Jim Jividen’s got a can’t-miss script for the best sports book never written, about how the progressive San Francisco 49ers stood athwart the rising tide of conservatism in the 1980s and gave San Franciscans something to be proud about. Oh yeah, and his weekly football picks, too.
The NFL Network recently re-aired the original broadcast of the 1981 NFC Championship game (which actually was played in January of 1982, for you non-sports fans–yes, that’s normal). This remains, I think, my favorite ever sports moment. In fact, as of that date, January of 1982 (I was eleven), it was the best moment of my life.
When the Saints won the Super Bowl, the accomplishment was understandably contextualized with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The storyline was triumph rising from tragedy. A film like Summer of Sam placed the 1977 New York Yankees inside the broader picture of that year’s serial killings in the Bronx. The 9/11 narrative will forever include images of George Bush on the mound at Yankee Stadium.
Consider the following as of yet untold story:
In 1978, the mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone, and, to that time, the most prominent homosexual ever elected to American office, Harvey Milk, were assassinated. A little more than 3 years later came The Catch – but the connection between this rising football team and the fallen political figures was barely on the periphery, even at the time, and has been totally lost to history — despite the assassin sharing the name of the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys.
I was 7 years old and living in the San Francisco Bay Area when the assassinations occurred, and I recall the events in a way similar to the Reagan shooting or Challenger explosion. But that puts me in small company. I don’t recall ever taking or teaching a history course that ever referred to Harvey Milk, much less noted that the mayor of a major US city could have his killer do only five years in prison and really have the only cultural takeaway from that trial be the Twinkie Defense is sort of shocking when you roll it around. Even today–with Sean Penn having won Best Actor for his portrayal of Harvey Milk just a few years before–at no point during the discussion of the first ever re-airing of the original broadcast of The Catch have I heard a single person so much as say “here’s a macabre twist.”
As a San Francisco sports fan, the phrase “East Coast bias” flows maybe a little too easily from my lips, but there’s less attention to the political goings on in the west from establishment media than the population figures would suggest. And it was thirty years ago – if Edwin Lee gets shot today, there’s enough wall to wall media that his name will be burned in the memories of 7 year old boys around the globe. I like to tell students that George Washington didn’t know he had been elected President for a couple of weeks after it was so, but the informational distance between the late 1700s and the late 1900s is smaller than the distance between my 3 UHF channels in 1978 and the Tweet I just got from Sierra Leone.
There might be some homophobia in the mix too. Milk=MLK wasn’t an equation mainstream Americans were going to allow in 1978; hell, it’s still not today, but if you don’t recognize that the wheel of justice will inevitably turn toward full equality you’re not paying attention (although that’s a relatively recent realization).
Here’s where this becomes a sports conversation. One could construct an overly broad narrative that would go something like this – a sports figure – an athlete, maybe a whole team – can meld with a city in such a way that, as opposed to just being a pleasant diversion, that figure can provide a psychic uplift in a manner difficult to quantify.
It requires excellence, but more than excellence, it requires a convergence of the identities of citizenry and sports figure. The Steelers are embraced in Pittsburgh not just for the titles, but for the perception of being hard-nosed, for example. If Hollywood is the great myth-making machine, the Sports Industrial Complex is a close second – and we frame athletic achievements or failures to fit our civic needs.
The 49ers are my football team; they were fully embraced, as closely as I’ve ever seen, by the people of San Francisco because they were excellent (I’ll take my dynasty over any other in football history; I don’t have a metric to point to, but if you give me first pick among 60s Packers, 70s Steelers, 90s Cowboys, and 00s Pats, I’m taking my guys and it’s not that hard a call) but more than that – because they were excellent in a way that fed into the civic identity of the City.
If you were to do a random sampling of adjectives used to describe the Bill Walsh era Niners, you know exactly what you’d find – “cerebral, finesse, classy, sophisticated” – sometimes said with respect, “The 49ers play an intellectual brand of football that the rest of the league can’t match – the entire organization has the persona of the smartest kid in class” and sometimes it was said with scorn, “They’re soft – that’s not football – finesse-ass 49ers, goddamn Bill Walsh thinking he’s a genius – don’t be afraid to just line up and hit somebody.”
