The Legends of Candlestick gave me goosebumps
Posted on July 17, 2014
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana enters the field before the Legends of Candlestick flag football game at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California on July 12, 2014. (Photo by Brad Mangin)
I have shot many sporting events since becoming a professional photojournalist in 1987. Recently most of the games I shoot involve a baseball. However, back in the day when Joe Montana ruled the football world I photographed many San Francisco 49ers games at fabled Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The old girl is getting torn down soon. The 49ers cut the ribbon today on their new playground, Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. Last Saturday I had once last chance to photograph an event at The Stick. I am sure glad I did not let the opportunity slip past me.
A few months ago I heard that Montana was gathering a bunch of his old teammates together to play a flag football game for charity against a team of all-stars led by former Miami Dolphin great Dan Marino. This would be the last football game ever played at the old ballpark that faces demolition in early 2015. The event didn’t excite me much and I forgot about it.
A few weeks ago I started hearing people talk about the game and it started to get me excited. My buddy Michael Zagaris, 49ers team photographer since 1979 was invited by Joe himself to shoot the game for him. My good friend Eric Risberg of the Associated Press shot the initial press conference and was assigned to cover the game. I started to think that this might be a fun thing to shoot myself.
Sure the game might be lame and there might be nobody in the park, but if the event was cool I would never forgive myself if I did not try and photograph Montana and his friends during their final appearance at Candlestick. I emailed my picture editor at Sports Illustrated Nate Gordon and our director of photography Brad Smith asking if they might be interested in having me shoot this for them. They gave me the green light, and I was officially on assignment to shoot a flag football game for the first time in my life.
When I was a young photographer I took it for granted that every time I shot a 49ers game Joe Montana was the quarterback. I didn’t take nearly as many pictures of him as I should have. I knew Montana was great, but had no idea what an iconic, legendary figure in American sports he would become. I first photographed Montana in 1986 when I was a 21-year-old photojournalism major at San Jose State. It was his first game with the team after missing six weeks from back surgery. I did a little picture story on him from that game and relished every moment I had on the field while shooting my first ever 49er game.
Remembering my mistakes as a young photographer I was determined to key on Montana and cover the heck out of him on Saturday at Candlestick. I knew this would be Joe’s night and I was not about to come away empty handed. I needed lots of pictures of the 58-year-old #16.
Game time was 7pm, so of course I got there at 3:30pm. I like to be early, especially at events like this where I have no clue what might be happening. There was a preliminary game between the San Francisco Police Department and San Francisco Firefighters, so I had no idea how much of an opportunity I would have to photograph the Legends before their game.
Soon I realized that there would be many photo opportunities as the fog started to roll in late in the afternoon. During the second half of the early game a few of the Legends, including Montana, began to emerge from the tunnel in the first base dugout and stood on the grass behind the south end zone. Risberg and I were there, and before we knew it we were both getting some great pictures with our wide angle lenses of Montana by himself, then with former owner Eddie DeBartolo, Jr.
Soon the early game ended and the Legends took the field to warm up. This was the time to break out the 400mm lens and shoot some tight stuff of the guys getting loose and showing off some of the biggest smiles you have ever seen. The legends looked like little kids who sneaked onto the field to play after dinner, hoping no one would catch them.
Pretty soon the warmups were over and it was time for the legends to head back into the locker room for their final preparations. This was what I was waiting for. All day I had thought to myself that I needed to get into the locker room. I needed to add something special to my coverage, and now was the chance to make my move. As the players filed off the field I chatted with Zagaris and asked if I could follow him into the dugout, down the long tunnel, and into the locker room. He said sure. He also warned that he was not in charge, but I took my chances. This was the chance I needed.
Before I knew it I was in the players inner sanctum, taking pictures of Joe and Jerry chatting while sitting next to each other at their lockers. I could not believe all of the pictures that were flashing before my eyes. This was like the old days, in so many ways. The greats of the game from 30 years ago where in uniform getting ready to play the game of football in front of thousands of adoring fans, except that they were all over 50-years-old and many were nursing injuries caused by warm-ups.
The other thing that was old school about this night was the fact that no corporate suits chased me out of the locker room. I was there documenting history, sharing the locker room with the legendary Zagaris, and having the time of my life. I thought I would last five minutes in there. I kept waiting for someone to grab me by the arm and escort me out of room. That time never came. I was free to do my job and I did just that, taking pictures of everything I could see and realizing a longtime dream of being Michael Zagaris, for about 45 minutes.
