Green: For 49ers, it’s about who’s laughing now

Jerry Green
Special to The Detroit News

Miami — It was halftime in San Francisco, and the home team was leading, 27-7, and the players were dividing up their anticipated playoff swag. It wouldn’t be much. Next week the athletes would be home, in the NFL championship game. They’d earn more. They were laughing and joking.

The visitors, with their 17-point deficit, were sullen. And then they were angry and raging. Then they were defiant and spitting fire.

Coach Bill Walsh won the first Super Bowl for the 49ers in 1982 at The Silverdome.

“We could hear the (so-and-sos) through the wall of the locker room,” one of the visitors told many times through the years. “We were really mad. They were splitting up their playoff shares and laughing at us.”

The rest is history.

The visiting team roared back in the second half. It scored three touchdowns. Plus a field goal. It won, 31-27.

Next week it rolled to the world championship.

And split up its own swag.

Those of us who dwell in antiquity might remember this game. Others might guess.

It happened 63 years ago.

The chortling home team was the San Francisco 49ers. The seething visitors were the Detroit Lions.

And the speaker who told me this story was Joe Schmidt, the Hall of Fame Detroit middle linebacker, who is still seething from the affront in 1957.

In Detroit, seething continues.

The Catch at Candlestick

Alas, the 49ers have their own history. It is spectacular and often humorous. They are now in their seventh Super Bowl. They won five of the previous six. They have been a team of legends, still are.

They graduated from dinky Kezar Stadium, site of the ’57 playoff game, through Candlestick Park — site of a multitude of playoff victories — to swanky Levi’s Stadium. They have thrived with a series of venerated head coaches from Bill Walsh, George Seifert, Steve Mariucci, one Jimmy Harbaugh, to the current Kyle Shanahan.

Still in my vision is what remains in pro football lore as “The Catch.”

The 49ers had been 89 yards away, down by six to the Super Bowl experienced Cowboys. Time was expiring, a typical NFL scenario, in foggy, grim Candlestick.

Montana marched the Niners down field. But then it seemed the drive was faltering. Montana scrambled in the final minute.

Under pressure, Montana lobbed the football toward a figure downfield, near the back of the end zone. Dwight Clark rose and caught the ball before it went out of bounds.

The 49ers were NFC champions for the first time, 28-27.

Super Bowl XVI was in Pontiac at the Silverdome.

Walsh had built the 49ers from scratch. He’d needed a quarterback and found Montana, passed over twice, on the third round.

The 49ers, until the 1981 season, had been a ragamuffin club with four consecutive losing records. Then they went 13-3 and slipped through the playoffs to Pontiac.

Walsh flew into Detroit before his team for Super Bowl XVI.

He masqueraded in a bellman’s uniform when his players arrived at the Southfield Sheraton. He didn’t fool any of his players, tight with their quarters.

But he entertained us during the weeklong pregame hoopla.

“Basically, I’m scared to death,” Walsh said. “I was an assistant coach for so long that when I became a head coach I wasn’t awed by the job. The thrill of being had passed me by. I just didn’t have the hype thing.

The 49ers were the victors, 26-21, over the Bengals in Super Bowl XVI.

Team of the '80s

Montana stood in a room under the Silverdome in the aftermath. He sipped a Pepsi. He couldn’t handle the scene. He blinked in the bright lights.

The 49ers were champions for the first time. They had risen from three decades plus of frustration, from garbage-heaped on them by their own fans in a walkway at Kezar to a Super Bowl championship.      

“People didn’t believe we’d make the playoffs,” Montana said. “We started winning big games and people still didn’t believe in us. I mean people around the country … Even coaches around the league picked against us.

“People didn’t start to believe in us until — oh, about two minutes ago.”

We didn’t know then, but we had witnessed the beginning of a dynasty.

Montana became the most dominant quarterback in pro football with four Super Bowl victories. Walsh discovered an athlete at obscure Mississippi Valley State, and Jerry Rice became the most dangerous pass receiver in NFL history.

Walsh was hailed as a genius. His schemes, the West Coast Offense, were imitated throughout the league.

The 49ers flourished with four Super Bowl victories in the 1980s with and another in the '90s with Montana and Rice. After Walsh left, they continued to flourish under George Seifert. Seifert, without the fanfare associated with Walsh, won two Super Bowls. After Montana was traded to the Chiefs, Steve Young won the 49ers' fifth Super Bowl, throwing six touchdown passes.

Then came a drought.

But revived, the 49ers reached a sixth Super Bowl after the 2012 season. They were propelled by another young quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. This was the proclaimed Super Bowl XLVII. This was the only Super Bowl pitting two brother coaches, Jim Harbaugh vs. John Harbaugh, coach of the Ravens.

Kaepernick had the 49ers ready to score a winning touchdown, down inside the 5, but a couple of passes went awry. The Ravens won, 34-31 — the only loss in the 49ers' long, sometimes victorious and often tortuous history.

For me, I so often flash back to sessions in that tortuous history that started at Kezar Stadium.

I saw bitter fans dumping trash on beleaguered 49ers in the runway to the locker room, cursing them.

The press box was situated with the fans in the grandstand.

Often, they would yell at us.

“Stop that typing, one Niners fan yelled at a fellow writer as he was doing his work during a game against the Lions. “You’re bothering me wife.”

That might have been the day the Lions’ Wayne Walker got into a fistfight with the 49ers Monty Stickles.

I went to the flimsy Kezar locker room where the 49ers had been prematurely dividing their playoff shares about a dozen years earlier. I found Stickles and asked him his version of the fight.

“Go ask the other guy,” Stickles sneered at me.

So I did.      

“I told the referee he was holding me,” Walker told me. “He said ‘take care of it in your own way,’

“So I did. I punched him.”

One time during the 49ers' dynasty years, I covered one of their playoff games against the Vikings.

I was asking a player a question. A San Francisco radio guy stuck a microphone into my face. I looked over that the guy trying to grab my question for his radio show.

It was Monty Stickles.

Jerry Green, a retired Detroit News sports writer, has covered every Super Bowl for The Detroit News.

Super Bowl LIV

San Francisco vs. Kansas City

Kickoff: 6:30 Sunday, Hard Rock Stadium, Miami

TV: Fox

Line: Kansas City by 1