On a day so clear that you can peer into the past, George Seifert has the brisk Bay breeze at his back, a new rod in his hand and a million-dollar view of the Golden Gate Bridge. It's the consummate setting for a fish story, and San Francisco's most celebrated angler is talking about the one that got away. Seifert's tale is full of suspense, irony and symbolism. What makes it even more compelling is that it happens to be true.
The scene is an equally sunny day nearly nine years earlier, before Seifert gained fame as coach of the San Francisco 49ers and as a hip-swiveling, off-key-crooning credit-card pitchman. On that June morning he was merely one of three men in a 20-foot Grady White boat at the end of a wildly successful fishing voyage. The boat was idling in the Pacific, just off the southwestern edge of San Francisco, just beyond the Olympic Club, where practice rounds for the 1987 U.S. Open were under way. Seifert and his companions, Bruce Hulick and Ed Nessel, could see the hang gliders from Fort Funston soaring and dipping like cormorants. A few minutes earlier they had spotted the wreckage of a Boston Whaler that after straying too close to shore the previous weekend had been flipped by the surf, killing three of its passengers. "Can you believe anybody could be that careless?" Seifert wondered aloud.
Now Seifert and Hulick were reeling in the day's last fish, and Nessel, at the helm, was watching them intently. Without warning, a large wave crept up and slammed the boat, throwing its stunned passengers into the chilly Pacific. The 4,000-pound boat landed bottom-up above Seifert, and he was sucked toward the ocean floor. He tumbled several times, lost his orientation and relived memories of similar experiences from his teenage years, when he had bodysurfed along the same coastline.
Seifert got to the surface and yelled for his companions, both of whom had also escaped serious injury. The three men had begun swimming for their lives—about 200 yards of rough surf separated them from the beach—when Seifert collided with a large striped bass that he believed had also been tossed from the boat. At 25 pounds, it was one of the biggest fish Seifert had pulled in that season, and he grabbed it in one hand. This was his bizarre reasoning: Nessel's $35,000 boat may have been totaled, but there's no way I'm losing dinner.
"So I start swimming in with the fish," Seifert recalls, "but now the waves are pounding me, and I'm wearing these rain pants, and they start sliding down over my knees. So now I can't swim. It's the fish or me, and I'm sinking. Finally I had to let the fish go so I could take my rain pants off and swim in. When we got to the shore we looked like a pack of drowned rats."
On the beach the men saw a police vehicle stopped with its lights blinking. They ran toward it, expecting a helping hand. Instead they got a hostile interrogation, one they did not understand until one of the patrolmen pointed to a lumpy figure underneath a tarp. "There was a dead body lying on the beach, so they thought he was a part of our deal," Seifert says. "It turns out the guy had jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and washed all the way down there. They found him at the same time we had our accident."
It was the scariest experience of Seifert's life, and it helped drive home three points that would become tenets of his coaching philosophy. First, you're never more than one unexpected jolt away from upheaval, so you might as well enjoy the moment. Second, even in the most trying of circumstances, there's always someone who has been through worse. And third, while it's fine to pursue the object of your obsession, there are times when you have to let go of your catch—and, in extreme cases, your pants—to survive.
"He tried to catch a fish on the way to shore. Can you believe that?" says Eve Dunkle. "What a fanatic. He's crazy."
Dunkle, 27, should know. She's Seifert's daughter. Her brother, Jason, 24, calls his father "a control freak." Linda Seifert, George's wife of 31 years, depicts her husband as "rigid, tyrannical, demanding—not a real easy person to live with."
These arc the people who love Seifert the most, yet even they can't resist poking fun at his intensely focused nature. They tease him about the strange mouth movements he makes on the sidelines; about the trancelike state he enters when tending to a simple task, such as adjusting the rearview mirror; about his desire to fix any of their real or imagined problems instantly; and about his boundless array of superstitions.