Niners First Lombardi Trophy and the Frozen Tundra!

Niners First Lombardi Trophy and the Frozen Tundra!

Earl Cooper Scores in Super Bowl XVI

This story begins a year before the birth of the Niners dynasty in the summer of 1980. Having been raised in Fremont from ten years old, my “second” favorite football team was the Oakland Raiders. The 49ers were far and away my favorite team. Hell, my first 49ers game was at Kezar Stadium in 1959, a year before the Raiders were born. 

In the summer of 1980 the Raiders were coming off two straight seasons missing the playoffs. During the 1970’s that was unusual. On a trip to Lake Tahoe I placed $50 on the Raiders to “make” the Super Bowl at 20 to 1! After a surprising season, led by 49ers’ cast off Jim Plunkett, the Raiders earned a Super Bowl berth. 

The $1,000 winnings meant I could go to Super Bowl XV in New Orleans. I went with a buddy from work, John Kovacich, that had tickets from his uncle.  We had a wild weekend in New Orleans! That’s a whole separate story that I hope to share soon. 

L to R: John Kovacich and me at Super Bowl XV in New Orleans in 1981. My ONLY photo from my first two Super Bowls!

On the plane back home from New Orleans after the Raiders had beaten the Philadelphia Eagles who sat down next to me in my first class seat  … my favorite 49ers player, up to that point, John Brodie! My solemn promises that I was a huge Niners fan, despite my being decked out in head-to-toe Raiders garb, had Brodie laughing his ass off. 

After settling in for the long flight with snacks and a few drinks, that I honestly didn’t need, our conversation turned to Bill Walsh’s rebuilding of the Niners. We agreed that Walsh was on the right track. To prove my 49ers bonafides I promised Brodie that I would be at the first Super Bowl the Niners make. Naturally, neither of dreamed it would be the following year! 

In the summer of 1981, on another trip to Tahoe I placed a $50 bet on the 49ers making the Super Bowl. This time the odds on the bet was 50 to 1! Nobody believed in their wildest dreams that the 49ers, coming off a 6-10 season, would make the Super Bowl after the 1981 season, just as only the craziest of optimists would have predicted this 2019 Niners team would have made the Super Bowl! 

Of course, we now know that the 1981 49ers made the Super Bowl on “The Catch” by the late Dwight Clark. Collecting my winning payoff of $2,500 meant I could go to my second straight Super Bowl. Remembering my promise to John Brodie, I went! 

“The Catch” by Dwight Clark on January 10, 1982

For the work week before the Super Bowl I was working in Levi’s Dallas office and taking every opportunity to torture my Cowboys fan colleagues over “The Catch.”  My sweetest moment of rubbing it in was Friday afternoon at the airport while waiting for my flight to Detroit at the American Airlines Admirals Club. On my trip to the bar to get my standard scotch and water I noticed two Dallas Cowboys executives sitting at the bar talking.  The executives were general manager/president Tex Schramm and player personnel guru Gil Brandt, both longtime Cowboys executives. Sidling up beside them I announced loudly, “Niners Baby!”, while displaying my 49ers lapel pin proudly. Both gents just rolled their eyes with a pained look! 

When I touched down in Detroit it was obvious that this wasn’t going to be a huge party like my New Orleans experience a year earlier. The weather was absolutely frigid! It was the Friday before the game Sunday. The only car that Avis had left was a tiny Chevette. After cramming myself into my “Sh*tvette” (my immediate derogatory nickname for my too small rental car) I headed for the Niners hotel in Southfield, Michigan. 

1982 “Sh*tvette” suitably in Niners RED!

My first order of business was to secure my ticket to the game. This Super Bowl was the first time the NFL had scheduled the game in a cold weather site.  Ticket prices for the big game were coming down as a result. Nobody was wild about spending a late January weekend in Detroit.   

