, mostly at cornerback but got snaps at safety and wide receiver. He has been called the greatest cornerback in history never to play in a Super Bowl. In his presence the clock rolls back and I’m eight years old again, listening to my grandfather talk about the rowdy drunk crowds at Kezar. Jimmy smiles and says yes, it’s all true. He tells me that when he joined the 49ers out of UCLA, 6’9” offensive lineman Bob “the Geek” St. Clair warned him that San Francisco’s home crowd was a rough bunch. He says there was a wire covering  the players tunnel because the Niner fans would throw bottles, shoes, the occasional set of worn out dentures at both teams, depending on the outcome of the game. Kezar’s missile defense shield worked pretty well, Jimmy says, but didn’t stop beer, soda and the occasional mystery liquid that they hoped was only a new kind of motor oil.

One time Jimmy was walking to the parking lot after the game and St. Clair, who was called The Geek because he ate raw steak, was waylaid by a crew-cut goon of a Niner fan hopped up on the good stuff. The fan threw one haymaker, but St. Clair easily dodged it. Then the unhappy fan launched a left hook that missed by a mile. Finally, realizing that this guy wasn’t going away, Bob nailed his assailant straight on the button. One punch, another win. Jimmy says the guy falls to his knees, eyes rolling back, then tilts over to the side like a redwood. Timber!

Halfway through the first quarter we’re back on the field, this time near the SF bench. There’s Phil Dawson, the kicker, five feet from me. He’s in his own world, kicking footballs into the net over and over. No one talks to him. He doesn’t talk to anyone. I’m so close that I notice former linebacker Keena Turner looking at me, wondering who the hell let this guy on the field.

While I gawk at the players resting on the bench between possessions, the game is tense and brutal. After a vicious tackle a Niner defensive back stands over his downed prey, “Get up, bitch!” When the Seahawks score on a pass play, position coaches immediately start telling our players what they did wrong. Justin Smith takes off his helmet. His eyes are even wilder when you see him up close. Steam rises from his head. Aldon Smith, who might look a little spindly on TV, has arms like knotted pine. He is younger in person, still traces of a babyface. All-Pro linebackers Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis crash around on every play like stampeding bull elephants.

The sound of the hitting is unbelievable. The screaming. The chaos. It’s like watching human lightning bolts careen off a stand of old growth fir — crack, boom, opera! Even Kaepernick’s passes whiz through the air with pace and venom. He fires a fastball to Crabtree on an out. The star receiver plucks what seems like a 90-mile an hour fastball out of the air as casually as a lovestruck poet gathers dandelions for his beloved. Crabtree only gets one foot down, but pass and catch? Only in the NFL.

I turn to look at the stands, which are a roiling ocean of bloodthirsty 49er Faithful. Their twisted faces reveal desperation, hope, a communal desire to beat back these foreign invaders and save our flag from barbarian darkness. Their faces remind me of me, and I don’t know how that makes me feel.

The rest of the game is a blur. Though I remember watching the Niner Nuggets spreading their special dipping sauce around, and wondering how they stay alive in the arctic chill. Then my curiosity is shattered by the sight of Jesse Sapulo, out of Hawaii, the former Niner guard from the Niner's glory years of the 1980's. I’m reminded of my grandfather, a fellow Aloha spirit who anchored Honolulu’s Punahou High line back in the days without facemasks or fade routes. Grandpa, look at this! Two of your grandsons are on the sidelines! The sidelines! Who’d  have thought we’d make it this far. 

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