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Retracing San Francisco's Super roots

By Frank Cooney, The Sports Xchange   |   Feb. 2, 2016 at 12:48 AM
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Hello Super Bowl 50, welcome to my little town.

OK, it is known as a city, even THE City on the West Coast. But S.F. is only 49 square miles and if you go farther than seven miles in a straight line you will be in the ocean, the bay or Daly City.

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It's a city that reinvented itself after the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire.

Back when I rode every inch of those 49 square miles with my little Schwinn bicycle, nobody would believe San Francisco could host an event of such world-wide focus.

Some of us called S.F. "The Little Town that Could," but, except for rebuilding after the earthquake, damned if I knew what it was The City could do, especially in pro sports.

This was a decidedly minor league sports town, despite the 49ers transition from the All American Conference into the National Football League in 1950.

In fact, sports history in San Francisco has two distinct eras -- before and after Eddie DeBartolo Jr. bought the 49ers in 1977.

I know it all too well. I was born and schooled through college in San Francisco and began my journalism career 50 years ago with the Hearst Corporation's San Francisco Examiner, just a few blocks from the SB 50 Media Headquarters in Moscone Center.

This will be my 40th Super Bowl, a streak that began when the Oakland Raiders brought the Bay Area its first Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl XI.

Meanwhile, fondest sports memories in San Francisco before DeBartolo arrived were supplied mostly by colleges and minor league teams -- University of San Francisco, the San Francisco Seals and, to a degree, the San Francisco Giants.

San Franciscans settled for some decent memories before DeBartolo, but there were no major league championships.

In 1951, USF fielded a phenomenal football team -- subject of the book "Undefeated, Untied and Uninvited" -- that produced 10 NFL players, including three Hall of Famers -- Ollie Matson, Gino Marchetti and Bob St. Clair. This great team did not play in a bowl game primarily because it included two black players, Matson and Burl Toler.

Matson and Toler also played on City College of San Francisco's undefeated 1948 team that won the mythical junior college national championship. Matson set numerous records at CCSF that were broken in 1965-66 by O. J. Simpson. Toler went on to become an NFL official for 25 years.

USF's Basketball team won back-to-back National titles in 1955-56, led by future NBA Hall of Famers Bill Russell, from across the bay in Oakland, and homegrown K.C. Jones (Commerce High School).

The team also had a future NFL Hall of Famer, publicist Pete Rozelle.

In the 1970s, when I was covering USF basketball and Rozelle was NFL commissioner, he would call me in the wee hours after a game and ask to hear the details.

In 1957, San Francisco's beloved Seals made their final season a great one, winning the Pacific Coast League championship and earning a place in history alongside the 1935 Seals team that was managed by Lefty O'Doul and featured an outfielder named Joe DiMaggio, both San Franciscans.

I was 10 years old in 1957 and lived a few blocks from Seals Stadium, across the street from the Hamm's Brewery. The players allowed neighborhood kids to shag flies and carry equipment at practice. So I was sad to see our championship Seals move to Phoenix because some team from New York was moving in.

Within a couple of years, a guy named Orlando Cepeda won over the neighborhood kids and we accepted this new team. Willie Mays was fun to watch, too.

But 1957 was a major disappointment for the 49ers. My parents owned a restaurant on Mission Street -- The Old Mission Inn -- and we loaded fans in the back of a 1953 Studebaker truck to go see games at Kezar Stadium. That season ended with a fall-from-in front playoff loss to the Detroit Lions in the NFL Championship Game. It was the beginning of the team's new motto -- "Wait 'til next year."

The 49ers featured the "Million-Dollar Backfield" of quarterback Y.A. Tittle, halfbacks Hugh "The King" McElhenny and John Henry Johnson, plus fullback Joe "The Jet" Perry. This is the only full-house backfield in which all four members are in the Hall of Fame.

The 49ers teased their fans in the early 1970s, making it to the Conference Championship Game in 1970 and 71, but being stopped in the divisional playoffs in 1972. Each time they lost to the Dallas Cowboys. It was against that backdrop that made victory so sweet with their famous breakthrough with The Catch in the 1981 Conference Championship win over the Cowboys. But that was five years after DeBartolo arrived and two years after they drafted a quarterback in the third round named Joe Montana.

Meanwhile, back in the day. . .

In 1962, the Giants beat the hated Los Angeles Dodgers in a three-game playoff series for the National League pennant and went all the way to the seventh game of the World Series.

There, they lost to the Yankees, 1-0, when, with two out and two on in the bottom of the ninth, Willie McCovey's scorching line drive was grabbed by second baseman Bobby Richardson. San Franciscans swear that line drive was on a tangent to leave Candlestick Park.

The S.F. Giants finally won the World Series three times, all this century -- 2010, 2012, 2014. If that is a trend, they are due to win again this year.

There were other points of interest in S.F. sports history that didn't include major league titles before the arrival of DeBartolo.

In fact, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton should know that the 49ers foreshadowed his style of play back in the 1960s when coach Red Hickey unveiled the Shotgun formation with some early success.

They also drafted a multi-talented athlete who may be considered an early version of Newton. Billy Kilmer, a star tailback in one of the last major college single wing offenses, was the No. 11 overall pick out of UCLA by the 49ers in 1961.

Kilmer could pass, run punt and even kick if necessary. Hickey played Kilmer all over the offense. Kilmer's historic NFL highlight reel moment is oft-seen by fans, but largely overlooked. On the 60-yard wrong way fumble recovery run by Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Jim Marshall, Kilmer was the receiver who fumbled.

But his athletic talents were inspiring. They inspired me, as a quarterback who liked to run, to take his jersey, No. 17, which I wore at Balboa High for a while and later with the semi-pro San Francisco Fog Cutters.

Kilmer's career as an athletic quarterback ended in 1962 when he drove his 1957 Chevrolet into the bay and severely broke his leg. After a 16-year roller coaster career with stops in New Orleans and Washington, Kilmer served as commissioner of the Semi-Pro American Football League.

He was named to the AFA Semi-Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1998 and I was honored to be named in the Class of 2007, with that No. 17 on my ring.

Against this background of college and minor league memories and a pile of trivia, DeBartolo took over the 49ers in the 1977. I remember his words at that first press conference: "We are not here to placate personalities; we are here to win championships."

And so he did. DeBartolo's passionate insistence on success overhauled sports in San Francisco, which became a major league city for the first time, winning its first Super Bowl championships following the 1981 season.

Now when San Francisco is discussed by sports fans anywhere, they talk of five Super Bowl titles and Hall of Famers Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Steve Young, Ronnie Lott, Fred Dean, Charles Haley and coach Bill Walsh. And DeBartolo is always in the conversation.

We San Franciscans thank Eddie DeBartolo for rewriting our sports history. We are indebted to him for transforming a minor league town into a major league city and strongly endorse him for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an honor for which he is a finalist this week.

Meantime, it is a semi-sweet experience that San Francisco, nominally speaking, is hosting Super Bowl 50. The reality is, the press conferences, the game and the 49ers stadium are more than 50 miles away in Santa Clara.

It would have been a rough trip in that 1953 Studebaker and I wouldn't even try the trek on a Schwinn.

-- Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, is in his sixth decade covering football and 26th year on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.

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