I HAD VERY WARM FEELings about the San Francisco 49ers. They were
the team I had watched in my Stanford days, when I sat in the end
zone in Kezar (just Kezar, never Kezar Stadium) and rooted hard for
Frankie Albert and Norm Standlee, Billy Wilson and Leo Nomellini. And
now the Niners would become destiny's darlings in Super Bowl XVI
against the Cincinnati Bengals.
They were a team that had come together defensively with three
rookie defensive backs (Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton
Williamson) and a pair of imports, linebacker Jack Reynolds (from
the Los Angeles Rams) and pass- rush specialist Fred Dean (San
And offensively? Who can forget The Catch late in the fourth
quarter of the NFC playoff game with Dallas, Joe Montana to Dwight
Clark. Final score: 28-27.
It was going to be a nifty Super Bowl, except for one thing: I
found myself at the center of a huge controversy. On Tuesday we had
shown up for picture day at the Pontiac Silverdome, only to be kept
waiting an hour outside in the freezing cold. Just let us wait
inside, we pleaded, in an interview room or at least someplace where
there is a little heat. The cops were having none of it. Clearly we
sportswriters fell into the undesirable-character category and should
be treated as such.
The next day I was on Good Morning America. I was still burning
about that Tuesday thing. I said something about the cossacks who
guarded the stadium. I mentioned that it wasn't much of an idea to
hold the game in Detroit. They asked me what I thought of the city.
I said, ''Who saw it?'' They had billeted us in a hotel overlooking
the frozen tundra, about 15 miles outside town.
I knew something was up when one of the TV technicians wanted to
fight me after the show. ''I'll bet you're one of those wise guys
from New York,'' he said. ''No,'' I said, ''I'm from Hamtramck,
Michigan.'' ''Like hell you are.'' ''Like hell I'm not.'' Then they
pulled us apart.
Detroit took my words as an insult to the city. One TV columnist
printed the phone number of our hotel and my room number. I got
round-the-clock crank calls and two death threats. A note about crank
callers: The women were much better than the men. They would say
about the same vile things, but they stayed on the telephone long
enough so you could fire back. The men would just blurt out whatever
they had to say and hang up right away.
It was a relief, actually, to be around the players and conduct
interviews. No one could get you in his cross hairs with players
The fertile mind of Bill Walsh had cooked up all sorts of special
things for the game. There was the Fox-Two Special, with both
wideouts on the same side, running inside routes, and the fullback,
Earl Cooper, heading toward the middle of the line and then veering
out behind the wideouts as a receiver. The Niners hadn't used the
Fox-Two Special in two years. This time they got a touchdown out of
Walsh also came up with the idea of Ray Wersching squibbing his
kickoffs, getting them to bounce and slide on the artificial carpet.
Three Bengal kickoff returns failed to reach the 20.
Walsh assigned his defensive coach, Chuck Studley, to concoct an
''exotic blitz.'' What Studley came up with was named Cobra, with
Dean stacked as a middle linebacker. It forced a sack that killed a
first-quarter Cincinnati drive.
Things were changed right up to kickoff. ''Our bus was delayed
coming into the stadium,'' Montana said. ''If it would have been out
there another hour, Walsh would have put in a whole new offense.''
''How about this one,'' guard Randy Cross said. ''The Corner
Freeze. Dip our cornerbacks in water, leave 'em outside to ice over
and then throw 'em at the receivers, like spears.''
The Niners jumped out in front, and it was 20-0 at the half. The
Bengals scored on their first possession of the third quarter. Near
the end of the quarter came the series everyone said decided the
game. The Niners put up a goal-line stand that stopped Cincinnati
on four shots from the one. It was a dramatic moment, but it didn't
decide the game at all -- another example of misguided Super Bowl
expertise. The Niners punted, and Cincy scored on its next
possession. All the goal-line stand did was buy time. What determined
the game was San Francisco putting up field goals on its next two
possessions, which sent the game out of reach at 26-14. The final
score was 26-21.
There was a postscript. At the league meetings in Phoenix, I
bumped into Curt Sylvester of the Detroit Free Press. He said my name
was still mentioned in Detroit. He asked me for a quote about
''Too hot,'' I said. ''Wish I was in Detroit.'' Later he told me
they received some letters, including the likes of, ''The nerve of
that Zimmerman guy: First he doesn't like Detroit, now he doesn't
like Phoenix.'' You can't win.
This is an article from the Jan. 2, 1989 issue