“What the hell. If I’m going to die, I might as well die at a football game.” -- Tony Morabito, owner and founder of the San Francisco 49ers. On October 27, 1957, he did in fact die at a football game: his heart gave out in the second quarter of a match-up between the 49ers and the Chicago Bears. His team, down 17-7 at the half, learned of his death in the locker room and rallied to a 21-17 win.
That kind of relentless passion characterizes the team, their fans and their city. Named after the bold dreamers who rushed the West for gold in 1849, they were established in 1946 as charter members of the All-America Football Conference, and then joined the NFL in 1950 when the two leagues merged.
Despite their “Million Dollar Backfield" of the ‘50s (composed of future Hall of Famers Y.A. Tittle, John Henry Johnson, Hugh McElhenny and Joe Perry), the ‘Niners only came close to a championship one time. They tied the Detroit Lions for the Western Conference title in ‘57, but ended up losing in a playoff game.
After a number of lackluster years, the end of the ‘70s brought new life to the franchise. Coach Bill Walsh took the reins in ‘79 and armed the team with his West Coast Offense, a “nickel-and-dime” game that involved short, quick passing to spread the defense before attempting longer shots down the field. This approach, coupled with the dynamite draft choices of Joe Montana and Dwight Clark, ushered in an era of excellence.
Montana and Clark would join forces to pull off one of the most celebrated wins in NFL history: down 27-21 against the Dallas Cowboys late in the 1981 NFC Championship game, Montana threw an off-balance pass to Clark in the end zone. Clark’s superhuman leap to pull the ball down and tie the score has gone down in history as “The Catch.” San Francisco won that game and subsequently beat the Cincinnati Bengals to secure their very first Super Bowl win. In 1984, they repeated their championship run, this time against the Miami Dolphins.
With the additions of wide receiver Jerry Rice and back-up quarterback Steve Young, the ‘Niners continued to dominate, winning back-to-back Super Bowls in 1988 and ‘89. However, controversy arose between Montana and Young, resulting in Montana’s trade to the Kansas City Chiefs in 1993. Young proved his worth as a starter in '94, leading the team to their fifth Super Bowl victory.
Since ‘94, the 49ers have enjoyed multiple trips to the playoffs. They came close to another Super Bowl victory in the 2012 season; this stunning game pitted the 49ers’ head coach Jim Harbaugh against his brother, John, coach of the Baltimore Ravens, and also included a 34-minute blackout. The ‘Niners rallied hard in the third quarter, scoring 17 points in 4 minutes and ten seconds, but ultimately fell short, losing 34-31.
Things are looking brighter, though: they’ve left Candlestick Park behind for Levi’s Stadium, complete with a 49ers Museum, Red Zone Rally pre-game parties, mascot Sourdough Sam and the dance team, aptly named Gold Rush. Despite the newer home field’s location in Santa Clara, their name and their history remain solidly San Francisco.