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When the San Francisco 49ers, my worrisome Niners, moved out to a 24-7 lead over the Giants in the second quarter of their NFC divisional playoff game three weeks ago, I turned to my companion in the end zone of Candlestick Park and said gravely, "It's all over." He nodded somberly in agreement. We weren't lamenting the fate of the Giants, mind you. On the contrary, more than three decades of suffering had taught both of us a painful lesson: When the Niners are ahead in a playoff game, especially if they're in front 24-7, forget it. It's all over. They've had it. The Niners, that is. It's in the history books.
For the rest of the country, the year 1957 was no more eventful than most. Oh, Sputniks 1 and 2 were up there beeping in the Space Age, but down below everything was cool. Ike was safely back in the White House for a second term, Elvis was complaining about being "all shook up," and Debbie still had Eddie. Life went on. But not for those of us who are now rather coyly known as the 49er Faithful. For us, the year ended on Dec. 22, the day the Niners played Detroit in San Francisco's old Kezar Stadium for the championship of the NFL Western Conference and the right to meet Cleveland for the league title.
It had, till then, been a banner year for the home team. The Alley-Oop pass play from Y.A. Tittle to gangly R.C. Owens had pulled out a succession of 11th-hour wins. The play, if it could be called that, was a mere lob to the vicinity of the opponents' goal posts, and its success was wholly dependent on the ability of Owens, a former College of Idaho basketball player, to outjump the defenders for the ball, which he regularly did. Assistant Coach Red Hickey persuaded Head Coach Frankie Albert to put the Alley-Oop in the playbook after he saw Tittle, merely fooling around in practice, try unsuccessfully to throw a ball over Owens's head. "We should practice that," Hickey told Albert. "Practice it?" said Albert. "How do you practice that?" But it frequently worked.
Not that the 49ers didn't have other weapons at their disposal. In addition to Tittle, Halfback Hugh (The King) McElhenny, Fullback Joe (The Jet) Perry and Defensive Tackle Leo Nomellini would make the NFL Hall of Fame. The Niners and the Lions had finished the 1957 season in a dead heat for the division championship with 8-4 records, but San Francisco, coming off three straight thriller wins, was on a roll, and its rowdy fans, present company included, were ready to cut loose. Things looked bad for me for a while. My wife had had our first child only four days earlier, and over my obviously selfish objections, she wanted to come home on the day of the game. I was not then a sportswriter, just a hopelessly addicted fan. On game day, I was as busy as Buster Keaton, fetching wife and newborn baby, quaffing some congratulatory champagne with outraged in-laws as fellow season-ticket-holding friends paced impatiently outside and finally scurrying to arrive at Kezar only seconds before the kickoff. As it turned out, I'd have been better off in the bosom of my burgeoning family.
Ah, 24-7. That, alas, was the score in favor of the 49ers by halftime. The fans were preparing to dismantle the dilapidated stadium in exultation. And things got even better. On the first play of the second half from the San Francisco 20, McElhenny ran right, assessing his opportunities as he loped menacingly along the line with a stride more feline than human. He paused patiently, running in place, as Guard Lou Palatella got the block that released him. Then he flew, as if pursued by demons, cutting diagonally across the worn turf against the flow of traffic, seemingly oblivious to the Lions clawing at his flanks. No one I've seen has ever run the ball with quite The King's panache.
He was, in a sense, pursued by demons. As a youngster in Los Angeles returning home at night, he was, he has said, "always scared. There was a light at the end of the alley which I had to cut through to get home, with dark doorways on both sides of it. So I wouldn't walk on either side. I'd run down the middle straight toward that light, and along the way I'd sense a telephone pole that I couldn't see and duck away from it. And I'd have the feeling there was someone in each of those doorways trying to get at me." Mac. Good, sweet Mac. He has spent the better part of a lifetime dodging past those doorways, behind which have lurked bankruptcy, broken dreams (he failed to get the Seattle NFL franchise for the prospective purchasers he was representing) and the usual round of domestic headaches. But he generally makes it to the end of the alley.
He was something in those days. Every long run of his—and he still has the three longest runs from scrimmage and the longest punt return in 49er history—was a work of art, and we Mac-ites collected them avidly in our minds' eyes. This one against Detroit was a near masterpiece, covering about 150 circuitous yards—routine for a Mac gain of 50 yards or more—until he was finally hemmed in and driven out of bounds on the Detroit nine-yard line.
First-and-goal on the nine, ahead 24-7. I mean, this one's all over. That's right, it was. For the Niners. The Lions held, and San Francisco's Gordy Soltau kicked a field goal to make it 27-7. And that was it. The Lions won it 31-27. Who knows how? We were all too stunned to remember. All over the stadium beer cans dropped from the hands of disbelieving fans. It all seemed to happen with a terrible inevitability. And it kept on happening. That fateful game of 1957 was an omen.
The 49ers didn't play another postseason game until 1970, the first of three successive years in which they would lose in the playoffs to Dallas. The last of these disasters, on Dec. 23, 1972, was a replay of 1957. Vic Washington returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a 49er touchdown, and with only 1:53 left in the game the Niners were leading 28-16. But Roger Staubach got the Cowboys a touchdown in only 32 seconds, and with 1:21 left the Cowboys lined up for an on-side kick. The Niners were ready for this gambit, having deployed the sure of hand up front to field the ball. Toni Fritsch kicked a squibber straight to Preston Riley, a third-year wide receiver out of Memphis State. The strategy-had worked. The Cowboys had literally played into the 49ers' hands. It was all over. And it was. For the 49ers. The ball squirted through Riley's supposedly nimble fingers, and Mel Renfro of the Cowboys fell on it at midfield. A Staubach scramble and two passes and Dallas had won 30-28. Riley became a pariah who soon drifted out of the game. "I've been in construction ever since then," he said recently in an interview from his home in Houston. "I don't really think that much about it anymore. I'm still hangin' in there."
"I remember that kid who ran the kick back, Vic Washington, was inconsolable after that game," says Lou Spadia, then the 49ers' president. "He sat in his locker and cried for an hour and a half."