The 49er five look extremely uncomfortable. The only players to have been on all four of San Francisco's Super Bowl teams have gathered for a group photograph at a practice field in Santa Clara, Calif., but they aren't very happy about it. Quarterback Joe Montana and linebacker Keena Turner squirm. Cornerback Eric Wright won't smile. Free safety Ronnie Lott and wide receiver Mike Wilson move slowly and self-consciously when the group is asked to squeeze closer together. Eddie DeBartolo, the 43-year-old owner of the 49ers, offers some banter to ease the tension. But when he takes his place in front of the camera, he too stiffens. These players know each other as well as any group of teammates in the NFL. They have played through an extraordinary decade together, and now they are on the verge of a historic fourth Super Bowl appearance. Why the pained faces?
"That picture represented an era," DeBartolo said later. "These guys have been together nine years. Nine years! That's a little more than two careers for the average football player. They've outlived the norm. They've all gone through difficult times. Their bodies and their psyches have been banged up. They had to be asking themselves, 'How much longer will we be together? Is this going to be it?' "
Before embarking on their very own Victory Tour nine years ago, the 49ers were a laughingstock, the doormat of the NFL, having just had 2-14, 2-14 and 6-10 seasons. In those days, none of the players who would perform for the Niners throughout their remarkable dominance seemed a likely hero.
Montana, who had been picked in the third round of the 1979 draft, from Notre Dame, had been made the starting quarterback after Steve DeBerg was traded to the Denver Broncos before the start of the season. "[Coach] Bill Walsh felt Joe was the quarterback of the future," recalls Chuck Studley, the 49ers' defensive coordinator at the time. "The staff vociferously argued against the trade. DeBerg was an experienced veteran. But Bill felt if DeBerg was there, Joe would never take control. Frankly, we were quite upset and very definitely divided."
January 29, 1990
Turner, a second-round choice in 1980, from Purdue, had just become a starting outside linebacker despite being—at 219 pounds—a bit undersized for the position.
The other three players were rookies. The Niners selected Lott, from Southern Cal, with the eighth pick in the first round of the 1981 draft, even though some of the front-office folks doubted that he was a blue-chip prospect. "We really didn't want Lott," Studley says. "I remember Walsh turning to [then defensive backs coach] George Seifert in the draft room and saying, 'Is Ronnie Lott truly worthy of the eighth pick in the draft?' It was a rather pointed question. But George didn't hesitate. He said, 'There's no question in my mind.' "
San Francisco then picked Wright, from Missouri, in the second round and threw him and Lott together as rookie starters at the corners.
Wilson, from Washington State, had been a ninth round draft choice of the Dallas Cowboys that year, but he was released before the last exhibition game and was signed by the 49ers three days later. "I went from America's Team to the bottom of the heap," Wilson says. "I'd never even seen the 49ers play on TV. My friends said, 'A terrible team picked you up,' but I was just happy to be in the NFL."
Together, the 49er Five have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles, from London and Tokyo for preseason games to the White House as Super Bowl champions. Among them, they have earned 17 Pro Bowl selections and have helped carry the 49ers to seven division titles, four conference championships and three Super Bowl victories. They've swapped chiropractors and masseurs, and they've sprung for dozens of beers.
Each has achieved remarkable longevity despite suffering a career-threatening injury. Lott fractured and lacerated the small finger on his left hand so badly in 1985 that he chose to have the tip amputated when it didn't heal properly. That same season, Wright broke a bone in his pelvis and has been hampered by painful chronic groin pulls ever since. In 1986, Montana underwent surgery to remove a ruptured disk in his lower back, and Wilson severely sprained his neck. A year later, Turner tore ligaments in his right knee. "We all could have quit so long ago," Montana says. "We have a real love for football and for each other. That's what keeps us coming back for more."
"In the heat of battle, these guys are my everything," Turner says. "We've shared experiences and emotions that most men seldom have in relationships with other men. We've developed a closeness that is unique."
And all of them agree that this year's Super Bowl is their most meaningful. At the opening of training camp, seven defensive starters from last season's Super Bowl-winning team were holding out; six of the first eight games of the season were on the road; and looming large over all of that, Bill Walsh had resigned after 10 years as the Niner coach, and Seifert, who had worked his way up to defensive coordinator, had replaced him.
