S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Ask a Mexican,” Park talks about attending the final NFL football game of the regular season between the Seahawks and 49ers.
When the New York Giants moved to San Francisco in 1957 my father bought season tickets. I was ten years old at the time, and it was my first chance to see baseball players in person (I’d been going to Forty Niners games since I was three).
They didn’t disappoint, particularly the famous center fielder, Willie Mays. His grace and agility were just astonishing; even my younger brothers, who were no slouches as athletes themselves, were in awe of the way he played. His ferocious swing, his basket catches, the way he floated above the ground when he ran … I’d never seen a human being move so fluidly.
Then Russell Wilson came along. I first spotted him in 2011 when, after a season of professional baseball, he returned to college to quarterback the University of Wisconsin team. I was slouched on the futon in my Portland grow room, testing some variety or another with half an eye on the the tube, when he trotted onto the field.
I sat bolt upright. Jesus, I thought, look at that guy! He flows across the grass!
Everything he did afterwards validated that assessment, as he was as smooth, confident and effortless a quarterback as I’d ever seen. (He played the position like a second baseman.) His sole negative (at least where the pros were concerned), was his height, as he stood only 5’10”. This meant he bore a “short guy” stigma into the draft, and by the time he fell to the third round I was telepathically pleading with the Niners to take him (all we had at the time were Alex Smith and that stiff Kaepernick).
Failing that, though, I just hoped Seattle wouldn’t grab him (which is, of course, exactly what happened), and he’s been torturing the Niners since. I call him “Johnny Mathis, Jr.” (both for his resemblance to the crooner and the fact they’re both maestros), and—like Willie Mays—he’s even more balletic in person. I saw him for the second time when San Francisco played the Seahawks on December 29th last year.
It was the last game of the season and had been “flexed” to a five-p.m. start time, with first place in the NFC West hanging in the balance. I was going with my friends Donna and Bud again, except she’d had a delicate bladder operation just days before so her mother (Bobbie Sue) came instead. She was sixty-three and still dressed and drank like a punk rocker, slamming down six beers at our pre-game meal alone. By the time we left the restaurant and headed to the game she was weaving a little.
“You know,” she slurred, slipping her arm through mine, “I’d give anything for a joint right now.”
“Yeah,” I said, “me, too.”
When we were separated by another fan stumbling into us Bud sidled up to me.
“Hey!” he said. “I thought you always had joints on you.”
“Oh, I do,” I replied. “But Bobbie Sue? Shitfaced as she is? One hit and she’d be a babblin’ brook.”
He laughed. To his credit, in fact, it’s how he responded to most of his mother-in-law’s antics. (Donna’s lucky: a less forgiving hubby might have already ditched her.)
As we neared CenturyLink Stadium (or “The Clink” as they call it around here), the crowd filled out. Some red hot would yell “SEA!” and the other fans would roar “HAWKS!” in response.
“SEA HAWKS! SEA HAWKS!”
It sounded like “Hee Haw!” to me, particularly when you considered its source, i.e. fat baby boomers in face paint, fruity hats, jerseys and wigs. Apparently they didn’t get enough of Halloween as kids, or took some weird solace in looking and acting as badly as everyone else.
But then my generation has always saddened me (never more than now). I was wearing an old Niners hoodie under my jacket and, as we passed through the stadium entrance and started up the steps to our seats, it was evident (from the smattering of red-and-gold) that maybe ten percent of the crowd were San Francisco fans. (Which wasn’t surprising: the Niners were the closest professional team before the Seahawks arrived in the Eighties.)
So as bitter as the rivalry between the franchises the supporters are friendly with each other. (Unlike Cowboys fans, who risked life and limb when they visited Kezar or Candlestick back in the day.) Our seats were forty rows up, at the Clink’s highest level, such a steep climb that I was careful to limit my liquids beforehand: the last thing you wanted was to be going up and down those steps to piss.
Not that it deterred Bobbie Sue any, as (after a couple more beers) she disappeared altogether. Bud seemed unconcerned and I barely noticed. I’ve written before how my slavish Niners fanaticism is a source of anguish and embarrassment to me, even though it’s mitigated by actually attending a game.
Then my devotion to those overpaid, brutish strangers in tights seems more ridiculous yet. This enables me (for the first two or three quarters, anyway), to project the benign indifference I crave, that of a sportsman backing his team while secretly longing for a “good game.”
Yeah, right: I’m partial to routs myself, like the ’90 championship game between the Rams and Niners. It was played at Candlestick Park and I went with Ned Gumbo. He’d waggled seats from a scalper (twenty rows up on the forty-yard line), and we’d barely sat down when someone tapped our shoulders. We turned around to see a large greaseball in the seat behind us. He was wearing a Rams hat and reeked of Old Spice and gin.
“Niners fans?” he asked.
“Well, yeah,” laughed Gumbo. “This is our stadium.”
“Fuckin’ losers!” he sneered, staring at each of us in turn.
