• Steve Bowles

Born in the Gold Rush: The History of the 49ers Part 7: Candlestick Park: It Was Home

Candlestick Park panorama. Photo from the author’s personal collection.

Completed in 1960 and demolished in 2015, Candlestick Park opened as a baseball-only facility for the Giants and was expanded in the early ‘70s to also accommodate the 49ers. The ‘Stick’s origin story is a winding tale of deception, lawsuits, and personal animosity, and the building itself was derided for its awful rock-hard artificial turf (1970-1978) and its capricious winds (forever). Still, Candlestick Park served its purpose for over five decades.

In 1958, the San Francisco Bay Area received its second professional sports team when baseball’s New York Giants relocated from the banks of the Harlem River to the City by the Bay. Their first home was Seals Stadium, a single-decked ballpark on the corner of Sixteenth and Bryant Streets, across from Franklin Square Park. Constructed in the early 1930s, Seals Stadium was a steel-and-concrete building that originally held 16,000 patrons, and later expanded to accommodate more than 18,000. It had been the home of the San Francisco Seals – and, for a short time, the Mission Reds – both of the Pacific Coast League. The Seals had won fourteen PCL titles in their history, which dated all the way back to 1903, with the last seven while they called Seals Stadium home. Their last title was in 1957, a cruel fate since they would be forced to relocate with the Giants taking up residence in the city. The Seals moved to Phoenix, Arizona, and became the Giants’ top minor league affiliate. They folded in 1997 when the Arizona Diamondbacks expanded into Major League Baseball and set up shop in the Valley of the Sun.

Seals Stadium was further expanded to nearly 23,000 for the Giants, making it still one of the smallest ballparks on the MLB circuit. That didn’t matter much, because as the Giants were playing their inaugural season in San Francisco at Sixteenth and Bryant, the earth was being moved a few miles away on a massive vacant parcel in the southeastern corner of the city at Candlestick Point.

Candlestick Point was a dubious choice for a new major sports facility. For one, it was a desolate, windswept piece of land that jutted out into the Bay. A miasma of stench from a nearby landfill would waft by, prompting Herb Caen to dub it “Candlestink.” It was windy, cold, far away from downtown, and there was little infrastructure in place that would be conducive to easy ingress and egress for thirty- or forty-thousand baseball fans. It seemed a nightmare in waiting.

Yet, neither the mayor, George Christopher, nor anyone on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors gave a damn.

Hotelier Ben Swig and realtor William Woodfield presented an artist rendering of a ballpark proposal at Third and Mission, where Yerba Buena Gardens is now. It certainly would have been a much preferable alternative, just for the nicer weather alone (then, as now, San Francisco was a city of intense microclimates). But as lovely and tempting as this new proposal was on paper, there were already two problems.

One, a captain of the San Francisco Police Department Traffic Bureau was convinced that a downtown ballpark would create a “dangerous” traffic situation. The other, and more important, reason, had to do with money: There was no assurance that enough funding would be available for a downtown ballpark to initiate a sudden pivot away from Candlestick Point, which was all but a done deal.

Exterior shot of Candlestick Park in 1993. Photo from the author’s personal collection.

Charles Harney was a temperamental, arrogant, megalomanic, and spiteful man, but he was also a contractor, a multimillionaire, a close chum of the mayor, and the owner of most of the land at Candlestick Point upon which the San Francisco Giants’ new ballpark was supposed to rise. Harney had initially purchased a 65-acre parcel of land from the city in 1953 for a sum of $2,100 an acre, approximately $136,500 total (about $1.38 million in today’s money).In 1957, he would sell 41 acres of it back to the city to complete the 77 total acres needed for the ballpark. The city paid Harney $65,853 per acre, or $2.7 million total. Both Christopher and Harney maintained that the massive jump in the land value was attributed to maintenance and improvements, such as filling and grading.

Harney was a lot of things. Stupid was not one of them.

Now that the land was under city control, there would need to be a bidding process for the construction, a procedure by which the city leaders would be able to interview and vet the various contractors, and put out the price tags for the voters to consider, and…

Um. Well…

There would be no bidding process. None. There was never an opportunity for builders to compete for the right to construct what was hoped to be a huge moneymaker for the City and County of San Francisco. The right man for the job, in the view of this noble group of officials, was the man who was in front of them the whole time.

Harney was handed the job forthwith and was paid a handsome $7 million fee for construction.



How … how did this happen?

Enter Stadium Incorporated.

The brainchild of Harney’s pal, Mayor Christopher, Stadium Inc. was a non-profit company created presumably so that he could evade the city charter and give the job to Harney without even putting the project out for bid. It also enabled Christopher to raise another $5.5 million in bond money without voter approval. “The interest rate on these bonds was set at 5 percent, whereas the interest on the original $5 million bond issue was only 2.4 percent, a difference that would eventually cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars,” the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s Burton Wolfe reported in 1968. The original $5 million that Wolfe referred to was raised by Christopher’s predecessor, Elmer Robinson, in 1953, when the idea of attracting a Major League Baseball team was first raised. Robinson was termed out of office in 1956, and Christopher, a member of the Board of Supervisors, was elected to succeed Robinson in City Hall’s Room 200 and would become the public face of the ballpark project. The $10.5 million total raised was enough to pacify Giants owner Horace Stoneham.

Candlestick Park outfield and scoreboard, 1993. Photo from author’s personal collection.

I smell a rat, Henry E. North thought to himself. It’s possible that a few expletives were also pirouetting in his head.

When Stadium Inc. soon became the subject of a grand jury investigation, it was North, a conservative Republican business owner like the mayor, who had spearheaded it, with the purpose of disclosing to the public all instances of malfeasance that took place during the brokering of the deal. One point of contention was the makeup of the Stadium Inc. board, which originally consisted of three men: Harney, his brother-in-law C.J. Carroll, and his contracting company’s executive vice president, Joseph Silvestri. But right before the investigation commenced, in February 1958, Harney, Carroll, and Silvestri were replaced by banker Alan K. Browne, railroad executive Frederick Whitman, and Fuller Brawner, the head of Fuller Paints.

Then, there was the fact that the tidelands adjacent to the ballpark site were sold by the city for less than $4,000 an acre, while they were all too happy to ship off roughly $61,000 per acre more for Harney’s land, which was also partly under water. And the biggie: North’s revelation that Stadium Inc.’s creation represented an attempt to skirt the city’s charter, and that the additional bond payments had to be made from city funds, not some make-believe non-profit, and thus be resubmitted to the voters. “[T]he whole deal amounted to legal subterfuge; a way to make taxpayers foot the bill without letting them vote on it,” wrote Wolfe in 1968, ten years after the investigation.

The process of resubmitting the financing “would have taken two years,” Mayor Christopher recalled to San Francisco Chronicle columnist David Bush in 1979. “And there was no reason to resubmit a larger figure. The city was still behind it, and by using the non-profit corporation’s amortized bonds, we were minimizing costs. The interest rates were reasonable.”

North’s revelations were damning, but the grand jury did not render any indictments. It somehow found no evidence of wrongdoing, only that the city was, well, acting in a reckless manner. The jury’s report concluded thusly: “Did the city make a bad deal? Yes.”

Stadium Incorporated – and the mayor – were off the hook.

Nonetheless, a pissed-off Christopher just had to compound the drama by publicly insisting that North gets“drunk and makes incoherent mistakes” and that he’s “fixable,” prompting North to respond with a $1.3 million slander suit. Christopher’s attempts to get the suit dismissed fell flat, as Superior Court judge Preston Devine threw out all 45 motions.

Henry North eventually broke down and dropped the lawsuit after his wife, who found herself being excluded from social functions, begged her husband to bury the hatchet with Christopher, lest she file for divorce.

The threat of marital dissolution apparently did the trick. North and Christopher agreed to a kiss-and-make-up meeting at the mayor’s house, during which they shared a fifth of Scotch, praised each other, and ultimately made amends. On June 2, 1960, the two men jointly released a mawkish statement to the media, replete with every sappy cliché in the book.

We, the undersigned, George Christopher and Henry North, believe that clarification is necessary with respect to a misunderstanding existing between us and widely known to the people of San Francisco. We believe that the interest of each of us and of the community we both serve are more important than the incident which caused our misunderstanding.


I, George Christopher, consider Henry North now and at all times to be a man of unquestioned integrity and civic devotion.

I, Henry North, consider Mayor George Christopher to be a public official of exceptional ability and devotion to our beloved city of San Francisco.

Our public disagreement arose out of certain alleged public statements made in the heat of discussion and on both of our parts, due to our intense interest in and love for our community.


It is now agreed between us that any implication that this observation applied to any member of the Grand Jury or its foreman, Mr. Henry North, was not intended and that therefore, there is no real disagreement at all.

We are therefore happy to announce jointly that the litigation between us has been withdrawn and we pledge ourselves to work together towards a greater-than-ever San Francisco.

It may have been a happy occasion for the two former adversaries, but North’s lawyer, Nate Cohn, was disappointed. And nearly a decade later, he was still incredulous. “We had this suit won,” he said to Wolfe. “North assured me he was going through with this no matter what happened. But they got to him through his wife, the poor old bastard. You see how they do things in this city? It’s so goddamned rotten you can’t believe it.”

By the time the suit was dropped, Candlestick Park had already been completed and the Giants were nearly halfway through their first season. And Mrs. North eventually got her divorce anyway. Henry died of a heart attack shortly thereafter.

View from the football press box. Photo from author’s personal collection.

Ground was broken on August 12, 1958, but problems flared in all directions. The ballpark was originally due to open in late 1959, but there were delays as Harney and the architect, John Bolles, were at each other’s throats practically from the moment the first bit of soil was disturbed. Harney accused Bolles of writing in expensive changes to the plans; Bolles, according to Bush in the Chronicle, “charged that Harney dragged his feet.”

But there was an even larger dilemma, and that was the naming. Over the years, Harney had been involved in much of the freeway construction in northern California, including the Bayshore Freeway and the Caldecott Tunnel. But the ballpark? The humble structure slowly emerging out on the wind-swept edge of nowhere was supposed to be his magnum opus, his capstone, his legacy achievement.Of course!He would name it, well, after himself.

Harney Stadium: it sounded lovely, and it really rolled off one’s tongue. Perfect. Yes!


City leaders had great visions for the structure, but Harney’s name ornamenting it wasn’t one of them. A public contest yielded the name “Candlestick Park.”The city’s decision to allow public input on the ballpark’s name was the final bone in Harney’s throat, and he quit in a snit. “When he learned the stadium wasn’t going to be named after him, things just stopped dead,” Bolles recalled to Bush in 1979. “He just walked away from the job and said, ‘There’s your stadium, it’s finished.’”

Still, Bolles had to have felt some measure of relief. He could concentrate on the job at hand without Harney’s spittle coating his neck.

There was one other major issue: weather patterns.Candlestick Point was cold and windy, hardly an appetizing milieu for a pastoral game typically played under the warm rays of the sun. When Giants executive Charles “Chub” Feeney visited the construction site one afternoon, he was shocked to learn from a worker that “[t]he wind only blows between 1 and 5 in the afternoon.” Feeney’s previous visits had been in the morning when the air was typically calm.

Then, there were considerations for advancements in media technology.

“It was the first stadium that had to be designed with television in mind,” Bolles told Bush in 1979. “We had to consider camera positions and electronics. And when it was expanded [in 1971 for the 49ers], it was the first time anyone had to deal with color television. We had to consider lighting.”

“We wanted the 49ers to come into the stadium right away in 1960,” Christopher said. But 49ers’ co-owner Vic Morabito, “felt that sharing a stadium with the Giants would be encouraging competition because of the overlapping seasons,” wrote Bush.

Kezar Stadium during a San Francisco 49ers open practice, 2016. The original bowl-shaped structure on this site served as the team’s home from 1946 through 1970 and was demolished in June 1989. The current Kezar, pictured here,accommodates only 10,000 and contains a number of seats imported from Candlestick Park. Photo from author’s personal collection.

From their founding in 1946, the 49ers played at Kezar Stadium, a large bowl plopped down in the southeastern corner of Golden Gate Park and adjacent to both the Inner Sunset and Haight-Ashbury districts. Niners fans at Kezar were anything but tranquil; they were notorious for hurling invectives and (sometimes) empty bottles at players, and it didn’t matter if the targets of their rancor were opponents or members of the home squad. Any persons on the field donning a football uniform in any color gradient were fair game for Kezar’s drunk, irate,and huddled masses yearning to breathe fire. Such blessed shenanigans frequently took place under a fusillade of seagull droppings that, owing to gravity and the superior aiming ability of the damned feathered beasts, fell groundward like AGM-62 Walleyes and exploded upon the scalps and clothing of the people below and glazed the wooden bleachers with a revolting fetid goo. As the 49ers – and the NFL – grew in popularity, thanks in large part to television, Kezar Stadium became a relic. A fog-shrouded, poop-covered relic. The old bowl held, at the most,a tad fewer than 60,000 tortured souls, and by the late 1960s, the 49ers were looking for something bigger and with more on-site parking.

Though it was far away from the center of town, Candlestick Park was everything that Kezar Stadium wasn’t. The ‘Stick had the potential to hold more fans, and it was surrounded by a large parking lot (though there was only one way in and out, which created massive postgame bottlenecks and giving the vituperative hordes a new thing to be outraged at, though this certainly ranked as a good reason). And so, the 49ers packed up and said so-long to Kezar. Their final game, on January 3, 1971, portended their Candlestick future: the Niners dropped the NFC title game to the Dallas Cowboys, 17-10.

Structural expansion of Candlestick Park commenced following the 1970 baseball season, and continued into 1971, the year the 49ers moved in. They christened the new-look multipurpose facility with a 20-13 loss to trick-play maven Tommy Prothro’s Los Angeles Rams, a game in which John Brodie threw for just 152 yards and was picked off twice, and the Rams elected to throw the ball only 12 times all game, while rushing 34 times for 219 yards.

Now that Candlestick was an enclosed structure, the wind swirled around mercilessly. The playing surface, originally natural grass, was converted to the ubiquitous artificial turf that had infiltrated the sports landscape during the 1970s. Sure, it was practical: It didn’t need watering or mowing, and any debris that landed on it could easily be swept or vacuumed away. “I like it,” 49ers running back Vic Washington told a House of Representatives subcommittee during a hearing in Washington, D.C. in 1971. “I can make sharp cuts on it and I’m faster on it.” His teammate, receiver Gene Washington (no relation), took the opposing view. To him, it was treacherous in slippery conditions. “When you try to make a sharp cut,” he said, “you go flat on your rear, and when you hit that turf, it’s just like hitting a table.”

Over the life of its popularity, however, the use of turf revealed far more problems than it was worth.

Costing more than a million dollars, the Candlestick Park artificial turf was installed in fifteen-foot wide strips, situated over a layer of foam padding five-eighths of an inch thick, which was on top of a two-inch layer of asphalt. Playing on it certainly felt like running on asphalt, and it was universally hated by the 49ers, the Giants, and their opponents. The turf was “the hardest I’ve ever felt,” said L.A.Rams running back John Cappelletti. “I’d rather play on anything, even bare dirt, than at Candlestick,” proclaimed Oakland Raiders running back Marv Hubbard. The stadium earned the unflattering moniker “Candlestone.” In addition to the traction issues, the baseball players complained that the turf was too bright, reflecting the sun from the summer sky into their eyes. In addition, the turf also reflected heat, which made traversing across it akin to walking over a bed of hot coals. “I finally had to tape my feet to keep them from burning up,” Raiders quarterback Daryle Lamonica said during the D.C. hearings.

The turf lasted eight years. After the 1978 football season, one in which the Niners finished a lowly 2-14 and burned through two head coaches (Bill Walsh was hired the following year), the turf was ripped out and natural grass replanted. The night before Bay Cities Paving and Grading, Inc. arrived onsite to begin the job, thieves broke into the stadium and carefully cut out the oval “SF” midfield logo.

More than forty years later, the logo’s whereabouts are still unknown.

The replacement project would cost not quite one million dollars, with the majority of it to be paid by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the rest by the 49ers, who over the years became the most outspoken critics of the turf. The work took place over the winter and was completed in time for the start of the Giants’ baseball season in April 1979.

Every September thereafter, with one exception (1994, with the players’ strike ending the baseball season in August), the 49ers would play football with the dirt infield occupying the southern half of their gridiron, from about the 40-yard line all the way into the end zone.

Every September thereafter, with one exception (again, 1994),the Giants would play late-season baseball with faded, leftover yard lines and grass that was shredded from the force of large men in dagger-like cleats digging into it.

That all ended in 1999, the Giants’ final year in Candlestick. They began play in their new downtown-adjacent ballpark, Pacific Bell Park (now called Oracle Park following a brain-seizing succession of corporate name changes over the years) in 2000.

The tunnel leading out to the field was the route taken by visiting baseball and football teams to and from their locker room. Photo from author’s personal collection.

This split-level chamber served as the 49ers’ locker room until the baseball Giants moved out in 1999. It then became the domain of the Niners’ coaches and the medical and equipment staffs while the players took over the old baseball clubhouse. Photo from author’s personal collection.

Upon the Giants’ departure, the city gave the 49ers carte blanche to do whatever they wanted with the place. For years, the football team was denied access to the Giants’ spacious (by twentieth century standards) clubhouse, and were confined to a smaller, split-level room accessed through the back of the clubhouse. The Niners’ offense typically resided in the upper level, with the defense below, with a set of wide carpeted steps separating them. To get to the field, all the players had to exit through one door, and down a dimly-lit, narrow, winding, musty-smelling hallway, finally glimpsing daylight as they emerged into the Giants’ baseball dugout on what would be the first-base side. After the Giants moved out, the players took over the old baseball clubhouse, while the split-level room became the domain of coaches, training staff, and medical personnel.For the Niners’ opponents to get to the field,they had to trudge down a different hallway (one that was wider and better-lit), which took them to a door that opened out to an obscured part of the field next to the east-side stands. It was in this somewhat confined corner of the stadium that Mike Ditka, the Chicago Bears’ irascible head coach, famously tossed his wad of chewing gum at a woman in the stands after his team’s 41-0 loss to the Niners in December 1987 (the gum “was found and booked as evidence,” a police officer quipped). The seats above that door featured obstructed seating; those who sat there during the January 1982 NFC title game were unable to see Dwight Clark’s franchise-changing catch. The 49ers eventually quit selling tickets in those sections and subsequently removed the seats altogether.

The obstructed-view southeast corner of Candlestick Park. Photo from author’s personal collection.

The north end zone, where Dwight Clark reeled in the biggest catch in franchise history during the 1982 NFC title game against the Dallas Cowboys. Photo from author’s personal collection.

The Giants weren’t particularly successful in their four decades at the ‘Stick, reaching the postseason just five times and the World Series twice (losing in 1962 and 1989). The 49ers, although Candlestick’s second tenant, was the alpha team, winning five Super Bowl championships and for much of the 1980s and 1990s was the Bay Area’s most popular professional sports team, partially due to the successes coupled with the growing popularity of the NFL, and partially due to the Oakland Raiders decamping for Los Angeles in 1982. The 49ers won five titles, all between 1981 and 1995, and after a few years of trying to remain relevant, the team ended up in “salary cap hell” and had to strip the roster to the nubs.

The pull-out east-side stands. Perched atop the upper deck is the football press box. Photo from author’s personal collection.

