"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 ).
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.
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.
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
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."