Still, when they take the field against the Denver Broncos on Sunday, the 49er Five will have mixed emotions. This could be the end of the road for three of them. Wilson was left unprotected as a Plan B free agent last spring. Wright has been used only in nickel situations because of his groin injury. Frustrated by his inconsistency since knee surgery two years ago, Turner may retire. Montana, the most valuable player in the NFL this season, and Lott, who has been voted to the Pro Bowl for the eighth time...well, they'll have to be carried out feetfirst.
These five players will always be linked by then unique position in Super Bowl history. It has already provided them a lifetime of memories.
Lott couldn't believe his eyes at the team breakfast before the NFC Championship Game against the Dallas Cowboys in January 1982. There, sipping a cup of coffee and poring over the game plan, sat crusty, 34-year-old linebacker Jack (Hacksaw) Reynolds. He was dressed in his complete uniform, from eye black to cleats. Even his ankles and shoes were taped. "Hacksaw could have tackled one of the busboys," Lott says. "It blew me away. The last time I'd seen something like that was in Pop. Warner football. I said to myself, 'This guy means business. This is a big game.' "
Later, Reynolds put on his helmet and drove to Candlestick Park in his gold 1970 Lincoln Continental with its rattling engine and smoke coming out the tail pipe. "What a crazy old turkey I was," Reynolds says.
The old turkey made a lasting impression on Lott, who went on to become the hard-nosed leader of the San Francisco defense. He also became the 49ers' most stirring pregame speaker. "Bill Walsh was not great at motivational speeches," Lott says. "John Robinson, my college coach, could turn an ice cube into hot water. But Bill, well, I'd laugh at him sometimes."
A couple of days before Super Bowl XVI, at the Pontiac Silverdome on Jan. 24, 1982, Lott delivered one of his shortest and most unusual speeches. Huddled in a hotel ballroom, the Niners were hardly getting fired up as Walsh and his coaches debated the merits of letting the players sleep with their wives or girlfriends the nights preceding the game. Lott jumped to his feet. "Do whatever it takes to win," he bellowed. "If you've slept with them before every other game, don't stop now. You've got to be able to do your job well."
Lott laughs at how naive the 49ers were then. Because everything was new, including winning, nothing seemed to bother them. "I remember telling myself before the game," says Lott, " 'This is no big deal. I've played in front of 100,000 in the Rose Bowl. The Silver-dome only holds 80,000 people. So what?' "
Although half of the team hadn't arrived at the Silverdome 20 minutes before warmups—the Niners second bus was trapped in traffic—nobody in the locker room panicked. "I had taken a limo over early," Lott says. "There were only 10 or 15 guys in the locker room. [Tackle] Keith Fahnhorst and [guard] Randy Cross volunteered to play both ways. [Equipment man] Chico Norton said he'd play running back. [Trainer] Lindsy McLean offered to try quarterback. Here was a chance for everybody to panic, and we were in there laughing. It was one of the keys to winning that Super Bowl. It got us loose."
San Francisco beat the Cincinnati Bengals 26-21 that day, but Lott says he didn't fully comprehend what the 49ers had accomplished until a week later. He and wide receiver Dwight Clark were lounging in a Honolulu bar after a Pro Bowl practice, when Steeler greats Mel Blount and Jack Lambert began sending drinks to their table. An endless stream of Tropical Itches.
"They were tipping their hats to us," Lott says. "They had won four Super Bowls and could have said, 'Hey, one is no big deal.' That moment taught me how to act. That's a true champion."
When the Niners made their third Super Bowl appearance, a year ago in Miami against the Bengals, Lott had no trouble grasping what being a world champion meant. "I told myself to enjoy every moment, to savor everything that happens on the field," Lott says. "I hadn't done that at the other two. So this time I noticed [Los Angeles Dodger manager] Tommy Lasorda in the tunnel. I heard Billy Joel sing the national anthem. I checked out Christie Brinkley during warmups. Before, I had looked at the Super Bowl as a game and never as the event it is."
One of the moments Lott savored came early in the game. Bengal fullback Ickey Woods gained 27 yards on his first four carries. Then near the end of the first quarter, Lott walloped him with a bone-jarring tackle. Woods rushed for only 10 yards the rest of the half. The Niners went on to win the game, 20-16.
"Ickey Woods was playing at a different tempo than the rest of us," says Seifert, "Ronnie Lott had a direct impact on us winning that ball game."
Says Lott, "I had studied him on film, and I hadn't seen any free safeties all year get a good, straight-on hit on him. When he got into the secondary, guys were just bringing him down from the side. I was determined to get Ickey full speed. Make him remember me. After that, when he ran with the ball, he stopped his feet and hesitated a bit."
