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California and the West | ON CALIFORNIA

End Over End

January 14, 1998|PETER H. KING

SAN FRANCISCO — This one goes out to all the abandoned fans of the Los Angeles Rams, those poor souls who have been deprived of their Sundays basking in the reflected glory of so many Roman Gabriels and Dieter Brocks. With the Rams moved on to St. Louis, all that's left for them are blurred memories of the Malavasi era, and whatever out-of-town football the networks choose to shovel their way.

Perhaps they can take some solace in this personal account of how the other half lives--or, more to the point, how it dies.

"Is today the big day, dad?" my 6-year-old son wants to know.

This is last Sunday morning, early. For four days running, James has asked the same question, word for word. He also has taken to wearing his San Francisco 49er jersey to bed, school, everywhere, and now looks as if he has played a full 60 minutes in the mud himself.

At last he has the day right. Early Sunday afternoon the 49ers will play the Green Bay Packers in one of those titanic, over-hyped, National Football League Game of Games that must thrill the advertisers of light beer and pickup trucks. For James it will be his first big game under the strange spell of fandom: He goes into this game wearing a Hutch brand 49er helmet and his heart on the jelly-stained sleeve of his red mesh Jerry Rice jersey.

"They might not win," I warn him. "The Packers are pretty good."

"Yeah," he says, disbelieving, "right."

*

Let us pause now for a word from our sponsor; which is rationality. There are many crazy things in the world, but few as crazy as the obsessive following of professional sports teams. The psychologists talk of primitive instincts to form clans, the awkward rituals of bonding between males in general and fathers and sons in particular. Sociologists refer to the yawning need for a sense of community, no matter how artificial, in our ever more isolated city-states.

Of course, it seems more than a little nuts to imagine some cosmic connection with a team of mercenary blockers and tacklers, to suggest, for example, that a 49er victory says something about the city of San Francisco itself or its citizens. As a psychological expert once explained to a Times reporter: "It takes an almost studied innocence to identify with pro athletes, who are so well paid and always switching cities. You have to suspend some of what you know about the real world."

Or be a child, unfettered by cynicism or similar defense mechanisms.

I am not sure precisely when my son caught what folks up here call 49er fever, but I can figure out who was the carrier. That I passed it along, quite unwittingly, produces in me a mixture of guilt, embarrassment and pride. And now, as we gather at my brother's house to watch--a clan of red and gold--what amazes me most is how perfectly the emotions of this 6-year-old mirror my own, tumbling end over end through excitement, wariness, joy, fear, despair and frantic hope.

It is the second half. The Packers have begun to pull away.

"I know what to do," James says.

He squeezes on his helmet, sits down directly in front of the screen and holds aloft three Jerry Rice cards: a hex. His uncle, some 40 years older, turns his 49er hat around on his head. His dad moves to a different chair for the third time in as many quarters, looking for the right combination. All scream at Steve Young to throw the ball, for God's sake, as if he can hear. If Kaczynski acts like this for the mental health examiners, there's no chance he is found fit for trial.

*

The ending is, of course, old news. Nothing works. The 49ers lose, badly, and the big day ends with a long drive home through heavy rain. James bites his lip most of the way, quiet.

"Why?" he asks finally, and then the tears.

I try to console him. Tell him that grown-ups all across the whole city feel just as blue as he does, that the 49ers won their share in the Joe Montana days, that anyway winning isn't the only thing, that there's always next year. He's not buying.

"I don't like football anymore," he says, bitter as any old adult.

"I am never watching again."

At home he runs into his room and shuts the door, wanting time to sort it all out. I know the need. Part of me wishes he'd keep his promise to himself and avoid the foolishness of investing even a single volt of emotion in a sports team. Another part of me reasons he's at least learned something important. Still another part imagines how different this all would feel if they simply could have won the damn game for him. And me. . . .

The next morning James sounds out the sports page headline: "49ers Bog Down." He wants to know what "bog" means. Then he scoots out the door to school. I notice he's still wearing his Jerry Rice jersey, although it's partially hidden under a plain gray sweatshirt. I take this as a sign of hope, tempered by experience.

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