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The Top of His Game
March 12, 2007
If to ask What might have been is the price of genius, Bill Walsh has paid his dues. But as he battles leukemia, the greatest football mind of his era is coming to terms with his considerable legacy
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March 12, 2007

The Top Of His Game

If to ask What might have been is the price of genius, Bill Walsh has paid his dues. But as he battles leukemia, the greatest football mind of his era is coming to terms with his considerable legacy

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"I love a parade," composer Harold Arlen wrote in 1931. A half century later, after the 49ers defeated the Bengals in Super Bowl XVI to give San Francisco its first major professional sports championship, Walsh was singing a different tune. "I remember begging [ San Francisco city officials], 'Please don't have a parade,'" Walsh recalls. "'Nobody will come.'" Walsh figured he knew the Bay Area well enough. He'd been a local since his days as a student at Hayward High, after his family moved north from Los Angeles in the late '40s. He attended San Jose State in the '50s, where he played split end and competed as a boxer, and began his coaching career at Washington High in Fremont. Later he worked as an assistant at Cal (under Marv Levy), Stanford (under John Ralston) and the Oakland Raiders (under John Rauch and owner--G.M Al Davis ).

San Francisco, Walsh worried, was too sophisticated for a parade. But the city went ahead as planned, and as the flatbed transporting Walsh and some of his players rolled down the Embarcadero, alongside the glimmering bay, the coach felt his worst fears were confirmed. "The road was empty," he recalls. "Nothing. Then we made the turn onto Market Street.... "

His voice trails off as he savors the memory. Tens of thousands of fans had turned out to celebrate, and the 49er faithful have retained their affection for Walsh ever since. The feeling is mutual. Despite offers to coach other NFL teams after resigning from the Niners, Walsh refused to stray from his roots and continued to serve the team even when doing so brought indignity: In 1996 Walsh spent a season as a consultant on Seifert's staff, but he was given a windowless office and was largely ignored.

Walsh returned again, as vice president and general manager, from 1999 to 2000, and stayed on as a consultant in '01. In that time he helped clean up San Francisco's salary-cap problems and made several astute personnel moves, including the signing of an unheralded former Canadian Football League quarterback, Jeff Garcia, who would be selected to three consecutive Pro Bowls. But Walsh bristled when owner's representative John York lectured him about how to manage an organization, and there was tension between Walsh and coach Steve Mariucci. ( York was the husband of Denise DeBartolo York, the sister to whom Eddie had ceded control of the team after his involvement in a Louisiana gaming scandal in the late '90s.)

So again Walsh stepped away. His health began declining in 2004, and leukemia was the diagnosis. Late last summer a test revealed dangerously low levels of bone marrow, and in Walsh's words, "That's when all hell broke loose." He had two cycles of chemotherapy and in late October took a turn for the worse. For weeks he could eat only crackers, and he had two painful infections on his face that doctors feared he'd be unable to fight off.

As news of Walsh's declining condition spread, his former players and associates rallied to support him. Some, including DeBartolo, flew in from distant cities to visit; others left frequent phone messages. He got a call from Sen. Dianne Feinstein and a home visit from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Staring at his phone as it rang and rang, unable to muster the energy to answer it, Walsh understood, for perhaps the first time, the true depth of his impact on others--and it caught him off guard.

Among NFL executives, Walsh was revered for proactively releasing popular veterans to keep his franchise thriving, and though he privately anguished over such transactions, he'd act coldly when necessary. Now, years later, even some of the players with whom his relationship had become the most strained--Dwight Clark, Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice included--were expressing their affection.

Walsh's condition, though incurable, has improved over the past couple of months. Most weeks he spends one or two days receiving blood transfusions; the rest of the time he tries to stay active. Recently, Walsh says, he played "some of the worst golf ever," though he wasn't really complaining. He still has ties to Stanford, serving as a consultant to the athletic director. Last month he visited his beach house near Monterey with his wife, Geri, who suffered a stroke seven years ago and has been largely debilitated since. Walsh and the couple's surviving children, Craig, 47, and Elizabeth, 35 (their oldest son, Steve, died of leukemia in 2002 at age 46) have made arrangements for Geri to receive care if Bill should die first. "She's a courageous and wonderful woman," he says.

Some of Walsh's former players, including Pro Bowl tight end Russ Francis, recently met with him to discuss the possibility of his undergoing experimental treatments that could theoretically keep the leukemia at bay for a prolonged period. Whatever happens, Walsh says, he has steeled himself for the worst.

If anything good has come of this, Montana believes, it's that by steadily reliving the past with friends and visitors, Walsh has been compelled to reflect on his career in a positive manner. "I think there's a lot more feeling there than he ever imagined," Montana says. "He's seeing it now, though it's hard for it to have to come out this way."

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