The Candlestick Park air, already dense with nostalgia, seemed to grow even thicker as the ball arced through it an hour before kickoff Monday.
Thrown by Steve Young – taking a break from his duties as an ESPN analyst – the pass settled into the hands of Jerry Rice as Rice – wearing sneakers with his suit – ran along the 49ers’ sideline into the end zone. The pregame crowd, visions of the ’90s dancing in their heads, erupted into a loud cheer.
Young and Rice hooked up often during their Hall of Fame careers on the same grass at Candlestick, which hosted its final regular-season game Monday night after more than four decades as home to the 49ers and San Francisco Giants.
“Lot of great memories,” Young said. “It’s unfortunate because, like Fenway Park, it could be a landmark forever. They just couldn’t keep it up. It’s too bad.”
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With the 49ers moving to a new home in Santa Clara next season and Candlestick set for demolition, Monday’s game between the 49ers and Atlanta Falcons had all the markings of a goodbye, from the luminaries on hand to former wide receiver Dwight Clark returning to the spot of “The Catch” at halftime to a card stunt after the first quarter, in which the upper deck spelled out “Farewell Candlestick.”
Former owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. served as honorary game captain and was greeted by chants of “Ed-die!” as he walked to the middle of the field.
“It’s emotional; I’m going to wear that term out,” said DeBartolo, who presided over the start of the 49ers’ dynasty in the early 1980s.
At the same time, said DeBartolo, who once called Candlestick a “pig sty,” the stadium’s “time has come.” He did, however, advocate for one aspect of Candlestick to move south with the 49ers to Levi’s Stadium.
“I see ‘Bill Walsh Field’ (at Candlestick),” DeBartolo said. “I don’t even know what their plans are, but that field down there should be named that.”
Ted Robinson, the 49ers’ play-by-play voice since 2009, held the odd position of having called a Candlestick send-off once before – for the Giants in 1999. Still, he said neither team factors into his most enduring memory of the stadium, which opened in 1960 for baseball and became home of the 49ers in 1971.
“I actually broadcast the papal Mass (in 1987) for KCBS Radio here in San Francisco,” Robinson said. “And there’s no sports moment that can match the power of a papal Mass for 70,000 people.”
Some who would argue might cite Clark’s catch in the back of the end zone in the 1982 NFC Championship Game, which catapulted the 49ers to their first of five Super Bowl wins. At halftime Monday, with Clark standing by, the 49ers marked the spot of the catch by spray-painting a gold circle on the red end-zone paint.
In the parking lot before the game, Carol Gioia tailgated under a tent with a red banner that stated: “Goodbye Candlestick Park.”
“It’s bittersweet for me,” said Gioia, 63, of San Jose. “I’ve been doing this for 26 years.”
Gioia said she won’t renew her season tickets at the new stadium – “I can’t afford to do it” – but she still intends to tailgate in parking lots of the businesses nearby.
“We’ll have the crowd noise,” she said. “Candlestick Park has seen better days, but the memories – you can’t take those away from us. We’ve collected a lot of memorabilia, a lot of good friends.”
Harry Edwards, the Bay Area sociologist and longtime consultant for the 49ers, said that was one of the draws of the stadium, often panned for outdated facilities and unfriendly conditions.
“It really became a focus of community,” Edwards said, “much the same way as a tremendous house of worship.”
One moment that stands out, Edwards said, came in December 1998. The 49ers were about to play the Detroit Lions and running back Barry Sanders, who, like 49ers running back Garrison Hearst, wore No. 20.
“I walked up to Garrison in the locker room and said, ‘This place is packed. Everybody’s coming out here to see No. 20 put on an unforgettable show,’ ” Edwards said. “He looked up at me and said, ‘Doc, I’m going to do everything I can not to disappoint.’ ”
Hearst rushed for 198 yards that day in a 35-13 49ers win. Afterward, Edwards saw him walking off the field.
“I walked past him and said, ‘Hey Garrison, I love a man of his word,’ ” Edwards said. “He said, ‘I haven’t broken it yet.’
“I got all those kinds of memories.”