The San Francisco 49ers victory over the Cincinnati Bengals at the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan on January 24, 1982, at first appeared to be just another surprise world championship by a previously bad sports team. Obviously Bill Walsh was the “flavor of the day” among coaches, Joe Montana was an emerging star, and Ronnie Lott had the makings of greatness; but overall there was scant evidence that a dynasty was in the works. They had little running game and did not have the star power of the great teams of the 1970s: the Steelers, Cowboys, Raiders, and Dolphins.
But as it turned out, San Francisco’s victory served as harbinger of more than simply the franchise’s ascendancy. It was a paradigm shift in Bay Area sensibilities. Up until 1982, virtually all sports greatness in Northern California resided in Oakland. The Giants had made their bid in 1962, falling just short, but in the 1970s they were a joke, playing in dilapidated Candlestick while their rivals, the Dodgers, rose to a position of glamour; winning pennants in front of capacity crowds and an admiring Hollywood crowd at beautiful Dodger Stadium.
Oakland billed itself as the “Home of Champions” for good reason. The A’s captured three straight world championships (1972–1974), the Warriors one NBA title (1975), and the Raiders two (1976 and 1980). San Francisco had lost the Warriors to the East Bay in the early 1970s. The Rams dominated San Francisco and played a “hometown” Super Bowl at the Rose Bowl in 1980. USC and UCLA just killed California and Stanford. Los Angeles was seen as the most trendsetting American city, surpassing crime-infested New York with no competition from San Francisco. In 1982 they “stole” the Raiders.
The City was at a low point. Political power resided in the Southland, where Los Angelenos Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan had ascended to the White House. San Francisco’s national image was one of corruption and ineptitude, its streets dirty and filled with the homeless. In 1977 Superintendent Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were shot to death by a colleague who avoided conviction using the “Twinkie defense,” but later committed suicide. Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry series did little for The City’s image. San Francisco’s Financial District lacked the panache of Wall Street. Its restaurants and nightspots were “so yesterday.” Tourists and suburbanites found little appeal. Strip clubs were controlled by organized crime. Broadway was dangerous. Polk Street was a haven for “anything goes.”
San Francisco Bay Area sports fans resorted to class envy and boorishness. Cal students dumbly waved credit cards in an effort to “mock” the rich USC kids, who just laughed at them. Giants fans showed up for the Dodgers and little else. They threw garbage at Tommy Lasorda, soiling the air with foul epithets, impressing nobody who counted.
When the San Francisco 49ers won the 1982 Super Bowl, however, it all started to change. Thousands of people ascended on The City. Cars jammed the Broadway tunnel, and people celebrated at The Triangle in the manner of patriots on VJ Day. It was this event that created the birth, or Renaissance, of the trendy, yuppie Marina District, Cow Hollow, and Pacific Heights areas. In conjunction with the computer revolution, it led to the gentrification of Broadway, the growth south of Market, and eventually the building of Pacific Bell Park in 2000.
It is not inconceivable to state that the popularity of the Montana-Walsh-Lott 49ers created conditions leading to political revitalization, spurring city growth and leading to The City’s hosting of the 1984 Democrat National Convention and two San Francisco women, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, being elected to the U.S. Senate. Los Angeles lost clout amid riots, a major earthquake, the O.J. murders, dry spells at USC and UCLA, and the loss of both the Rams and Raiders.
It had started a few years earlier when Eddie DeBartolo, scion of a shopping center empire in a town notorious for organized crime—Youngstown, Ohio—improbably spent $16 million to take over the Niners. The “carpetbagging” DeBartolo had hit all the right buttons, however. Bill Walsh came over from Stanford. Joe Montana was still available when Walsh took him in the third round. Walsh scooped Ronnie Lott up in the draft like a hungry man presented a free cheeseburger and fries at Original Joe’s. Seattle took UCLA’s Kenny Easley, who they felt was a better prospect.
In 1981 everything clicked: 13–3 to win the West; slaying the Rams; victory over Dallas; and a trip to Michigan, where the NFL had gambled that a Super Bowl party could be pulled off despite frozen conditions. Had the game been played outdoors, Cincinnati may well have prevailed as they had against San Diego at Riverfront Stadium, but the Silverdome was just that…a dome.
“It was definitely a new experience for us,” said Keena Turner.
Walsh broke the tension by meeting his team at the hotel dressed as a bellhop. His calming influence kept the team focused even when a traffic jam through the snow-covered streets caused San Francisco to arrive at the Silverdome late.
The Bengals were not from a major media market, and San Francisco’s sports enthusiasm was questioned, but surprisingly the ratings were high to see the New Order after years of Steelers, Cowboys, Raiders, and Dolphins domination. Fans were interested in Walsh and Montana. Walsh scripted the first 20 plays or so, and it worked to perfection. San Francisco sprinted out to a 20–0 halftime lead, threatening to turn the game into a rout.
“We felt satisfied that we’d done what we wanted to do in the first half,” recalled Fred Dean.
Hacksaw Reynolds, however, had played on a Rams squad that had gotten off to a good start before losing Pittsburgh in the Pasadena Super Bowl two years earlier. He knew the game was not over.
Cincinnati got the ball to start the second half. Led by quarterback Ken Anderson, they drove 83 yards to make the score 20–7. For a young team, panic was a natural component, the threat of blowing a big lead hanging over their heads.
