By Peter Hemming | Photos by Michael Zagaris
On September 8, 1946, Len Eshmont, a former Fordham University draft, charged 66 yards down the field at Kezar Stadium, scoring the first touchdown for the San Francisco 49ers. This triumph was only the beginning for Tony Morabito’s new football team, named in honor of the 1849 California Gold Rush. In October, with Buck Shaw as head coach, the 49ers beat the future league champion Cleveland Browns on their home turf, 34-20. “They couldn’t afford to let us fly, so it took three days on a bus to get there!” First team player Ken Casanega laughs.
In the 1950s, the 49ers joined the NFL and came into their own with additional victories over L.A., Green Bay, and Cleveland. During a game in 1957, tragedy struck the field when Niners founder Tony Morabito collapsed of a heart attack and died. Despite this terrible loss, the Niners pushed through to defeat the Chicago Bears 21-17 that day, and Morabito’s widow, Josephine, took over majority ownership of the team following her husband’s death.
In 1960, coach Red Hickey devised the shotgun formation, which positioned the quarterback farther from the line of scrimmage and allowed more time to throw a pass. In 1960, the shotgun formation was utilized by the Niners to beat the Baltimore Colts 30-22. By 1961, the Chicago Bears had caught on to the shotgun and defeated the Niners 31-0. “There were 30 rookies that year, all great players,” 1968 10-round draft choice Tommy Hart remembers. “John Brewer kind of mentored me. I was at my best. You felt you couldn’t do anything wrong.”
It is thought by many that the 1970s were a dark time for the Niners, but their luck changed in the ’80s with a young dynamo named Joe Montana and new head coach Bill Walsh from Stanford. “Walsh put in a process where a standard was set,” says former quarterback Steve Bono. “It was a way you conducted yourself, whether it was practice, a game, or a meeting; it was a very special place.” Following two lackluster seasons, Montana led the Niners to a 13-3 record in 1981. With memorable plays such as “the catch,” a historic touchdown pass Montana threw to Dwight Clark to beat the Dallas Cowboys 28-27, the path to Super Bowl was open.
January 24, 1982. San Francisco versus Cincinnati. There were 81,270 people in the stands at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan. Diana Ross sung the National Anthem. Despite a strong 49ers beginning, the Bengals rallied during the third and fourth quarter, but with the help of kicker Ray Wersching’s four field goals, the 49ers won Super Bowl XVI, 26-21. Then they won Super Bowl XIX, XXIII, XXIV, and XXIX, only losing to Baltimore in Super Bowl XLVII.
“The ’80s and ’90s were pretty magical times involving the team,” says former 49ers CEO Carmen Policy. “Not only were they successful, but they were vehicles of change in terms of the NFL. I was a very, very lucky man to have been a part of it.”
The team has remained in the DeBartolo family since 1977, now co-chaired by Denise DeBartolo and husband John York. The new Niners’ home, Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, holds 75,000 seats, and today, Jim Tomsula serves as head coach. Since 1946, the 49ers have won five league championships, five Super Bowls, six conference championships, and 19 division championships. “It was a goal I had since I was a kid. We won four Super Bowl championships. It was fun to accomplish those goals,” center Jesse Sapolu recalls, beaming with a spirit and pride reminiscent of 1946.