My strategy was to offer the bartenders at the Niners hotel a $20 tip if they scored me a ticket. Once that was done, I proceeded to totally enjoy my evening in the bar. Noticing KTVU sports reporter and Giants TV broadcaster Gary Parks sitting at the bar, I began a conversation. Did we discuss the surprising 49ers season? No, we talked Giants baseball, what else? 

What I remember most of all, these 32 years later, was Gary and I arguing about who the Giants best all-around shortstop had been during their time in San Francisco. Gary was a Johnny Lemaster proponent, whereas I chose Chris Speier. A few San Franciscans chimed in with their opinions, mostly backing my choice of Speier. 

The rest of the night I totally enjoyed meeting and chatting with many of my childhood Niners heroes like; big raw meat eating offensive tackle Bob St Clair, wide receiver Gene Washington, defensive lineman Leo “The Lion” Nomellini, linebacker Dave Wilcox, quarterback Y. A. Tittle and recently retired running back Paul Hofer. But, by far the most entertaining dude wasn’t a former 49er at all, Bobby Layne the old Detroit Lions Hall of Fame quarterback! Bobby regaled all within earshot of many, most off-color, hilarious tales of life in the early NFL. However, nobody had seen John Brodie yet. 

Unwisely, I closed down the bar, unaware there was a ferocious ice storm raging outside! Seeing my obviously inebriated state, the hotel doorman offered me a blanket and pillow to sleep in the hotel lobby by the fireplace. Refusing his admonitions that it wasn’t safe to drive in the storm, especially in my condition, I told him I needed to check into my hotel a few miles away. 

Immediately on stepping out from under the awning of the hotel entrance, I went down hard, hitting my head and reinjuring the finger I’d injured two Sundays before when Dwight Clark made “The Catch” (more on that in my story on “The Catch”)! Dazed and seeing stars, I struggled shakily to my feet while cursing like a longshoreman. 

Now wisely shuffling on the treacherous ice I reached my “Sh*tvette” standing.  The car parked next to my driver’s door was too close to get in. So cursing a blue streak to the deserted parking lot I laboriously entered the passenger’s door. Don’t dare ask me to describe how I made it over the stick shift sticking up in the center … it was a “PAINFULLY” performed miracle, let’s leave it at that!! 

Backing out, the “Sh*tvette” slid on the ice and bumped the bumper of the car behind me. Sobering up quickly, I realized it was totally insane to try to navigate the approximately two miles to my fleabag motel in these impossible conditions. But, it was only two miles and I was worried they would give my room away, so I pushed on. 

Once on the road I noticed the strong wind that came from the left and kept pushing my ridiculous tiny “Sh*tvette” off the road. Creeping along at no more than five miles an hour I struggled keeping my “Sh*tvette” anywhere on the road. With only half a mile to go, a strong gust of wind shoved my POS (I’ll let you dear readers figure out what that acronym means!) car into the snowbank on the left! 

Inventing new creative angry profanities, I struggled for a half hour to get my “car” back on the road. Finally, after getting frostbite on my hands by clearing the snow behind both rear wheels I got “it” back on the road by alternating forward and reverse. 

The small parking lot was completely full when I finally pulled into the parking lot of my “cheap” hotel that I’d been greatly gouged for. I’d reached the end of my rope by now and I parked behind a car. It had been a LONG day! Not caring about the rickety bed and dirty cheap sheets, I crashed hard immediately when my head hit the pillow. 

Six hours later I was awakened by a car horn honking and angry shouted profanities outside below my second floor room. Initially, I rolled over to get more sleep. Then I realized to my horror that my reckless parking hours earlier was the reason for the commotion.

Racing downstairs while profusely apologizing to the irate driver I’d blocked in, I moved my “Sh*tvette”.  Afterwards, I crashed again until the late afternoon. 

Wanting to buy my ticket and see Brodie, I headed back to the Niners hotel. It was now the night before the game and I was beginning to panic over my lack of a ticket. I checked in with the bartender and he said he had a lead for me for a great Club level seat close to the 50 yard-line.  However, the seller wouldn’t be in the bar until late. Concerned, but reassured by the bartender’s confidence I put the ticket out of mind. 