Cincinnati seemed to have solved Montana. Ross Browner sacked him. A pass to Freddie Solomon was broken up.
“We definitely lost our momentum at that point,” said Turner.
Another three-and-out and field position advantage to Cincinnati made DeBartolo suddenly stop thinking of victory speeches. Anderson went after the 49ers’ young secondary, hitting receiver Cris Collinsworth for 49 yards to the 49ers 14. Cincinnati worked their way down to the 3, first-and-goal.
Big Pete Johnson, perhaps the best power runner in the NFL in such a situation, was sent up the middle. He had scored more touchdowns at Ohio State than Archie Griffin. He pulled a coterie of 49ers with him to the 1.
“Everybody was pretty hyped up in the huddle,” said Dean. “My feeling was, either we could stop them here and be champs, or we could lose it and think about it for the rest of our lives.”
Ex-Packer and now Bengals coach Forrest Gregg no doubt wanted a repeat of Bart Starr’s quarterback sneak for a touchdown that overcame Dallas’ goal-line stand in the 1967 Ice Bowl. After Johnson’s carry, Gregg decided that he would play it as a four-down situation, touchdown or nothing. Johnson got the ball behind left guard Dave Lapham, but John Harty, Dwaine Board, and Archie Reese met him. Harty brought him down, no gain.
Former LSU star Charles Alexander “The Great” got the ball on a swing pass and ran wide. Linebacker Dan Bunz, a blond kid who looked like a typical Southern California beach boy from unheralded Long Beach State, had lost his starting job. This would be his only tackle of the game. He would not be an All-Pro, Canton was not waiting, greatness was not his destiny, but in the annals of 49ers lore, his stop of Alexander in the open field ranks with The Catch or any of Montana’s touchdown tosses.
Alexander had blundered by cutting off his pattern before he could reach paydirt. Now it was fourth-and-goal. Momentum favored San Francisco, but Pete Johnson was a momentum-buster. He hit the line hard, but it was crowded, and he was stopped. Archie Reese rolled onto the pile, waving his warms in exultation.
The 49ers sideline went nuts.
“We were ecstatic,” exclaimed Randy Cross.
“From that point on, we realized we could win this thing,” said wide receiver Mike Shumann.
The inches differential reminds one of Al Pacino’s locker room speech to his team in Any Given Sunday, a film coproduced by ex-49er Jamie Williams.
“You’ve gotta fight for those inches,” Pacino’s Tony D’Amato says. “Because those inches are the difference between winnin’ and losin’…between livin’ and dyin.’”
The poor field position left San Francisco vulnerable when they were unable to move the ball, allowing Cincinnati to come back and score to make it 20–14. But the goal-line stand had given them confidence. The kickoff field position was restored, allowing two modest 49ers drives that were just enough to allow Ray Wersching to kick two field goals and put the game out of reach for Cincinnati.
Cincinnati scored late to close it to 26–21, but Walsh’s team hung on for the first world championship in city history. The only other “ultimate championship” won by a team within San Francisco city limits was USF’s 1955–1956 NCAA basketball titles, led by Bill Russell and K.C. Jones.
Not only had the 49ers shed their loser’s image, they had shed San Francisco’s loser’s image; or more appropriately, restored their image as a great city, tarnished in recent years. Suddenly, the “genius” Bill Walsh and the golden boy from Notre Dame, Joe Montana, represented S.F. excellence in the manner of local boys like Joe DiMaggio, and Frank Crosetti…names seemingly from a by-gone era that was no more, at least until the Niners brought glory back to the City by the Bay.
As if carried by the new popularity of San Francisco, local acts such as Huey Lewis and the News and Journey seemed to be propelled to national stardom on the backs of the 49ers. A new golden era had been embarked upon. The people who descended on The City’s streets and bars the night of January 24, 1982 felt a new energy that would indeed lift the entire region over the next 15 years.
Charles “Tree” Young was a prototype tight end who came out of Edison High School in Fresno to the University of Southern California, where he played in the famed 1970 game at Alabama that is credited with ending segregation in Southern football. He was an All-American in 1972—”I only got two or three passes a game, but averaged 20 yards a reception,” he said. The ‘72 Trojans are considered the greatest team in college football history. Charle’ played for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Los Angeles Rams. He participated in the 1980 Super Bowl for the Rams before coming over to San Francisco. A total team player, he was used mainly as a blocker but was a key element in Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense and a member of the 1981 world champions. He finished his career in Seattle, where he is to this day a respected Christian minister.
<sb>Business Comes First
The 49ers got off to a hopeful start in 1981, but nobody knew if they were for real. Then they traded a 1983 number two draft pick and option to exchange 1983 number one draft choices to the San Diego Chargers for veteran defensive end Fred Dean. All Dean did was earn the UPI Defensive Player of the Year award, the NFL Outstanding Defensive Lineman of the Year award, the NFC Defensive Player of the Year award, and a Pro Bowl spot. Another key acquisition was linebacker Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds, a longtime Rams nemesis. He and Dean anchored the defense with Lott in the secondary.
<sb>Did You Know…
That the 1981 49ers featured three rookies in the secondary? Aside from Ronnie Lott, there was Carlton Williamson and Eric Wright.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism