The 49ers prepare for games in a walnut-lined locker room with flat-screen TVs on every wall, and they have the option of entering their playing field through one of Levi’s Stadium’s ritzy clubs.
But they were struck Wednesday by the humble, spartan feel of the team’s original stadium.
“The bathrooms in there were from, like, the 1940s, and I thought that was cool,” right tackle Anthony Davis said after Wednesday’s 90-minute practice at Kezar Stadium, the 49ers’ home from 1946 to 1970.
Said left tackle Joe Staley of the dark, dank tunnel that leads to the field: “That’s like old-school gladiator stuff.”
The subterranean walk on and off the practice field may have been the highlight for the 49ers. Their buses pulled into the stadium parking lot at 10:45 a.m. The players put on their helmets and jerseys, then descended a staircase to the long, dingy, darkened tunnel with a sand floor that leads – be careful, it takes a sharp right turn – onto the playing field.
The walk has the feel of an ancient catacomb or, as Staley noted, the entrance into a Roman arena
“That tunnel – it was dark in there,” linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. “But when you come out, you definitely have (the right) mindset and you’re ready to play. It was great.”
There was a practical reason for holding a practice in San Francisco.
When Levi’s Stadium was being built in Santa Clara, the 49ers’ nearby practice fields were reduced to build a new road, and they no longer can accommodate bleachers or seating. Kezar Stadium was demolished in 1989 and replaced with a smaller version that has enough wooden bleachers to handle Wednesday’s 7,000 or so fans.
“It obviously gives you a lot of energy and a lot of juice,” coach Chip Kelly said of the public practice. “I think we’ve got a unique situation just because we’re kind of landlocked in terms of our practice facility. So a chance to get out here in front of the fans is awesome for our players and our coaching staff.”
The 49ers are celebrating their 70th season this year, and Kelly has not hesitated to embrace the team’s rich past. After being hired, he reached out to prominent former 49ers – including Joe Montana, Steve Young and Ronnie Lott – and several since have visited team headquarters.
Kelly said former wide receiver Dwight Clark spoke during the team’s rookie initiation, and former pass rusher Charles Haley has attended the last three practices and worked closely with the defensive linemen.
A number of players who suited up at Kezar in the 1960s – including Ted Kwalick, Frank Nunley, Jimmy Johnson and Len Rohde – were in the stands Wednesday.
“I just think they’ve been so successful here, you want to be able to tap into why they were successful, how they were successful and learn from those guys,” Kelly said.
The 49ers hadn’t practiced at Kezar since 2004, which meant most of the 89 players on hand Wednesday never had been to that corner of San Francisco.
One of those who had visited was tight end Bruce Miller, who said he explored it on his own.
“That’s one of the things that I loved about Candlestick (Park) – walking through the tunnels and being in the locker room and walking in the footsteps of the great San Francisco 49ers that have gone before us,” Miller said. “This has the same feel. It was kind of cool to be here and be in it.”