Candlestick Park—a Bay Area sports staple for more than half a century.
Though it’s hosted championship baseball games and historic musical performances in the past, “The Stick” has become synonymous with the San Francisco 49ers and its faithful fans.
On Dec. 23, nearly 70,000 of those 49er faithful packed into Candlestick to bid the park farewell in the final regular season NFL game at the venue as San Francisco hosted the Atlanta Falcons. With hundreds more in the parking lots surrounding the park and millions more at home watching on their TVs, it was clear that fans—49er or otherwise—felt the need to be a part of the moment and bear witness to the end of an era.
While the players on the field were concerned with the game and its implications on the future—a playoff berth and tournament seeding—nostalgia ran rampant for the rest.
Old faces and living legends graced the field and stalked the sidelines, historic plays were replayed on the video screens, and handmade signs were used to represent the emotions and memories of those who held them. There was unparalleled energy surging throughout the stadium and the source of it all was a common sense of family.
Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Dwight Clark, and Terrell Owens were among the former players in attendance. They were once brothers on the field and brothers they remained off it, a fraternity that bore the colors of Gold and Red. They were there because Candlestick was their home and they felt obligated to say goodbye.
The same could be said for the fans. Some had been at The Stick during the 1980s to watch Clark make “The Catch” and others were there in the 90s to see Owens make
“The Catch II.” Some had jumped on the bandwagon during Joe Montana’s reign in San Francisco and never left while others were born into the family and knew nothing else but to cheer for their team.
Whatever the circumstance, whatever the role, they were all unified on Monday—a family watching with anticipation as the current and next generation laid it all out on the field in the hopes of ending things on a high note.
Forever a memory
There’s no doubt that the pressure was piled on the 49ers roster on Monday. Not only were they up against a team with nothing to lose in a game that would determine their future in the playoffs, they also bore the weight of a storied organization and were faced with expectations to live up to its legacy.
The pressure and associated nerves were on full display in the first half as San Francisco’s offense struggled to find its rhythm. By halftime, Atlanta hit the locker room with a 10-3 lead. But while visibly frustrated, San Francisco didn’t cave to disappointment, and neither did its fans.
The resolve spurred a second half turnaround for the ages.
“The fans were amazing tonight. I think that’s the loudest it’s ever been at Candlestick since I’ve been here and I think they had an impact on the game as well, as far as throwing their offense off and not letting them check their audibles like they wanted to,” third year quarterback Colin Kaepernick said.
A 10-yard touchdown pass from Kaepernick to Anquan Boldin tied things up in the third quarter before a 4-yard, fourth quarter touchdown scramble from the quarterback turned the tide in favor of the 49ers for the first time in the game.
Atlanta answered back by scoring two touchdowns through the air to pull within three points of San Francisco’s lead—after a Frank Gore touchdown—before recovering an onside kick the sent chills down the spines of all those cheering on the home team.
The stage was set and the stakes were high. The Falcons were driving down the field in an attempt to play the spoiler and ruin Candlestick’s farewell.
But as it was built on big time plays worthy of their own names, so too was it ushered out.
With 1:10 left on the clock and with Atlanta on San Francisco’s doorstep from the 10 yard line, linebacker Navarro Bowman snagged a deflected Matt Ryan pass out of the air and returned it 89 yards for the winning touchdown. Just like that 49er fans had the victory, a storybook ending to Candlestick’s tenure as home, and another historic play for the mantle that has since been dubbed “The Pick at the Stick.”
The win ensured San Francisco’s season would continue into the playoffs. Beyond that, it also cemented a place for the 2013 squad in the hearts of their fans forever.
Young, Rice, Clark, Owens, and even former owner Eddie DeBartolo basked in their shared memories at Candlestick during the night’s celebrations, and now players like Bowman, Kaepernick, Patrick Willis, and Frank Gore will be able to do the same in the future.
The fans showered cheers and adoration on their former stars Monday night and they will do the same to the new crop, the last to play at The Stick, for years to come because they will forever be part of the family.
“I got my first start here. I’ll be the last quarterback for the 49ers to play in this stadium,” Kaepernick said. “So that’s another thing that’s going to be very memorable.”
Memorable for him and every 49er fan to come.