Ned and I were amazed. Trouble followed us around, of course, but this? Actually being challenged by a Rams fan? It was too good to be true.
“Listen good,” he said, sitting back in his seat. “I flew all the way here from Malibu because you know what? Jim Everett is going to kick your ass today! He’s gonna blow you dipshits up!”
Everett was the Rams quarterback. He was such a pussy that the sportscaster Jim Rome, while interviewing him earlier that week, had called him Chrissie Everett (referencing the female tennis player), and Big Jim had come across the table at him.
And that was this clown’s savior?
“You a betting man?” I asked.
“Hell yeah, beanpole!” he scoffed. “I’ll put a hundred on the Rams.”
“You’re on,” I said, shaking his hand (then quickly wiping it on my jeans). “And have that money ready … this won’t take long.”
And it didn’t: the Niners so dominated the Rams that, after being knocked on his ass numerous times, Everett dropped back, saw red-and-gold all around him and slumped to the grass in terror.
It’s called the “Phantom Sack” in Niners lore and underscored a shameful performance on Everett’s part: San Francisco won thirty to three. I’d long since turned to the Rams fan to collect my winnings, of course, but being an L.A. guy he’d disappeared by halftime.
Now it’s thirty years later, we’re facing a far fiercer opponent and I stand, head bowed, in the deafening roar of the Clink.
Now it’s thirty years later, we’re facing a far fiercer opponent and I stand, head bowed, in the deafening roar of the Clink. The decibel level has been measured at a hundred and ten in there (loud as a jet engine), and the late start time (which allowed more drinking beforehand) only jacked the volume. Middle-aged guys, grandmothers, moms, kids … they all cupped their hands around their mouths and screamed at the top of their lungs. It’s meant to intimidate visiting teams, make it harder to hear themselves think, but it wasn’t working on the Niners, as they led thirteen to nothing at halftime.
It was better than being behind but didn’t mean much, not when the other side had Johnny, Jr. (The Seahawks are never out of it with that guy around.) The noise subsided when Seattle had the ball, so I got to know the Niners fans around me, all of them young Mexican couples.
They shared none of my pessimism; were, in fact, very confident and positive. Their buoyancy sparked memories of my tomato harvest days in ’72. It’d be a hundred and ten outside and me and the other white guys (I was driving a forklift), would collapse in the shade at lunchtime and moan, badly hungover and reeking of beer sweat.
The Mexicans, on the other hand (a mixture of men and women), who sorted tomatoes on the harvesters and worked twice as hard as we did, would first heat tortillas over a fire, then break out the guitars and mariachi music. Start singing and dancing around.
Their cheerfulness, their irrepressible zest for life, amazed me then and now. As the fourth quarter began that night, and Johnny, Jr. brought the Seahawks back with his long, picture perfect spirals, I groaned while the Mexicans scoffed. I attributed this to their youth, that they hadn’t been tortured for decades like I had, but in truth I was that lowest of bottom feeders, a “fair weather” fan. I could talk Niners until the sun went down, and profess my unerring devotion to the team (their uniforms are my first real memory of this world), but when push came to shove I rarely believed they’d win, I just prayed they would. Was certain, in fact, that—given the opportunity—they’d break my heart every time.
All their defeats had come in the final second that year (including the Seahawks three weeks before) and more of the same loomed. The Niners were ahead twenty-six to twenty-one, but Seattle had the ball on the five-yard line. It was the last play of the game and I was sure they’d score, that Johnny, Jr. would fuck us over again, and I was pacing back and forth like a madman, waving my arms and cursing.
Even as one Mexican after another reached up, patted me on the back like a child:
“We got this, Stretch!”
“No problemo, man!”
“Have faith, amigo!”
“The Seachickens suck!”
I was touched. I’m old now, and I never pulled it off, but I was reading The Power of Positive Thinking as early as eighth grade, searching for an attitude like that.
Instead I’m still in the Bertrand Russell camp, a diehard “assume the worst” guy, and that’s what I steeled myself for as Johnny, Jr. bent behind center. I slipped my hands over my eyes, peeked between my fingers as he dropped back, fired a quick strike to his tight end Hollister.
He caught it on the one-foot line and stayed there, as Dre Greenlaw, the Niners’ rookie linebacker, hit him high, preventing further forward movement. The game ended with the Seahawks inches from victory.
I was as stunned as the rest of the Clink. How could this be? I marveled. We never beat Johnny, Jr. when it counts!
A Mexican hugged me from behind.
“Damn!” I said, turning to him. “We did it! We actually came in the Clink and won!”
“We told ya, amigo!” he laughed. “You gotta have faith!”
“How do you do it?” I asked. “How do you guys stay so positive?”
“You need to be cool, bro,” he said, “let life come to you. Like the Niners just did.”
“Uh huh. Easier said than done.”
“Not for us. I mean … you know the last thing Jesus said to the Mexicans, right?”
“‘Don’t do anything ’til I get back.’”