Shortly after my chat with the bartender, I finally caught sight of John Brodie! Tapping him on the shoulder, I asked him if he remembered me when he turned around. His face lit up with a big smile and he said, “Hey, the big Niners fan in Raiders gear on the plane!”  Pointing to my Niners hat, I replied proudly, “I said I’d be here and here I am John!” “Yes you are my friend, yes you are!”, he laughed. We had a nice chat and agreed that Walsh’s offense would carry the 49ers to victory tomorrow. Brodie autographed my Super Bowl XVI program and I retreated to the bar to await my mystery ticket seller. 

John Brodie

While waiting anxiously for this mystery ticket seller, I got the autograph of O.J. Simpson on my program. O.J. had retired two years prior after two unspectacular seasons with his hometown Niners. I was excited to get O.J.’s autograph. Of course, this was twelve years before O.J.’s tragic accused murder of his ex-wife and her friend. 

Prices for tickets had started to fall, probably due to the weather forecast for tomorrow’s game. The wind chill was forecasted to be around 25 degrees below zero!  I turned down a few upper deck tickets in the end zone because of my bartender friend’s promise that this mystery seller had a premo Club level ticket to sell. 

Finally, the bartender told me my ticket seller was here. However, his instructions on how to complete the transaction made me very nervous. My ticket seller would meet me outside the bar in a side hallway by a cigarette machine! My bartender buddy reassured me that the ticket was great and this seller just wanted to keep the sale private. 

With trepidation, I proceeded to the hallway with the cigarette machine. Crouching down behind the machine was my seller. He motioned for me to get down also and held his finger to his lips to keep quiet. It felt like a drug deal rather than a Super Bowl ticket buy! 

Talking in hushed tones, he told me he was from Youngstown, Ohio and was a good friend of the 49ers owner Eddie Debartolo Jr. He explained that the ticket was in the club section on the 40 yard line and that I would be sitting among friends of the Debartolo family from Youngstown, Ohio. I was to tell anybody that inquired, that I was from Youngstown and was a friend of Eddie’s. This wasn’t a problem and I agreed. With my nod of agreement to the conditions, he pulled the ticket out of his jacket and handed it to me. 

Taking a close look at the ticket to make sure it was not fake, I asked how much? He said it was a really great seat and he wanted $150 for it. The face value was $75. I offered $120 and he took it after a momentary thought. 

Elated that I had my ticket for the game in hand, I totally enjoyed the rest of the evening at the Niners hotel.  My plan to avoid the unbearably freezing weather tomorrow, was to be the first in line when the Pontiac Silverdome’s parking lots opened. This was important because I had come from Dallas with no cold-weather clothing. The only coat I had was a flimsy sport jacket. I had no gloves, no adequate head gear and slick dress shoes. I short, I was totally unprepared to spend any extended time in the predicted below zero wind-chill weather! Therefore, it was critical that I park close to an entrance to the Silverdome. 

The weather was as bad as predicted on game day morning. It was windy with the wind-chill below 25 below when I warmed up my car that morning. I damn near froze to death while I waited for my “Sh*tvette” warm up. To mitigate the ungodly cold temperatures I donned a double layer of socks as improvised mittens! It wasn’t stylish, but who cared!! 

When I arrived at the Silverdome about 12 noon, four hours before kickoff,  I was the third car in line to enter the parking lot. The gates opened in an hour. To stay warm while waiting, I would start the car every five minutes or so with the heater set to max. I ignored the ominous signs that indicated you had to be a Detroit Lions season ticket holder to park in the lots. 

When the gates opened the attendant asked to see my Detroit Lions parking pass. I explained that I needed to park close because I didn’t have any winter weather closes. He told me he could not let me in. No matter how hard I tried to work him, he wouldn’t budge. Cars behind me were honking their horns at my delaying them. The attendant was getting angry with my delay. 

