The intensity of the game was written all over Eli Manning’s shirt.
What began as a crisp, white jersey had, by the start of overtime, taken on a darker tone. His left shoulder was a dirty brown. His entire left leg was caked in mud, as was his right knee. Bits of the Candlestick Park turf were lodged into the side of his face mask, the result of being slammed to the surface during the 2011 NFC Championship Game.
When did it happen? It’s hard to say. Manning absorbed 18 hits that afternoon at cold, damp, drizzly Candlestick, and was sacked six times.
The game marked the apex of Justin Smith’s career.
The no-nonsense defensive lineman was in his element that day. Giants-49ers was a throwback contest, a gladiator match, a tank battle, a heavyweight bout from the 1950s, power vs. power.
And Smith was the most powerful man in the stadium. As the weather and field conditions grew worse, he seemed to grow stronger. He, Ray McDonald, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks tormented Manning, tossed him around, forced turnovers and, if it were not for two botched punt returns, probably would have propelled the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
“Still stings,” Justin Smith said Monday.
If you were to cull a Smith highlight reel, most of the clips would come from that 2011 season.
There was the early October play in Philadelphia in which Smith ran downfield and poked the ball from speedy Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin. The forced fumble sealed a win and sent a message that the 49ers, at best a mediocre squad in previous years that would always find a way to lose similarly tight games, were now a contender.
“Justin Smith next stop HOF!” Jim Harbaugh, Smith’s coach at the time, tweeted Tuesday. “Utmost Respect & Admiration! 1 of Toughest to ever play. Made Gr8est hustle play I’ve witnessed!”
A week before the Giants game, Smith took down Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Brees’ protector, 320-pound Jermon Bushrod, with one arm in a divisional playoff game. If ever there was a play that captured Smith’s Herculean strength, that was it.
Smith and the 49ers have been trying to recapture that 2011 magic since.
They came close the next year. But Smith played with a partially torn triceps in the Super Bowl and was overmatched by Ravens guard Kelechi Osemele, who otherwise had a middling season. In 2013, Smith played with a shoulder injury throughout a season that ended with a last-minute Seahawks interception in Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.
Smith knew his body was breaking down. But he returned for 2014 because he and every other 49er felt as if they were on the cusp of a Super Bowl. It didn’t happen.
After a ho-hum 8-8 season, and now with all the offseason departures, it’s hard to imagine there’s anywhere close to the same expectation or excitement this year, which likely played a significant role in dousing the spark that kept Smith going in recent seasons. He realized the magic was gone.
Asked on radio station 95.7 The Game on Tuesday which games or moments from his career he’ll look upon with pride, Smith cited the 2011 season.
“You just know you’re flying (to the) East Coast and you’re going to kick somebody’s a--, and that’s a good feeling,” he said. “I’ve been on those flights before, and it’s like, ‘Well, we’ll see what happens.’ But for about three and a half years there, we were all hopping on the plane and were like, ‘It’s go time.’ And that was just awesome.”