The NFC Championship took place in Santa Clara last Sunday. The 49ers ran all over Green Bay, winning 37-20, in what can only be called a drubbing. But I’m not here to talk about the game. I’m here to talk around it.
We should start in the parking lot, which, before kickoff, played host to the most joyous party the Bay has seen in years. Dads cracked beers and jokes with their sons, swapping stories of Candlestick glory days. Mariachi bands weaved in and out of traffic, strumming red-and-gold guitars and starting impromptu parades. There was hyphy music. So much hyphy music.
For a moment, this crowd — that in all its beautiful diversity reminded me of what the Bay Area used to be — could forget their problems. Could forget that housing had become too expensive, and that a six-figure household income was now below the poverty line. Could forget about the Tech Boom, and how it had hollowed out the Bay’s middle class. Could forget about tech entirely, since technologists, who want to seem enlightened, don’t really go to football games.
For a night, the Bay could come home, an increasingly alien feeling in a place that asks longtime residents to carve out lives on the margins—commuting into job centers from Gilroy, Stockton, and Santa Rosa. Where one must pray their community goes unnoticed by the all-seeing, all-consuming eye of Tech, which had recently found something it wanted — the Golden State Warriors — and plucked it from its home, forcing remaining fans to commute to San Francisco’s luxury condo capital, the SoMa neighborhood, to watch games.
The moment I stepped inside the stadium, I knew we were going to win. I’d never experienced that feeling before. The energy the crowd released at kickoff was an earthquake, built up over years of tectonic frustrations about our team and city. Every shout seemed to stymie a hapless Green Bay offense. Every scream seemed to open a hole for Raheem Mostert to burst through. Every yell was an exorcism of a painful memory: Candlestick’s bitter passing; the tortured end of the Harbaugh era; that weird year with Jim Tomsula; Chip Fucking Kelly.
The sky was gray that night, the way it used to be at Candlestick.
Behind me, an old couple who’d been going to 49ers games since the Kezar days held hands and jumped up and down the first time Nick Bosa got to Aaron Rodgers, another Northern California native who’d had to leave. One of my closest friends, who’d been at my side through the dual tragedies known as Super Bowl XLVII and the 2013 NFC Championship, sat next to me, periodically looking to the sky like he was preparing to wake from a dream. Next to him, a man wearing a comically large gold chain yelled, “Pete Carroll sucks!” whenever the action lulled. Every time he did, our section laughed. It wasn’t funny, but we were delirious: Years in the desert will do that to you. But, now, Kyle Shanahan was leading us out, one brilliant run play after another.
Mostert’s runs and Bosa’s QB pressures and Kittle’s blocks and the crowd’s reactions swirled into a wave, swallowing us, Levi’s, Santa Clara, the whole Bay Area.
It was a moment that — for the first time in a long time — felt uniquely ours. The Bay’s. Like it used to be. Before every conversation became housing and tech and homelessness. It was a moment where you thought maybe, possibly, the Bay Area was a place where community could grow again. Where you could hug a stranger. Or at least drink from their flask. Where you could live, and not merely subsist.
I don’t know what’s going to happen in the Super Bowl this Sunday. I can’t describe how weird it is to have such supreme confidence in your coach. But I do know that — for everyone in the Bay Area, and for everyone who’s had to leave it — we already had our homecoming.
Fittingly, it had to happen in Santa Clara, an hour outside the city we used to love.