Soon all of the players were gathered in the tunnel and prepped for the introductions on the field. They all had to line up in order so they could emerge from the dugout one at a time as their name was called over the public address system. Of course Montana had to be introduced last, so Zagaris and I hung back in the tunnel at the end of the long line of Legends by Joe, Steve Young, DeBartolo, and others.
It seems like we were all in the tunnel forever, and it got real hot in there. I didn’t mind this one bit however. I was hanging out and listening to great stories, most of them coming from Zagaris. At one point The Z-Man was holding court and had Montana and Young hanging on every word as he spun tales about London, rock and roll shows, and other stuff (see below).
As we neared the dugout and Montana was getting ready to be announced to the crowd of around 25,000 I had one shot in mind. I needed to get Joe going up their stairs from behind with the stadium and fans in the background. It was not easy to accomplish this as I was dodging other people and shooting with my right hand as my left hand clutched my second camera attached to a 400mm 2.8 lens and a monopod. As you can see by the image at the top of this blog post I think I got what I wanted.
By the time the game started I had so much adrenaline from the scene in the locker room and the tunnel it took me awhile to get focused. I knew I had already shot so many pictures that might be able to get used by Sports Illustrated before the game. We did not need any boring football card, isolated action shots of the players. We needed a few pictures that helped tell the bigger story about the joy these players had playing their last game at Candlestick.
By halftime I was exhausted, happy, and goosepimply all at the same time. The event had been such a rush to photograph and we still had a half to go. I needed to shoot some wide stuff and whatever might happen after the game. I just needed a few more images that said everything was all over, forever, at Candlestick.
As the clock wound down at the end of the game the 49er legends were training 40-39. Montana had the ball and needed to drive his team the length of the field to win the game. Sound familiar? It was so cool to watch and photograph what happened next. The Legends secret weapon, #1, Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. checked into the game with just seconds left on the clock. After getting a pep talk from Jerry Rice, the former owner lined up slot right and made his way into the corner of the end zone, where Montana hit him in the Nike receiving gloves he was wearing on his hands (a last-minute gift from Rice) for the game winning score.
The place went nuts. It was bedlam on the field. After spiking the football DeBartolo was carried on the shoulders of his team, much to the delight of the delirious fans. The field was a mob scene and I was my wide angle lens out looking for a moment or two that could wrap up my photo essay. Suddenly I saw DeBartolo walking on the field clutching the game ball with his arm around his 10-year-old grandson Asher, who had been with him all night. They wandered out to midfield and DeBartolo looked very sad. This was the picture I needed (see below) to help finish my story.
Both Montana and DeBartolo spoke to the crowd, and just like that the final sporting event at Candlestick Park was over. I was in no hurry to get home and I knew traffic would be very ugly, so I hung out for a bit and did a few Instagrams. Then I found my old friend Stan Pechner who was shooting video for a terrific Kenny Mayne feature for ESPN. We shot pictures of each other on the field and told stories of our early days at the park. Stan saw Willie Mays play back in the day. I just missed Mays, as my first San Francisco Giants game was in 1973. What history we had both seen over the years in this old yard both as fans and journalists.
When I finally made my way to Lot L where my black Honda Pilot was sitting for the final time I took pictures of the the Stick covered in fog. It was now about 10pm and it was cold and windy. The parking lot was strewn with garbage, just the way it should be. I couldn’t wait to get home, download my cards, and see what I got.
I hoped the pictures would be as good as I thought, and they were. It was fun to look at a set of pictures that had so much variety, especially with the locker room stuff. Never in my wildest dreams did I think this assignment would be so much fun. When I finished my work at 2:30am I was so tired but I could not sleep. Just thinking about all that I had seen that night, and in the many years before while covering the 49ers of the glory years kept me awake for a long time.
Of course I could not have had the opportunity to shoot this assignment without Brad Smith and Nate Gordon at SI believing in me. I was thrilled when a selection of my pictures came out as a two-page Leading Off spread in the magazine this week. This is a night I will never forget. A night when I got to play Michael Zagaris for a few minutes. A night that gave me goosebumps.