Thursday, October 9, 2008

A San Francisco Sunday

I have always considered football a lovely way to spend a Sunday. From playing two-hand touch with the Nerf and a gaggle of neighborhood kids in my youth to flopping on the couch for a classic pigskin rivalry on national TV in adulthood, I have been a lifelong football fan. As a kid, it was a good way to blow off some steam, have fun, and prove that every girl doesn't necessarily throw like a girl. As an adult, it has shown me time and again how hard work, commitment, and determination pay off in the long run. And it continually reminds me that people who make costly errors in the first half can go on to execute game-winning plays in the second-half simply by persevering and learning from their mistakes. Football has always given me a precious combination of entertainment, relaxation, and inspiration. And last Sunday was one of my best.

I have been a 49ers fan all my life. I was only 9 when Joe Montana and Dwight Clark connected for The Catch in the 1982 Championship game, and I fondly remember running into the street banging pots and pans with my brothers when the 49ers won the Super Bowl that year. But while many San Francisco fans still hold Joe Montana as the greatest quarterback to ever play the game, I have always been a Steve Young fan.

I can't even remember quite how I developed this initial interest. Perhaps I was partial to the underdog. Or maybe I found the combination of accurate passing and ugly-but-effective scrambling exciting. Or quite possibly I was compelled by the gritty determination of an athlete struggling to fill a legend's shoes and make his own way. But from the time Steve Young was officially named Montana's backup and throughout the rest of his football career, I have been a constant supporter. And the fact that he is such an intelligent, articulate, and generous man with clear convictions and a profound sense of what's truly important in his everyday life has only deepened my admiration and respect for him.

Last Sunday, the 49ers retired Young's number in a halftime ceremony at Candlestick Park. And while I have never attended a regular-season game, I was there — in the second row up from the field in the end zone to honor him in person. Now I am not typically a celebrity admirer. I have never logged onto Perez Hilton. I don't put fan posters on my wall. I don't chase down musicians or athletes or actors on the street and beg for an autograph. And I don't generally spend any time thinking about people I have never actually met. But because I have always had such a deep respect for the example Young set not only as a football player but also as a citizen, I wanted to experience his number-retirement ceremony first-hand. And I am so glad I did.

On a beautiful October Sunday in the sea-level stadium the team has played in since 1971, beloved 49ers tight end Brent Jones took the stage and introduced his team roommate and best friend as "a Hall of Famer both on and off the field." Then Young looked on with his pregnant wife and three kids as his number 8 was added to a group of retired legends on the cement balcony of the historic stadium. When Young took the stage to a standing ovation, he reminisced about some of his favorite moments in red and gold and thanked so many of the key players and coaches who helped him master his craft. Then he spoke directly to the fans. He held his arms up in the classic signal for a touchdown and closed by saying, "Every time I've raised my hands, I've raised them to you."

I tried to capture every moment I could: Young greeting friends and fans on the field before the game while his two-year-old daughter slept on his shoulder. His seven-year-old son hanging out the window of their luxury box, waving to the crowd. Fellow teammates and legends in their own right — Jerry Rice, Bryant Young, and Dana Stubblefield — waving and signing autographs as they accompanied Young to the mid-field ceremony. The fireworks and festivities as his number was unveiled. And the exit Young made afterward, walking directly through the stands at the 50-yard line, where he high-fived and hugged fan after fan and personally thanked them before making his way to the press box.

I didn't know it at the time, but very little of the ceremony was shown during the game broadcast — only a few still pictures and a brief mention. And subsequent game wrap-up shows aired short highlights from the festivities, but no coverage came close to the real thing. So the only way I possibly could have experienced it was to be there. After 12 years of cheering for him on the field and nearly 10 more following his football commentary on ESPN and our local sports talk radio station, I'm so glad I had the opportunity to attend the game and celebrate this final well-deserved — and very personal — tribute.

When I left for the game that morning, Josh really wanted to go with me. It seems I've already begun to pass on my love of football to my son, as well as an admiration for Number 8 himself, even though he will only ever see him play on old footage from games that happened years before he was born. So when I got home, we sat down on the couch together and watched the video snippets I shot. Josh snuggled in at my side and seemed as compelled as I was listening to the speeches, watching Young's kids admire their father, and cheering the plays on the highlight tribute reel.

Josh will surely have his own favorite athletes. In fact, he already does. From the moment Jeremy Roenick signed his Sharks jersey last fall, Josh has been a devoted fan. JR is the persona he most often assumes when he's scoring the game-winning goal in the Stanley Cup Finals in the middle of our family room floor — narrating as he plays, "He shoots, he SCOOOOOOOOOOOOOORES!"

As Josh chooses his own idols, I can only hope he chooses good athletes who are first and foremost good souls. Because no matter what they can do on the field or on the ice, it is what they do in this life that truly counts. And the longer I am a parent, the more acutely aware of that I become.
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