A new red and gold standard

It’s been about two weeks since I drove by Levi’s Stadium for the first time. My vision was impaired by a blurry car window and concrete fences petulantly guarding the San Francisco 49ers’ new home, but I could see the massive white logo crawling into the corner of my eye. And that was all that mattered.

For the generation of 49er fans who missed the historically great teams of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Levi’s Stadium represents a return to relevance that we can finally savor after hearing stories of legacies that we never saw being built. Levi’s may be a new arena, but above all, it’s a new home for those of us who missed the golden age. This stadium just might have the potential to be our generation’s Candlestick Park, where heroes become legendary and plays are enshrined into volumes of NFL history. Is it blasphemy to compare the “Field of Jeans” to dear old Candlestick? Perhaps. But keep in mind that my generation mostly heard Candlestick discussed for its grime rather than its glory.

I was born one year after the San Francisco 49ers won their last Super Bowl. I’m fortunate to have grown up close to a city that boasts one of the most storied franchises in professional sports, but the mystique isn’t quite as potent when the quarterback you remember most is Alex Smith, not Joe Montana or Steve Young. Until about three seasons ago, the most memorable play I could associate with this team was watching grainy film of “the Catch.”

Almost every franchise experiences a prolonged period of decline after some age of prosperity. It’s inevitable, given the difficulty of maintaining success and the cyclical nature of sports. And sure, every fan wants his or her team to be a perpetual contender. Could there be a more obvious statement? But the distinction here is that I only got to witness the gradual decline of one of the most illustrious teams in America. I missed the era of Bill Walsh and Jerry Rice and instead lived in one with a head coach who dropped his pants out of frustration and one that included the long-running Vernon Davis soap opera. For heavens’ sake, the Wikipedia caption for the 2003-10 49ers bluntly reads “Struggles.”

And really, there’s no more fitting word for the span of 49er football I grew up watching.

This isn’t meant to be a theatrical lament about the team — I could always be a Cleveland Browns fan. But nostalgic success stories have always been little more than sound bites replayed on talk radio. I knew those players and coaches graced Candlestick Park, but they existed only as anecdotes to be appreciated, rather than pieces of my own experience.

I can complain about the agony of the last three seasons — each year apparently striving to be more painful than the last. I can tear my hair out about losing the conference championship to the Seattle Seahawks — and being subject to endless Pete Carroll gum-chewing montages — one year after losing the Super Bowl. But to hear my favorite team discussed on national TV as a powerhouse rather than as a laughingstock is sweeter than I could have ever imagined.

Of course, I’m not equating the 49ers’ prolific ‘80s and ‘90s to a measly three seasons of relevance, especially when a sixth Lombardi has yet to be won. This chapter will need many more years of sustained success to even warily step foot into the conversation. Many more titles and downtown parades will have to grace headlines before they’re even slightly comparable. It may not be quite another Golden Age, but at least we know there’s a glimmer.

Contact Michelle Lee at [email protected].

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