Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Immediately after the San Francisco 49ers trounced the hapless and overrated Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV, I wanted to live a particular moment as Joe Montana.
At one point early in the game, Montana shouted a “Black 59 Razor” audible at the line of scrimmage to change whatever he called in the huddle.
Montana’s command and the foreign language that told Jerry Rice to run a “shake” route was the most glorious moment in sports I’d witnessed.
If an afterlife existed, I wanted to be living that moment as Joe Montana until the universe collapsed upon itself.
My one request of the deities lasted until I witnessed first-hand one of the greatest plays in 49er history, and then wanted to finish eternity as Joe Staley running down the Candlestick sideline.
The 49ers were trailing the New Orleans Saints with just over four minutes left in the 2011 NFC Divisional playoff game. Quarterback Alex Smith found tight end Vernon Davis on a 37-yard pass that put the 49ers into Saints territory.
A short run from running back Kendall Hunter gained two yards, and the Saints took time out.
The 49ers were flagged for having 12men in the huddle and it took the team from a makeable third-and-3 to a long third-and-8. How a team in a divisional playoff game could not count to 11 is beyond me, but this was Jim Harbaugh’s football team, and it was infamous for mental errors.
The play clock continued to run, and Harbaugh was forced to burn a time out. Parts of the Jim Harbaugh era were fun, but not how poorly he ran a play clock. It felt like a good drive was about to stall out for a field goal.
The game had become a series of cocaine highs and lows during the last seven minutes. A powerful football drunk kept the four young men in the row ahead of us immune from the nasty withdrawal symptoms, though I’m still not sure how they were able to stand.
I looked at my dad, and he asked what they should run.
“Whatever it is, it’s on Smith’s shoulders,” I said. “It’s gotta be the throw of his career. Maybe something to Vernon near the sideline.”
The crowd rumbled while the 49ers were huddled on the Candlestick turf and collected themselves when it broke, and the offense aligned in an empty set.
The Saints were showing blitz, with five men to Smith’s right and two to his left.
“This must be a quick throw – a slant or something. Smith has no back protection,” I said to my dad.
I noticed wide receiver Kyle Williams on a short, trotting motion toward the line of scrimmage and behind wide receiver Michael Crabtree, but didn’t think much of it.
Then, it happened.
Smith took the shotgun snap and bolted to his left. Williams leveled Saints defensive end Will Smith with a crack block, freeing up tackle Joe Staley to pull to his left and clear the field for his quarterback.
Smith’s run was his zenith as a 49er, and the 69,732 people in attendance that day showered him with the praise he finally deserved. What might have been lost on everyone there was Staley sprinting down the east sideline and taking out free safety Isa Abdul-Quddus.
The referee let the crowd know the play would be reviewed, so all of us were able to relive the moment again on the small Jumbotron at the north end of the stadium.
That’s when I noticed who was lead blocking on the play.
“Did you see Staley’s lead block on that play?! Holy shit, it was wonderful!” I said to the old man and finished the rest of my Anchor beer.
At that pivotal moment in franchise history, Harbaugh put the game on Staley’s shoulders so Smith could shine. And since, I’ve wondered what was going through Staley’s mind as Smith called the play in the huddle.
Once Williams removed Will Smith from the play, and Staley saw 28yards of open turf, what was the feeling in his stomach and legs? Was he powered by his first few disappointing seasons?
Was he silently screaming revenge? Watch that play again, and you’ll see Staley filled with the strength of many to crush anyone who might try and stop him or tackle Smith.
The play would later be overshadowed by Davis’ game-winning touchdown, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Staley’s pull.
Forty-Niner fans have been lucky to witness some Hall of Fame football players and outstanding human beings throughout the team’s history. Joe Staley is one of those legends and deserves to be spoken in the same breath as Leo Nomellini, Bob St. Clair, and Joe Montana.
Staley’s absence will echo throughout Levi’s Stadium this fall, both in the locker room and in the nosebleed seats. One did not need to be next to Staley to feed on his energy vibrations.
This weekend, after you cut your lawn or finish building a fence, grab a cold Coors Light and shotgun it as fast as possible to honor Staley.
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