Three days before the NFC Championship Game in January 1982, Turner was soaping up in the shower when his fingers ran across a tiny bump in the middle of his chest. A scratch, he reckoned. Then he felt several bumps on his shoulders and arms. And a couple more on his thighs. "They were popping out on me right there," Turner says. "I panicked. I ran out of the shower and grabbed Hal Wyatt, one of the trainers, and said, 'What do I have?' I thought I was going to die on the spot. Hal looked, then he quickly backed away from me. I was sure I was a goner."
It was only chicken pox. "A kid's disease, at age 23," Turner says now, shaking his head. "By the next day, I had them in my mouth, on my head, all over my butt. Everywhere. I couldn't eat, and I was so tired I couldn't move."
The 49ers practically carried Turner onto the field for the championship game. "We woke him up and told him it was time to put on his uniform," recalls McLean. "Then we pushed Keena out the locker room door like a zombie."
At Super Bowl XVI two weeks later, Turner still felt the effects of the chicken pox. He had lost 10 pounds, shriveling down to 207. With so little stamina, he had difficulty breathing. "It was not an enjoyable Super Bowl," he says. "I was sicker than a dog."
Feeling so lousy made Turner concentrate harder on his assignments in the 49ers' two new blitzing defenses—Cobra and the Nickel Blizzard—which Studley had devised especially for the game. Late in the first quarter, with the 49ers leading 7-0 and the Bengals facing third-and-10 on their own 41, Studley called for Cobra—a blitz by Fred Dean, who was the middle linebacker in this formation. Turner, who was lined up in a down position on the outside shoulder of Cincinnati left tackle Anthony Munoz, found himself smothering quarterback Kenny Anderson to end the series. "I wasn't even the rusher," Turner says. "Kenny ran right into my arms."
Turner wasn't quite so well positioned late in the third quarter. The Niners were ahead 20-7, and the Bengals had a third-and-one on the San Francisco five. On the sideline, Turner suddenly realized—too late—that there were only 10 49ers on the field, and he was the missing man. Bengal fullback Pete Johnson lumbered two yards for a first down. After that, in one of the most exciting defensive series in Super Bowl history, San Francisco—with Turner now on the field—stopped the Bengals on four consecutive plays.
"I'll tell you a secret," Turner says. "I also missed a play in the NFC Championship Game, and that time [Dallas running back] Tony Dorsett scored. In those days, I wasn't playing every down. If we were in short-yardage, I wasn't in; but in goal-line, I was. In some spots of the field, it was hard to distinguish between the two."
His Super Bowl blunder could have etched Turner's name and number in the mind of every Niner fan. But he was lucky. When the 49ers returned for a gigantic victory parade through the streets of San Francisco, Turner was hardly recognized. "I got out of a trolley car at City Hall, and most of the players turned one way, but I went around the other side," Turner says. "A cop said, 'Where are you going?' He shoved his club into my chest. I said, Tm one of the players.' And he said, 'Get back!'
"Even today, people yell, 'Hey, Tina!' when they see me. They think I'm Tina Turner. The 49ers have always had few recognizable faces. With all our Super Bowl successes, only Joe Montana has gotten big endorsements. None of us has a TV show. We've been lucky, because all that can destroy a team."
No season has been more difficult for Turner than the present one. He fears the end is near. His damaged right knee kept him from practicing on most days. "He's withdrawn," Fahnhorst says. "He seldom talks. He has had a rough time." Turner worried about the strained relationship between some of his teammates and Walsh, who resigned three days after last year's Super Bowl.
"I was extremely hurt that Bill didn't ever tell us as a team that he was retiring," Lott says. "He never said goodbye. It was unusual that Bill wasn't closer to us at the end. When I first got here, he was open, a player's coach. He'd crack jokes, be sarcastic. But he started to change after the '82 strike season, then a lot more after the second Super Bowl. To me, that was the last season Bill had fun and enjoyed football. The media started calling him a genius and prying into his personal life. He was really distant after that."
Says Wright, "When we lost to the Minnesota Vikings in the '87 playoffs, Walsh couldn't talk to us the day after. He lost a lot of respect with the players. When it was going well, he was there. When the ship was shaky, he couldn't face us."
Adds Fahnhorst, "Bill made so many enemies. He was the type who had everything, but he could never enjoy it. He was a miserable human being."
