The Gold Rush
My sojourn among this decidedly esoteric group begins in befittingly secretive fashion as I head to the lodge of a certain club located somewhere north of San Francisco. (Out of respect for privacy, I’ve agreed to keep the identities of this group confidential. But as secret societies go, they’re somewhere between the Knights Templar and Fred Flintstone’s Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes.) Here I meet up with my adopted crew for the night, a welcoming bunch of old-school 49ers fans. Many don hats that identify the wearer as a firefighter or veteran; one younger guy has a shirt that depicts his team’s name graphically, with a 40 oz. bottle and a 9 mm gun. There’s a preponderance of Joe Montana paraphernalia, which is both a celebration of a glorious tradition and a silent comment on the franchise’s recent struggles.
As the crowd swells to around 50, I enjoy a beer from the private bar and buy into a final score grid pool that is suspiciously lacking in numbers. “We’ll pick ’em later,” says my host. I suspect this is some sort of hazing ritual or short con, but I’m perfectly happy to be the rube as long as I can tag along. And then we head for the bus.
That’s right: the bus. A beautiful, full-sized luxury craft that ferries my hosts to every home game in comfort and style. What’s more, a row of seats in the middle of the vehicle hold a giant tray of beers, two jugs of screwdrivers, and a full bar. These Niners fans don’t mess around. Our craft is a 47-seat Marin Airporter complete with a friendly driver and a bathroom in the back. The rate is about $660 for the six-hour round-trip to the game, which sounds like a lot until you divide it by 47 people. Fourteen dollars for transportation to Candlestick – including gas, parking, and tolls? Yes, please!
Even better, none of us needs to worry about concentrating on the road. Drinks flow and potluck snacks are passed around as “the weekly joke” is told over the bus PA by an erstwhile raconteur. Then we all draw cards from a deck in order to fill in the final score numbers on that pool. It’s basically the best carpool in the history of the world. While we wind our way through traffic toward the Golden Gate Bridge, I’m actually rooting for the road to stay busy so I can hang on the bus some more.
On the other side of the bridge we pick up a straggler and I’m treated to another glorious tradition. The whole bus breaks into song for the latecomer whom I’ll call Bill: Here’s to Bill! Here at last! Here’s to Bill. He’s a horse’s ass! My host informs me that if I’m last on the bus after the game, I’ll share the same choral fate as Bill. Good thing I wore comfortable shoes.
And yet, all the fun on the bus is merely prelude to the superfan’s natural habitat: the parking lot. We pull into the special bus entrance (another clutch perquisite of going charter!) and ascend directly to tailgate heaven. Admittedly, it’s been a decade or so since I last joined in on some pregame hijinks, but tailgating technology seems to have taken a quantum leap. Amid the expected grills, beer pong tables, and keg stands are margarita machines, satellite dishes, and flat screens. I’m sure I could find some decent Wi-Fi too. As my crew heads inside, I go for a turn around the lot. An informal survey reveals that some of these people have been here since 11 a.m., which was only five and a half hours ago! I make quick friends with a group watching a TV bigger than the one in my living room. Civic pride swells in me as strangers share hugs, complex handshakes, and toasts. A man runs down the middle of the nearest lane, screaming, “I love all of you!”
And this was no one-time deal. The main lot at Candlestick opens four hours before kickoff for every game, but you can get in only if you’ve bought a parking pass beforehand ($25 on the 49ers website). Visitors are welcome to bring in any sort of grill or cooking apparatus and there’s even places to ditch your used charcoal. Additionally, there are no restrictions with regards to alcohol or open containers, apart from normal ones like “don’t be a jerk” and “Dude, there are kids around.” What’s more, proving that we live in the best city ever, the 49ers don’t just recycle – they also have a robust composting program. Football and fertilizer? Awesome. After the game, I talked to Jim Mercurio, 49ers vice president of stadium operations and security, about the fun I saw. “We recognize how tailgating is such an integral part of our fans’ game day experience and we encourage all who tailgate to do so in a safe and responsible manner,” he said. He also reminded everyone that tailgaters need to “be respectful” since not everyone goes to a game for the parking lot party. And he’s right – there’s football too!
Inside Candlestick Park is a sea of maroon and gold, marred only by the tiny pockets of green that represent Eagles supporters. I ascend to the upper reserved section, which is just as chilly as it sounds and offers a great view of the field. I’m not sitting with my hosts – they have much better tickets – but superfans abound up here. In my immediate area is not just a fashionista in a full 49ers tracksuit, but also a dandy sporting an autographed Montana jersey and a hat that has “F**k the Haterz” embroidered on it. Turns out brevity really is the soul of wit. On field, the opening drive goes well, ending in a 49ers touchdown and an explosion of emotion from the jubilant fans around me. It would not last.
As you may be aware, the 49ers-Eagles tilt was something of a nadir for the home team’s 2010 season. After jumping out to an early lead, the 49ers ended up losing 27–24 in a game that felt much more like a blowout than the final score would indicate. Quarterback Alex Smith’s play was even bad enough to precipitate chants of “We want Carr” – referring to backup quarterback David Carr – who is, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, a mediocrity wrapped in an enigma. But the good thing about hanging with superfans is that they don’t let little things like losing dim their spirits. Their energy keeps the stands lively even as the temperature drops. (Seriously, it’s cold at Candlestick! Bring a hat, a scarf, and lots of layers. And maybe a St. Bernard with a cask of brandy around its neck.)
When the final whistle blows I race for the bus, desperate to not be declared an equine posterior in song. Soon the whole crew is aboard, although the high spirits that were on display earlier have faded somewhat in the grim reality of the 49ers’ record: zero wins and five losses. Rather than single out one of their own, the superfans plug poor Alex Smith into a full-throated rendition of the horse’s ass chant. This seems to help.
Then the winner of the final score pool collects her cash to cheers from all. Soon the bus is buzzing with excited talk about next week’s game against the hated Raiders. Someone near me mentions he’ll be bringing a friend along who is an Oakland fan and my host grins, pointing to the floor. “He can ride in our special Raiders section down below!” Laughter fills the air and a cheer goes up. Gimme an E! Gimme an X! Gimme an L! Gimme an A! Gimme an X! What’s that spell? EX-LAX! What’s that make you want to do? Go-Go-Go 49ers!
Hope springs eternal. Our bus pulls onto the Golden Gate Bridge powered by the matchless optimism of the raucous crew inside it. And here’s the real secret: No matter what happens on the field, superfans always win.
Ready to go root on the 49ers with a busload of superfans? Good choice! First step is tickets, which are available on the 49ers website. This is also where you can find the parking pass you’ll need to do some proper tailgating from your vehicle – although be sure to turn up a few hours early for a good spot. If you’re going big, contact Marin Airporter at (415) 256-8830. They’ll handle the gas, parking, and tolls so you can figure out who is making snacks, who is bringing beer and, most importantly, who is telling the daily joke.