Of course, nothing lasts forever, and eventually Candlestick Park, like Kezar before it, would achieve relic status.

In December 1997, Eddie DeBartolo, who had run the franchise since his father purchased it twenty years earlier, ceded control to his sister, Denise DeBartolo-York, and her husband, Dr. John York, as part of a family agreement struck after DeBartolo pled guilty in a corruption case involving Edwin Edwards, the former governor of Louisiana. With that transaction, the 49ers’ dynasty days had effectively ended. From that point on, for the next fifteen years, the 49ers would play largely listless, uninspired football in front of the Candlestick crowds, running through several head coaches and an endless parade of both offensive and defensive coordinators. Steve Mariucci, who took over for George Seifert in 1997 and presided over the “salary cap hell” era, got them to the postseason in 2002, where they lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It would be several years before they would see the playoffs again. From 2003 through 2010, the 49ers went 46-82. Candlestick Park, approaching fifty years old, was now seen a crumbling monument to glory days that were now barely a blip in the rear-view mirror. The fans wanted to look out and see Joe Montana and Jerry Rice down on that verdant green grass. What they got instead were Cody Pickett and Arnaz Battle. You can stomach the long lines and cramped concourses – especially those in the upper deck – if the product on the field is watchable and you’re having a great time. But after J.T. O’Sullivan throws yet another soul-crushing interception? Not so much. You can deal with long wait times after the game in your car or on the 78X Candlestick Express bus if you have a victory to talk about. Not so much after yet another languid display.

That Jim Harbaugh was hired as head coach in 2011 and presided over a surprising and unexpected return from the doldrums would not save the old building. From the time the York family took over, the goal was to replace Candlestick Park. Initially, they were open and willing to build a brand-new stadium at the Candlestick site. Renderings were unveiled in 2006.

Then Gavin Newsom intervened.

Sworn in as San Francisco’s mayor in 2004 after seven years on the Board of Supervisors, Newsom hoped to make a bid to the International Olympic Committee for San Francisco to host the 2016 summer games. In 2006, he broached the idea of a new football stadium surrounded by an Olympic village –upwards of 4,000 apartments that would accommodate around 15,000 athletes and officials. After the Olympics concluded, the village would be converted into apartments for low-income residents.

Sounds good, until you realize the problems inherent in such a large-scale development in a part of the city that had long been underserved by public transportation (the T-Third Street light-rail line didn’t begin running until 2007, and bus service in the Bayview-Hunters Point area could be spotty). John and Denise York backed out of negotiations, and in a November 9, 2006, letter to the fan base they explained their reasoning.

Despite our best efforts, we have determined that the stadium and mixed-use development concept does not provide the game day experience we are determined to deliver to you. As a result, we have decided not to begin the public approval process at Candlestick Point. The decision stemmed from the incompatible land requirements of the stadium and mixed-use development at the site. The project would have created massive new infrastructure and public transit needs, and the size of the development would take up much of the space you currently use for parking and tailgating, requiring the construction of one of the largest parking garages in the world. Additionally, the complexity of the approval process would have jeopardized our goal of opening the new stadium in time for the 2012 season.

As a result, we are now shifting our focus to the City of Santa Clara near the Great America amusement park and the Santa Clara Convention Center.

Newsom was not happy. He had swung for the fences and missed completely. And now the Olympic dream, however brief, was dead, and the 49ers were actually talking about leaving San Francisco altogether?


Moving to the South Bay wasn’t as far-fetched as it may have seemed; the 49ers had opened a new training facility in Santa Clara – near Great America and the Convention Center – in 2003, and there was an adjacent large parking lot that was the perfect size for a new football stadium.

Back in San Francisco, Mayor Newsom had another idea. He tried to convince the Yorks to consider the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard.

There was one problem.

A big, nasty problem.

The site was contaminated.