I reached into my wallet and offered him $20 to let me in. I’d chosen possibly the most honest parking attendant in the state of Michigan! Not only did he turn down my blatant bribe, he threatened to have me arrested for bribery! 

Undeterred, I tried two other parking entrances with the same result. Christ, were all these parking attendants frigging boy scouts! My  brilliant plan to park close in to avoid freezing to death was in tatters. After searching, I eventually parked in a lot about a quarter mile from the nearest stadium entrance. 

Repeating my routine of cycling the car off and on to keep reasonably warm, I waited for the half hour until the gates opened to the stadium.  Girding myself for the freezing cold and gale force winds, pulling up my improvised socks/mittens, I took a final deep breath of warm air and plunged outside into the coldest conditions I’ve ever experienced! 

The icy wind cut through me like a knife. My unprotected ears immediately hurt from the bitter cold. Once I reached outside the parking lot area the path to the entrance was totally frozen over with a thick coat of ice. It was impossible to walk normally on the ice given the gales. Shuffling along I made good progress until I reached the next impassable obstacle. 

Beside the huge stadium parking lot, which I needed to cross to reach the stadium entrance, lay an imposing lake of below freezing liquid. The lake was about a foot deep and was the runoff from the deicing of the stadium parking lots the night before. The lake resulted from the storm drains being completely  frozen over glacier-like. 

The closest clear parking lot entrance was at least a quarter mile away. Taking that path would mean trekking over the treacherous ice an extra quarter mile. Other Niners and Bengals fans who were much better prepared with clothing for the Siberian cold and had parked in the same lot, shared my difficult choice … undertake the extra quarter mile on the ice, cross the frigid lake or just give it up! Unbelievably, a few Niners fans that had travelled thousands of miles to get here gave up! They gave their tickets to friends and said they would watch the game in their cozy warm hotel. 

Not me! I gritted my teeth for the unbearable cold that awaited and waded slowly into the lake! Excruciating pain from my already freezing feet lit up my brain! By the time I reached the other side six feet away my feet were mercifully numb. After seeing me survive the icy walk, other hardy fans took the plunge too. 

Once on the deiced parking lot I sprinted, such as that was, towards the stadium entrance. The heavy breathing from sprinting and the frigid air made my burning lungs feel like they would burst. It seemed an eternity until I reached the entrance. 

Finally I reached the promised land of the entrance … and it was CLOSED! They were late opening the gates!  Now I was in trouble and suffering exposure. Teeth chattering, feet numb and pain wracking my entire body, I crouched down to get some shelter from the biting wind among the crowd. 

Thankfully, a fellow Niners fan noticed my severe distress and implored people around me to gather around me to keep me warm. One angelic lady placed her gloves over my agonizingly painful ears.  Repeating over and over my thank you’s to my rescuers for coming to my rescue, I began to feel better. 

The gates finally opened a half hour late. After getting inside the wonderful soothing warmth of the Silverdome I raced up the ramp for the Club section and a bathroom. Once inside I ripped off my inadequate sock/mittens and shoes. Laying below an air hand dryer with my feet up, I pressed the on button with my big toe to get the thawing hot air on my frostbitten feet, I alternated my feet to thaw both. 

It’s difficult to describe in words just how great it felt to feel that hot air on my feet! Slowly the feeling came back to my feet. A couple of guys in expensive suits came into the restroom, most likely from a corporate suite.  Both were highly amused by my contorted position on the floor. One of them laughingly quipped that I was already drunk. Ignoring them, I continued to thaw out my feet. 

Once I was completely thawed out and warm, I padded off barefoot, my shoes were still wet, to find my seat. It was just as advertised! It was on the 45 yard line a few rows up. Behind my perch a half dozen rows up was the glass of a huge corporate suite. I walked up to peer into the suite and noticed a large Ford logo prominently hung on the wall opposite me. 

The remainder of this story about the game and my experiences afterwards will be covered in part two                

 

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