This is, of course, the civic identity of San Francisco. It’s not seen as primarily seen as tough – it’s seen as urbane. A Harris Poll, I’m guessing, if it listed a couple of dozen adjectives and a couple of dozen cities – would attach words like “intellectual, effete, urbane” to San Francisco and not gritty, gutty, scrappy – which would more be associated with Pittsburgh.
The 49ers became the greatest team in football – the greatest organization in sports – and did it in exactly the way privileged by the city.
And did it at the right time. I don’t know what level of psychic toll the killing of the mayor and gay activist hero has on a people – but if I were mythmaking, it would go something like this: San Francisco was the epicenter of the American counterculture movement of the 1960, the effective end of that was the assassination of Moscone and Milk, and as the country began to reject the egalitarian notions of the activist 60s, turn its back on the War on Poverty and the uplift of all peoples into a Big American Boat with the huge conservative turn to the Reagan 80s, it leaves the City of San Francisco without identity, rudderless – adrift in a Red Republican sea.
That tension between the rise of the conservative movement and a progressive, wounded city is inverted on the gridiron: the exciting young 49ers, progressive in approach, running into the dying Corporate America’s Team, the Dallas Cowboys, with Landry’s porkpie hat and the military man Staubach and the ridiculous hole in the top of the stadium (“So God can watch the Cowboys”) and that infuriating little hop their linemen took before the ball was snapped. Their 70s positioning as the epitome of moral uprightness (while concealing massive drug problems) would clearly be the football team of choice for the Anita Bryants of the world – the same marketing messages that drove anti-gay, anti-choice, establishment over equality groups in 1978 were wholly embraced by the Dallas Cowboys.
But in 1981, their dynasty was dying – Staubach was gone – and in a world where corporate values were re-emerging, where profits were re-establishing their primacy over people, it was in the NFL where a lefty city could yet hold its ground against the onslaught.
The alternative team, the 49ers, beat Corporate America’s Team with Dwight Clark’s Catch in January of ’82, cementing the changing of the NFL guard – and just a little over 3 years after the killings of Milk and Moscone – the Cowboy quarterback who left the field in defeat that day, who fumbled away Dallas’s last chance at game’s end – was Danny White.
It’s not as if a decade had passed. Dan White killed Moscone and Milk in San Francisco in November of ’78 – and Danny White fumbled at midfield in San Francisco in January of ’82. It’s a curious quirk of history that, even if not endowed with Hollywood-grade mythmaking, is just darn peculiar enough that it should have more cultural currency than it does.
All that really remains of Dan White is the Twinkie Defense – a mitigation argument based on a shift White’s diet. Consider instead the alternate posture that White’s capacity wasn’t diminished, that he wasn’t unbalanced due to an excess of transfats – that he killed Milk and Moscone because (metaphorically) he was the Dallas Cowboys.
The biopic Milk portrayed the killer as a piece of white bread, with his brown suits and bad haircut and 2.2 kids. He sees the ground unsteady beneath him; he looks around the halls of power and sees fewer faces that look like his than he’s comfortable with. He’s the prototype of the Angry White Male (his name was even White – did he know he was a literary technique?) that became an early-90s meme (Rush Limbaugh, the Michael Douglas character in Falling Down, eventually the NASCAR dad) and who now can be seen at Tea Party rallies and in Glenn Beck books. He sees the levels of power held by women, Blacks, maybe gays, or those with accents and polysyllabic names and odd religious rituals and feels he was being shorted somehow. He’s the type of person who hears “happy holidays” and angrily denounces the “War on Christmas.” He sees an African-American President and starts talking about “taking our country back” and “watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants.” This is football, goddammit – stop all this short passing! This is football – our game – blood and broken things! How dare some uppity gay come to San Francisco and get this type of press, command this type of following – his job should be my job – why can’t I just call him a dirty queer and drink my scotch and make all the decisions? Who does he think he is hitting all those home runs – being all cocky. And in my city! My city! Goddamn swaggering around, being big and black and hitting all those home runs. I’m a federal agent and I’m gonna lock his ass up and get his records erased if it costs 55 million taxpayer dollars to do it!