How contaminated? The United States Environmental Protection Agency had long ago designated Hunters Point Naval Shipyard a Superfund site. The Shipyard dated back to 1870 and was active for decades under several different names. It closed permanently in 1994 as part of the post-Cold War base realignment efforts, but many years of industrial and radiological use had polluted the soil: asbestos, methane, polychlorinated biphenyls, radioactive isotopes, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, and so on. Not exactly the best place for an NFL football stadium that would bring in hundreds of thousands of spectators over the ensuing years. No, John and Denise thought to themselves, the Shipyard would not suffice.

Not surprisingly, John and Denise York rejected Newsom’s overtures and continued on with their quest for Santa Clara. In 2010, Measure J – officially the “City of Santa Clara Stadium measure for the 49ers Stadium” ballot measure – passed with over 58 percent of the vote. Ground was broken on what would become Levi’s Stadium in April 2012.

But Levi’s Stadium would take roughly two years to complete, with a scheduled opening for July 2014. There was still some football left to be played at Candlestick Park.

The 49ers Ring of Honor at Candlestick Park. Photo from author’s personal collection. The ‘Stick would go out with a bang.

Harbaugh led the 49ers to a surprising 13-3 finish in 2011, and as an encore, defeated the New Orleans Saints 36-32 on a last-second Alex Smith touchdown pass to Vernon Davis as nearly 70,000 screaming patrons in every corner of the old building lost their minds. That the Niners lost the next week was disappointing, if only because of how they lost it, but at least there was still some Candlestick magic. In 2012, the 49ers went 11-4-1 and went all the way to the Super Bowl, falling to the Baltimore Ravens. That year, they went 7-1-1 at home (including postseason).

The 2013 season would be Candlestick’s last. The 49ers went 12-4 in the regular season, including 6-2 at home. Because they finished in second place, they earned a Wild Card berth, so any postseason games they played in would be on the road.The final game in Candlestick’s life would be held on December 23, against the 4-10 Atlanta Falcons.It was also Harbaugh’s fiftieth birthday. Up in the coordinator’s booth was a familiar face, Mike Nolan, the former Niners head coach who was in his second season as the Falcons’ defensive coordinator.

It was an immensely important game. Not just because of the broader meaning of a farewell and the closing of a long and distinguished chapter of the franchise’s history, but because the 49ers were still fighting for a postseason spot, and they were facing another good team, in a prime time television slot on Monday Night Football, and, as it turned out, the game itself featured the Niners erasing an early deficit, building a big lead of their own, and vomiting it nearly away.

A Matt Bryant field goal in the closing seconds of the second quarter gave the Falcons a 10-3 lead heading into halftime. The 49ers returned to the field for the third quarter and went to work, tying the game when Colin Kaepernick connected with Anquan Boldin on a quick pass in the flat for a 10-yard catch-and-run touchdown. A Phil Dawson field goal late in the third and a Kaepernick scramble for a TD gave the Niners a ten-point lead. Atlanta scored a touchdown to close the game to within three; the Niners answered, driving all the way down to the Falcons 1-yard line. Frank Gore burrowed his way into the end zone to put the Niners back up by ten, 27-17.

Then, the game, and the 69,732 fans in the stands, began to tighten. Atlanta began its next drive at its own 20-yard line, with 5 minutes to go. As the Niners played a prevent defense, quarterback Matt Ryan completed a series of short passes – 5 yards here, 8 yards there – along with a couple big plays to Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. Then, with just over 2 minutes remaining, Ryan found Gonzalez in the end zone for a touchdown. Atlanta was back within three, and would they try an onside kick? Maybe not, as it still had all three timeouts remaining.

Niners linebacker Ahmad Brooks was hit with a roughing the passing call on the touchdown pass, so Atlanta kicker Matt Bosher was allowed set the ball up at the 50-yard line. Bosher ran up and booted the ball softly ten yards. An onside kick!It eluded the grasp the 49ers’ front, right through the hands of linebacker NaVorro Bowman – Damn it! How the hell did he miss that? – and rolled all the way to the San Francisco 30, where it was recovered by the Falcons’ Jason Snelling. Atlanta was in business, with the ball well within Niners territory, still with all three timeouts and the 2-minute warning break. To everyone in attendance and watching on the tube – this was Candlestick’s thirty-sixth appearance on MNF, the most of any NFL stadium –it looked like the ol’ girl’s final moments would feature the other team celebrating a win. Just like Kezar’s last game.