Turner spoke with Walsh on the phone a few times this season, and he has pleaded with past and present 49ers to phone or write Walsh because he knows Walsh won't make the first move. "Bill and I both said and thought things along the way that might not have been right," Turner says. "We fought. We argued. We disagreed. But we've also done some pretty good things. I've tried to stay away from judging him. He misses football terribly. He is uncomfortable with the way he left things, and he doesn't know what to do. Too much has happened for us not to be able to talk."
Ask someone to name the five players who have been on the four 49er Super Bowl teams, and Wilson is the one that usually stumps them. That's understandable; in nine years with the team, Wilson has started only 27 games, most of them in the 1987 and '88 seasons. "I'm a good trivia question," Wilson says. "Unless you really know the NFL, you'd have no idea who I am. Ten years from now, nobody will remember me."
Wilson's one shining moment came in the 1982 Super Bowl. He caught the most significant pass of the game. On second-and-15 from the San Francisco 22 early in the fourth quarter, with the Niners leading by six points, Wilson burned Bengal cornerback Louis Breeden and snared a 22-yard pass from Montana. The play set up a field goal by Ray Wersching that gave the 49ers a 23-14 lead.
"At the start of the game I thought, If only I could make a good play," Wilson says. "We jumped to a big lead; then for the next three series, it was three-plays-and-out. The offense came to a screeching halt. Finally, Bill called Sweep Pass Right, Z-Comeback. Joe sprints right, and I ran past the 20. Breeden kept going, figuring it was a bomb. I stopped and came back for the ball.
"Thinking back, I'm sure glad there wasn't instant replay. I caught the ball on the Cincinnati sideline, and their guys were screaming, 'You're out of bounds!' I barely got my tiptoes in."
Montana says he can depend on Wilson: "Wills is a survivor. He does something no other receiver does: He finds the holes inside. He reads the coverages well. He knows this system inside out."
And he has always understood his role. Wilson has played second fiddle and never complained. Perhaps better than any other 49er, he knows the importance of planning for life after football. He has worked with team adviser Dr. Harry Edwards to establish programs at three Bay Area universities for teammates who want to finish their college degrees. Wilson received his diploma in business administration from San Jose State last year, and Wright and Turner are on schedule to graduate in 1991.
"There is no rookie hazing here, and nobody has to sing his school song in training camp," Wilson says. "From day one, you're a 49er. It's more important to learn and help the team as soon as you can.
"You learn right off the bat that there are only a few key players here. On paper, a lot of teams should be better than we are. What it comes down to is knowing your role and responsibility. And taking pride in that. That kind of character makes us successful."
Before the pregame introductions of Super Bowl XVI, Wright, who was the starting right cornerback as a rookie, stood alone on the Pontiac Silverdome sideline. Tears streamed down his face.
"I was so keyed up, so juiced, that I lost it," he says. "My body chemistry totally changed. I had no appetite that day. I was sharp, on edge. Any little thing somebody said, I fired back, 'Leave me alone!' All my emotions were on the surface."
Wright tries to calm himself before every game by kneeling in the end zone and saying a prayer. But that never seems to work in Super Bowls. Before the kickoff for Super Bowl XIX against the Miami Dolphins at Stanford Stadium in 1985, Wright turned himself into a bundle of nerves. Although he had been beaten for only one touchdown all season, Wright went bananas thinking about Miami quarterback Dan Marino and his wide receivers, Mark Duper and Mark Clayton. "I couldn't remember precisely what I had to do," Wright says. "I was out of control."
The Dolphins jumped to a 10-7 lead, scoring on their first two possessions of the game. On the first, Wright missed a tackle on running back Tony Nathan after a simple swing pass. A five-yard gain turned into a 25-yarder. Marino stung Wright in the next series on successive passes, an 18-yarder to Clayton and an 11-yarder to Duper. "After that, I told Eric to challenge them," Lott says. "I reminded him that he was the best cover guy we had. I told him to relax."
The 49er defense toughened after that. Lott stopped a second-quarter drive in the end zone, soaring with Clayton and poking the ball out of the way with his helmet. Wright knocked down three passes, including a third-down throw to Duper that killed a series. Late in the third quarter, Wright made a leaping interception at the Niner one-yard line, halting Miami's last chance at getting back in the game. The 49ers went on win, 38-16.
"That was the most athletic play I ever made and probably the best of my career," Wright says. "It was a shake post pattern. I got an unbelievable reaction on the ball. Great break. Clayton would have beaten anybody else."