I may have moved to a different thing there for a moment.
Gotta love those guys. Born on third base and think they hit a triple. Then when they’re picked off they quit, they say the game is rigged against them. They shout “kill the umpire.” They shout “If only I was Mexican, then I could win this election.”
In my office is a signed copy of the SI cover shot of the catch. But until this viewing of this 30 year old game, I never saw the sign.
There is a white sign with black lettering (it may be a bedsheet) just behind the very end zone where Dwight catches the pass on 3rd and 3, leaping over Everson Walls to put us in position to win the game (not quite win, we needed a horse collar tackle, which now would be illegal, from Eric Wright on the first Cowboy play after the score – and then the fumble on the subsequent play) is a sign that reads the following:
Not Danny White, which was the only way you ever heard the Cowboy QB/P (and how weird is that – can you imagine a starting quarterback today also being not the emergency punter, but the regular punter? The rules have all been stretched to enormous lengths to keep the quarterbacks healthy – but in 1981 Danny White was punting the football) referred to, but Dan White, the name of the assassin. There it was, in the end zone at Candlestick Park, visible just as Dwight flashes by to catch the ball.
There’s a book to be written about the Catch and the city of San Francisco, one that situates the rise of the 49ers and the city of San Francisco in the context of Harvey Milk and the Reagan 80s ( (The Catch: One Play, Two Dynasties, and the Game That Changed the NFL is a good enough book, but it is not that book). But this time I just enjoyed watching the full ’81 NFC Title game : our 6 turnovers, Jim Miller the barefoot punter, our picking on Walls all game long, Joe swearing at Too Tall Jones, Eddie D. smoking a cigarette on the sideline, Ronnie needing to be calmed down after Dwight’s catch, the phrase “Amos Lawrence, #20 on the muff” which would be a good addition if anyone’s got a “Dirty Sounding Things Vin Scully Said” blog, the old high school cheerleading uniforms, the Cowboys so close to converting on 3rd and 5 with 5 minutes to go (which would have been the death blow). Not to mention Bill Walsh just outcoaching Landry at every step in that last drive: a Lenvil Elliott draw on second and 10; and after the big Freddie conversion, an Elliott sweep right for 11, then an Elliott sweep left for 7. All of which sets up the reverse coming out of the two minute warning: Elliott with another sweep…but he gives to Freddie who takes it all the way to the Cowboy 35. Joe to Dwight to the 25. Joe to Freddie to the 13. Another Elliott sweep to the six. 3rd and 3. 58 seconds left. Sprint Right Option.
Here are the picks.
I’m 19-22 overall. I’ll try to do better.
Wake -7 Army
Marshall v. Rice Under 70
SFlorida v. Ball St under 63
Louisville -13.5 FIU
Rutgers +7 Ark
NDame -5.5 Mich
Oregon v. Arizona under 78
Dallas -7 TB
Minnesota +7.5 Niners
Miami +3 NYJ
NE +3 Balt
And if you’d like some bonus Emmy Picks…
Drama: Will Win – Mad Men, Should Win – Mad Men
Actor: Will Win – Cranston, Should Win – Cranston
Actress: Will Win – Danes, Should Win – Danes
Supporting Actor: Will Win – Dinklage, Should Win – Esposito
Supporting Actress: Will Win – Smith, Should Win – Hendricks
Comedy: Will Win – Modern Family, Should Win – 30 Rock
Actor: Will Win – Jim Parsons, Should Win – Alec Baldwin
Actress: Will Win – Poehler, Should Win – Poehler
Supporting: Will Win – Burrell, Should Win – Burrell
Supporting: Will Win-Bowen, Should Win-Wiig
Movie: Will Win – Game Change, Should Win – Game Change
Actor: Will Win – Owen, Should Win – Harrelson
Actress: Will Win – Moore, Should Win – Moore
Supporting Actor: Will Win- Harris, Should Win – Strathairn
Supporting Actress: Will Win-Lange, Should Win-Lange
Reality Comp: Will Win-Race, Should Win-Runway
Reality Host: Will Win-Seacrest, Should Win-Deeley
Variety: Will Win-TDS, Should Win-Colbert