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Archive for Saturday, August 11, 2007

Bay Area honors Bill Walsh at public memorial

August 11, 2007

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— The ceremony, of course, took place in the north end zone.

The north end zone of Candlestick Park.

"Our family is back together, here at Candlestick Park," said former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., as the crowd cheered the man, the 'Stick, the family.

No one was calling the place anything else on Friday. The public memorial for Bill Walsh wasn't a venue for corporate names or marketing contracts of modern pretense. It was a bubbling up of emotion and memories that recalled the time and place Walsh gave to us. Not to the sports community at large. Not to the NFL. But to the San Francisco Bay Area.

And San Francisco gave something back to Walsh on Friday. Perhaps belatedly, but still appropriately.

"This field will be known for our great friend," said San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, holding up a proclamation as he stood near the spot where Joe Montana found Dwight Clark on a January day 25 years ago. "This field will forever be known as Bill Walsh Field."

That is a wonderful tribute, but everyone had the same thought. What happens if the team moves? What about the theoretical new field? What about the new stadium?

"As the 49ers proceed with a new stadium, I hope they have a chance to honor Bill in some way," DeBartolo said. "His heart, his soul, his legacy belongs with this team. Bill Walsh's name must be attached."

At the old barn Friday, the field sparkled under the bright blue sky, as though reveling in its new name. Montana and Steve Young both marveled at how pristine it was, no longer marred by the Giants basepaths that Walsh put up with in August and September.

It was filled with fans, about 8,000 strong. They came in their cherry-red Montana No. 16 jerseys, their Ronnie Lott No. 42s, the occasional old "Flash 80" T-shirt. This was a crowd that had never heard of a garage sale.

"They had to pull those out of the back of the closet," Montana said.

It would have been nice had the stadium been packed with 60,000 - the way it always was for Walsh after that magical day in 1982. But the ones who came were loud and exuberant. They shouted "Joe!" and "Ronnie!" and "Jerry!" and "Steve!" Loudest of all, they shouted "Ed-die, Ed-die!" until DeBartolo put a stop to it and led the crowd in a chant of "Bill! Bill! Bill!"

Those fans were the regular folk, there to share their memories of Walsh as the richer and more famous had done a day earlier at Stanford.

"He was respected by the poor, the weak - and celebrated by all the dignitaries," Lott said. "They all respected what this man did. ... He was an original."

At the end of the 100-minute ceremony, Lott and Roger Craig and Jerry Rice held aloft the Lombardi trophies from the three Super Bowls that Walsh won: Lott held Super Bowl XVI, the first. Rice held Super Bowl XXIII, in which he was the MVP. Craig held XIX - perhaps Walsh's greatest team.

The backdrop was the old familiar 'Stick. A place Walsh transformed into a sports heaven. The orange seats are faded. The concrete lip is stained. But - on Friday - it still resonated with that old magic.

"For one brief shining moment, there was a Camelot," DeBartolo said. "That time was our Camelot. Bill Walsh was our King Arthur, and this stadium was our castle."

The 'Stick was as much a part of the legend as any of those on stage or in the audience. Young pointed out where Walsh stood, and where the demoralized opposition was - "right over there" on the far sideline.

Carmen Policy told a funny story - illustrating the dynamic between the competitive coach and his demanding owner - about Walsh coming into the locker room after a loss and seeing that the soda machine was smashed in. And how Lott defused the situation by saying, "Hey Mr. D., what's wrong? Didn't you have a quarter?"

There were plenty of laughs Friday. Lots of memories.

"These have been two wonderful days," Rice said.

After the private service, Harris Barton said that about 40 players went out in Palo Alto, to hoist a beverage in Walsh's honor. Friday, there was a champagne toast in his honor. Former 49ers hugged and kissed and expressed their love for one another.

"It really felt like a family reunion," DeBartolo said. "It's almost like we were waiting for Bill to walk onstage."

He would have loved it. During the ceremony, an NFL Films tribute to Walsh included this quote from him: "Someday I'd love to get all the men I've worked with together. God, it would be great."

It has happened the past two days. It has been more than great.

After the ceremony, Walsh's men gathered around his wife, Geri, who held a red rose and blew kisses. They posed for one last photo in Walsh's memory, on the field that bears his name.

And the crowd cheered.

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