The 49er five look extremely uncomfortable. The only players to have been on all four of San Francisco's Super Bowl teams have gathered for a group photograph at a practice field in Santa Clara, Calif., but they aren't very happy about it. Quarterback Joe Montana and linebacker Keena Turner squirm. Cornerback Eric Wright won't smile. Free safety Ronnie Lott and wide receiver Mike Wilson move slowly and self-consciously when the group is asked to squeeze closer together. Eddie DeBartolo, the 43-year-old owner of the 49ers, offers some banter to ease the tension. But when he takes his place in front of the camera, he too stiffens. These players know each other as well as any group of teammates in the NFL. They have played through an extraordinary decade together, and now they are on the verge of a historic fourth Super Bowl appearance. Why the pained faces?
"That picture represented an era," DeBartolo said later. "These guys have been together nine years. Nine years! That's a little more than two careers for the average football player. They've outlived the norm. They've all gone through difficult times. Their bodies and their psyches have been banged up. They had to be asking themselves, 'How much longer will we be together? Is this going to be it?' "
Before embarking on their very own Victory Tour nine years ago, the 49ers were a laughingstock, the doormat of the NFL, having just had 2-14, 2-14 and 6-10 seasons. In those days, none of the players who would perform for the Niners throughout their remarkable dominance seemed a likely hero.
Montana, who had been picked in the third round of the 1979 draft, from Notre Dame, had been made the starting quarterback after Steve DeBerg was traded to the Denver Broncos before the start of the season. "[Coach] Bill Walsh felt Joe was the quarterback of the future," recalls Chuck Studley, the 49ers' defensive coordinator at the time. "The staff vociferously argued against the trade. DeBerg was an experienced veteran. But Bill felt if DeBerg was there, Joe would never take control. Frankly, we were quite upset and very definitely divided."
Turner, a second-round choice in 1980, from Purdue, had just become a starting outside linebacker despite being—at 219 pounds—a bit undersized for the position.
The other three players were rookies. The Niners selected Lott, from Southern Cal, with the eighth pick in the first round of the 1981 draft, even though some of the front-office folks doubted that he was a blue-chip prospect. "We really didn't want Lott," Studley says. "I remember Walsh turning to [then defensive backs coach] George Seifert in the draft room and saying, 'Is Ronnie Lott truly worthy of the eighth pick in the draft?' It was a rather pointed question. But George didn't hesitate. He said, 'There's no question in my mind.' "
San Francisco then picked Wright, from Missouri, in the second round and threw him and Lott together as rookie starters at the corners.
Wilson, from Washington State, had been a ninth round draft choice of the Dallas Cowboys that year, but he was released before the last exhibition game and was signed by the 49ers three days later. "I went from America's Team to the bottom of the heap," Wilson says. "I'd never even seen the 49ers play on TV. My friends said, 'A terrible team picked you up,' but I was just happy to be in the NFL."
Together, the 49er Five have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles, from London and Tokyo for preseason games to the White House as Super Bowl champions. Among them, they have earned 17 Pro Bowl selections and have helped carry the 49ers to seven division titles, four conference championships and three Super Bowl victories. They've swapped chiropractors and masseurs, and they've sprung for dozens of beers.
Each has achieved remarkable longevity despite suffering a career-threatening injury. Lott fractured and lacerated the small finger on his left hand so badly in 1985 that he chose to have the tip amputated when it didn't heal properly. That same season, Wright broke a bone in his pelvis and has been hampered by painful chronic groin pulls ever since. In 1986, Montana underwent surgery to remove a ruptured disk in his lower back, and Wilson severely sprained his neck. A year later, Turner tore ligaments in his right knee. "We all could have quit so long ago," Montana says. "We have a real love for football and for each other. That's what keeps us coming back for more."