It wasn’t my proudest moment. Nightfall had long since passed, and the air was thick with that famous San Francisco mixture of mist and raindrops. I was walking with my wife, dad and stepmom around the outside perimeter of Candlestick Park, trying to avoid the biggest puddles. The 49ers had just lost the NFC Championship Game to the Giants in overtime.
The parking lot was full of sorrow, but it was also overflowing with anger. Fans were yelling awful things about Kyle Williams, the WR/PR who was charged with two fumbles on the evening, including the one that led to the Giants’ game-winning field goal. And I was right there with everyone else — not screaming violent pseudo-threats like some over-served lunatics in Niners jerseys, but certainly on board with the idea that Williams should never play again for the San Francisco 49ers.
I admit, during that short window of time after the game, the Roman Coliseum element got to me. I had been sitting in the stadium, in Lower Reserved seats behind the south end zone, but figuratively I as far away as one could get from a press box. Along with tens of thousands of others who’d been brought to the crest of a wave created by Jim Harbaugh and his resurgent team, I was ready to drop in where I’d been so comfortable during the years of glory I still remember vividly: another Super Bowl featuring the 49ers.
I yelled with all my might, believing that it had an effect on the visitors from New York (including the fans in front of me wearing Eli Manning and Tiki Barber jerseys). Like my vocal cords, my eardrums were similarly useless after that game.
Channeling Ronnie Lott
After covering sports for several years, I didn’t know it was still there. But watching the 49ers play well, especially while sitting next to my father at Candlestick for both playoff games, brought back the same combination of anxiety and aggression I felt back when I watched the 49ers when I was a child.
- The vindication we felt when the 49ers waltzed into Soldier Field and flattened the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship Game.
- My dad nervously pacing (and me hyperventilating, crouched on the couch) two weeks later, during the 4th quarter of the 49ers’ Super Bowl win over Cincinnati.
- Hating the Aikman/Emmitt/Irvin Cowboys, then running around the living room like an idiot after the 49ers won the ’94 NFC title game — just like Steve Young did.
In leaving the stadium, I was exhausted, deflated, and sad … and I turned my attention to Williams instead of Alex Smith’s inability to move the ball through the air, Mike Iupati’s early ankle injury (which he came back from, but very well could’ve been the under-the-radar factor that hindered the 49ers the most), and that official who called forward progress on Ahmad Bradshaw’s fumble. I had given my all as a fan (as silly as that surely would sound to the men and women I’ve sat next to in various press boxes). That, along with the price of the tickets, made everything seem brutally unfair.
Still, I had mostly gotten over my frustration with Williams by the time we reached our parking spot. By then, the four of us had agreed that we were phenomenally lucky to have been able to attend the game at all. It probably helped that the 49ers looked like a possible Super Bowl contender in 2012.
Sitting in the back seat of my dad’s Toyota Camry on the way back to our apartment, I thumbed through the reactions on Twitter. At first it seemed just as I expected, then I grew disgusted by what people were saying about and to Williams and began to feel sorry for him. Then his teammates started standing up and offering public support.
Simultaneously I felt uplifted and really, really shortsighted.
I had given it my all, just because I screamed while Manning barked signals? Willis risked his life (as did Williams), and he wrote this less than two hours afterward.
After seeing the team’s best player not just forgive Williams, but offer encouragement during such a difficult time, it was time for the fans to let bygones by bygones as well.
Forgiveness should have come even easier after Williams answered every question after the game and the next day at the 49ers’ facility. Easier still once it was reported that the Giants considered Williams a vulnerable player due to concussions he had suffered during the regular season. Then I saw Williams in minicamp in June and recent training camp practices over the last week, looking bigger and by all accounts appearing more dynamic and motivated than ever before.
Time to let it go…
Last Friday night I was not in the stands as a fan. I was in the Candlestick Park press box as a whatever-the-hell-I-am. From this closed-off glass box, perched high above the paying customers, outdoor noise is deadened considerably. When Williams ran back to return his first punt in front of 49ers fans since that damp night in January, I still heard boos. Quite a few of them. And just like when I walked down the ramp and out of the old stadium after the NFC Championship Game, I felt sad.
When it comes to fans still giving Williams a hard time, I’m not talking about most people. But there were enough on Friday night to make their anger noticeable, and I still hear it all the time from people who say “never forget,” like Williams is some kind of war criminal.
If people are so upset, then get mad at Jim Harbaugh for continually putting Williams out there to field punts against the Giants, in practice, and during preseason games. If the 49ers head coach is worthy of fan-worship 99% of the time, perhaps there’s a reason why Williams keeps getting chances to stand on an island, catch a wobbly football kicked by a guy standing about 55 yards away, and attempt to navigate his way through 10 angry men who get a 40-yard head start (and a punter who’s hoping against hope that he won’t have to make a tackle).
The Statement Game
What message are those who boo Williams or further this ridiculousness on social media trying to send, other than they’re either horribly resentful of their own existence, hard up for a cheap thrill, or both?
Hey, free agents! Come to San Francisco, pay twice the rent you’re used to and play in our dingy old stadium, where fans will cheer you when you win and try their damnedest to boo your ass out of town if you screw up!
Whatever your rationale, your emotional attachment to the team, none of it matters — those who boo Williams or try to get tough in Williams’ Twitter mentions should be seen as they are: idiots who could never get the opportunity to field punts for the 49ers, nor handle failure (and injury risk that never leaves) with anywhere near the courage Williams has shown. If you’re one of the vocal minority who still feels the need to lash out at Williams for doing something that hurt him much more than any of us, just stop.