Ryan completed an 11-yard pass to Harry Douglas and a 9-yard throw to Gonzalez. Atlanta had second-and-1 at the Niners 10. Then, one final Candlestick miracle, courtesy of the guy who moments ago had bungled the onside kick.

NaVorro Roderick Bowman may not have been much of a special-teams contributor, but he was a hell of a linebacker. A fourth-year pro out of Penn State, taken by the Niners in the third round of the 2010 draft, Bowman immediately established himself as one of the game’s best at his position, having been named a First-Team All-Pro in 2011 and 2012, and he would get the nod again in 2013. As he lined up in his spot, peering across at Ryan and company, thoughts of his earlier mistake still rattling around in his head, Bowman was determined to do whatever possible to keep the Falcons out of the end zone. Or, for that matter, if they could just get a turnover, that would keep Atlanta from attempting a game-tying field goal that would send the game into overtime.

Ryan took a quick drop-back and immediately threw the ball to his left, intending to hit Douglas. The Atlanta receiver, the ball, and Niner cornerback Tramaine Brock all arrived at the same time. Douglas had the ball, until Brock wrestled it out of his hands, and it flew straight into the air. Right in correct spot was Bowman, who was trailing the play. NaVorro corralled the ball with his left arm, brought it into his body, then took off on a dead sprint in front of the Niners’ exuberant sideline. With under a minute-and-a-half to go, the interception by itself all but sealed the game, but Bowman wanted an exclamation point. With nobody near him but his own teammates, he flew into the end zone, untouched, landing on his back as his teammates dogpiled on him and Candlestick Park was nearly loosened from its foundations from the fans, suddenly exultant, who were jumping and screaming and pissing their pants and undergoing a religious conversion. Ryan watched the replay on the big screen above the north end zone with a look of disbelief. “I thought I was going to come down with it, but then Bo took it and got out of there,” Brock said after the game. “At first, I was just playing football. Then I realized either they could have won or tied the game. That’s when I realized it was a very big play.”

There was still a little over a minute in the game, and the Falcons would have one more possession, though they would need to score quickly, recover an onside kick, then drive close enough for a makeable field goal just to tie the game. A sequence like that didn’t seem likely. Atlanta did manage to drive all the way down to the Niners 35-yard line, then the final play: Brock – the same man who aided in the Bowman interception – picked off a pass intended for rookie tight end Levine Toilolo as the clock expired. The 49ers had a stirring victory, Harbaugh had a nice birthday present (“That’s the best birthday present I’ve ever gotten,” Harbaugh gushed), and the old stadium could go out as a winner.

Breaking the rules. Photo from author’s personal collection. Just like that, Candlestick Park’s era was over. It was demolished over the course of 2015 and 2016, and a mixed-use development, featuring apartments, condominiums, and retail shops, will rise from its ashes. But for those who remember The Catch, The Catch II, The Catch III, Bowman’s Pick at the ‘Stick, all the playoff victories over the Giants, Cowboys, Bears, and Packers, numerous Hall-of-Fame players, cold foggy nights, the dirt baseball infield covering one half of the football field, the cramped concourses, halftime lines for the restrooms that stretched to Millbrae, and the never-ending struggle to leave the parking lot after a game, Candlestick Park will forever live on in memories, in photographs, on NFL Network, and in old YouTube clips.

A portion of the upper deck prepped for demolition, as seen from Bay View Hill. Photo from author’s personal collection.

The partially demolished north end of Candlestick Park. Photo from author’s personal collection.

The west and east sides demolished, as the north and south ends await their fate. Photo from author’s personal collection.

Twisted, weathered rebar sticking out of concrete at the partially demolished Candlestick Park. Photo from author’s personal collection.


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