Wright is already jazzed for this Sunday's game. "We want to show we can do it without Bill Walsh," he says. "A lot of guys are driven to show that Bill wasn't the only genius around here. He had a good supporting cast of athletes." Wright pauses, feeling the anxiety rise. "I have to admit that one thing bothers me. People expect us to win. What if the Broncos have our number? It would be our most devastating loss ever."
Montana loves to watch replays of The Drive, that 92-yard march in Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium that beat the Bengals, 20-16, in the final 3:10 of Super Bowl XXIII last year. He can't remember it any other way. "It's a blur," Montana says. "I hyperventilated to the point of almost blacking out. You know how a TV screen gets fuzzy? Well, that's what my vision was like. I was yelling so loudly in the huddle that I couldn't breathe. Things got blurrier and blurrier.
"One time, I put my hands under center and I felt like it was taking days to call the play. Everything was in slow motion. When I took my first step back, the fuzz appeared again. By the fifth step, things got so fuzzy I had to throw the ball over Jerry Rice, out of bounds, to clear my head."
When Montana came back to earth after the game, he suffered an emotional letdown. Waiting to take his place behind a podium for the postgame interview, he was approached by an NFL official. "He said he'd been assigned to stay near me and escort me to the MVP press conference," Montana says. "He said it was practically certain—99 percent sure—that I'd be named MVP."
But when Montana stepped away from the podium after answering questions, the NFL official was nowhere in sight. Montana learned that Rice had been selected MVP. "Jerry had a great game," Montana says. "But I was, you know, kind of hoping."
Montana and his wife, Jennifer, took a limo to the 49ers' hotel and snuck in through a service entrance. He was exhausted and cramping in the stomach. They tried to order a room-service dinner, but the kitchen was so backed up that Jennifer had to go downstairs to DeBartolo's victory party and load up a plate of food for Joe. Then the Montanas phoned for several bottles of California champagne, popped corks and opened their door.
"Our room was right by the elevator, so most of the players and their families stopped in," Montana says. "I don't know how many bottles we went through. We just kept pouring."
Jennifer had played an important part in the victory. She had saved the red jersey Joe had worn in the 1985 Super Bowl, and she packed it in Joe's bag the night before last year's game. He found it the next morning.
"My jersey last year was a little different from everybody else's," Joe says. "The sleeves were longer and the stripes on the arms were wider. It was just a little something to take my mind off the game. It was a great idea."
Jennifer keeps Joe loose for big games by taping snapshots of their three children to strategic places in his play-book. Underneath, she writes captions. Several hours before the NFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Rams two weeks ago, Joe discovered photos of Alexandra, 4, and Elizabeth, 3, decked out in extra-large T-shirts emblazoned with the words BEAT L.A. On the following page, he saw himself being tackled on the living room floor by the two girls. "Don't let them tackle you, Daddy," the caption read.
Montana is not so soft-hearted on the field. Listen to what he says in the heat of battle:
•Before the NFC Championship Game in '82, Cowboy defensive end Ed (Too Tall) Jones was quoted as saying he had no respect for the 49ers, that he didn't even know most of their names. "At one point, Joe ran a naked bootleg to the left, and Too Tall was the only one out there," Fahnhorst says. "Joe faked him and went for 30 yards. Then he shouted, 'Respect that,——.' "
•After Montana released the winning touchdown pass to Dwight Clark, Jones and Harvey Martin knocked Montana to the turf. "Harvey said, 'You've just beaten America's Team,' " Clark recalls. "And Joe said, 'Well, you can just sit home with the rest of America and watch the Super Bowl.' "
•Montana vaulted into the air after John Taylor caught the winning touchdown pass in the 1989 Super Bowl. Then he confronted Bengal linebacker Reggie Williams. "That guy tried to hurt me earlier in the game," Montana says. "He buried me into the ground as hard as he could. He's their hit man. Every time we scored, I was looking for him to let him know we were there."
"Joe always has an opinion," says Fahnhorst. "Joe used to get plays from Walsh on the sidelines, and then he'd start to bitch. He'd say, 'This is a great play, let's get to work.' Or, 'The old man is panicking.' Or, 'The old man is crazed.' "
But don't get the idea that Montana is arrogant; he just has absolute confidence on the field. "The kingpin is the reason we've been able to maintain this," Lott says. "Joe is one guy who could have broken this up many moons ago. He could have spun away from us, gone on to be rich and famous, more important. He hasn't changed a bit since 1981. He's extraordinary, but ordinary. A normal guy. He's got to be the most unselfish player in the history of the game."