It’s that time of year, again.
That time of year when the leaves change, the weather inevitably cools down, and football fans come out of the woodwork to cheer for their favorite teams. Donned in their jerseys, face paint and foam fingers, football fans have shown that they are among the most passionate and dedicated in American sport. Fans of all shapes and sizes gather together every week to watch their favorite players battle it out on the gridiron. The National Football League, in particular, has become such a treasured institution, particular games throughout the season are considered special occasions. Monday Night Football, for example, is no exception.
One of the ideal places to watch sporting events is the Davis Graduate. Known by many a college student and sports fan as “The Grad,” the Graduate is one of the most popular hangouts in the city, particularly when it comes to watching sports. The bar and restaurant is equipped with a number of HDTV screens, including a giant retractable HD projector screen in the middle of the establishment. They will usually be on various sports stations – ESPN, Fox Sports, among others. On Monday, September 20th, however, many of the TV screens were tuned in to Monday Night Football.
This game, however, was special for many local sports fans. The San Francisco 49ers faced off against the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints at Candlestick Park, in San Francisco. The 49ers, an early favorite to win the NFC West and a team seemingly on the rise, stumbled to an 0-1 start against their division rival, the Seattle Seahawks, the week before. Against the Saints, known for their high-powered offense and propensity for causing turnovers on defense, no one really gave San Francisco a chance to keep the game competitive, let alone win.
However, that didn’t stop a bevy of 49ers fans from showing up on Monday night. Fans from all over came to the Grad to watch the anticipated, yet potentially one-sided, matchup. Kaitlin, a student from UC Davis, had been a 49ers fan for a long time. She and her group of friends are regulars to the Grad on Monday nights. “It’s what [me and my friends] do every Monday,” she explained. “We’ve been doing this for years, now.” By kickoff, the place was filling up with football fans. “This is the place to be for football games,” said Will Arnold, an emcee working during big sporting events. “Especially if it’s [the 49ers] playing.”
While spirits were up for 49ers fans as the game began, things did not start well for the home team. On the third play of their first offensive drive, center David Baas snapped the ball over QB Alex Smith’s head, sailing into the end zone, and causing a safety. The Saints had taken the lead, 2-0, without touching the ball. Things got worse for 49ers fans when Saints RB Reggie Bush caught an easy touchdown pass from QB Drew Brees on New Orleans’ very next offensive drive, making the score 9-0, Saints. While a TD pass from Alex Smith to Frank Gore cut the lead to two, TE Delanie Walker had an untimely fumble before the end of the half, at the Saints 5-yard line. For the near-capacity crowd, this was especially demoralizing.
While the 49ers’ mistakes in the first half discouraged much of the crowd, the Grad responded to these missteps, accordingly. The Grad, in response to the opening safety, offered $3.75 “buttery nipples” at the bar. After Walker’s fumble cost the 49ers a chance to take the lead, Arnold came over the loudspeaker. “Niners fans,” he exclaimed, “drown your sorrows with a $3.75 slippery nipple at the bar!” Despite the disheartening play, sparse laughter could be heard throughout the restaurant.
Arnold and the rest of the Grad staff provided many more extracurricular activities for the audience. Throughout the night, the witty emcee offered free food and drinks for anyone who could correctly answer his various trivia questions, or performed various “dares”. For example, Arnold offered free nachos for anyone who could correctly name the five Super Bowls the 49ers won. I correctly came up with Super Bowl XVI (16), XIX (19), XXIII (23), XXIV (24) and XXIX (29). “If you know your trivia or you get lucky, you could have your whole night paid for,” Arnold remarked later. “If you’re looking for some fun … we’re giving away a lot of [free] stuff.”
Another example came in the third quarter. Two key pass plays by Alex Smith drove the 49ers down the field to set up an Anthony Dixon TD run to take the lead, 14-9, electrifying the Grad crowd. It was then when Arnold announced a dare: any two people wearing jerseys to come up to the bar and kiss for a plate of hot wings. Two such individuals, Lorena and Spencer, came up to kiss, amidst various boos. Apparently, while Spencer donned a 49ers jersey, Lorena was wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey – a faux pas in front of a pro-49ers crowd. “They were probably just ticked,” Lorena replied, “because we were together.”
Going into the fourth quarter, the Saints had quickly scored 10 straight points, bringing the score to 19-14. A dropped punt by Philip Adams gave the Saints another opportunity to extend the lead, to the chorus of groans and swears by the crowd. While the 49ers defense had a brilliant goal-line stand to limit New Orleans to a field goal, the score was 22-14, Saints, with 2:12 left in the game. The numerous turnovers and mistakes by the 49ers offense, at this point, was growing tiresome among the fans. “It’s frustrating,” exclaimed one 49ers fan. “Every time [the 49ers] threaten to score, they make a mistake … I think all of us are surprised it’s even this close. I’m happy they’re playing well, but it’s aggravating with all the mistakes they make. They could easily be winning this game.” Despite all of that, the fans in the room knew what the 49ers had to do: march down the field, score a touchdown, and score the two-point conversion to tie the game.
And that is exactly what they did. Starting at their own 18-yard line, the 49ers traveled down the field with a combination of screen passes and clutch run plays by Alex Smith. With every play, the crowd grew more anxious, cheering on a team that, by all accounts, shouldn’t have been in this position in the first place. A 7-yard touchdown run by Frank Gore finished the drive, and the place exploded with energy and excitement. The cheers were nearly deafening. Complete strangers were hugging and high-fiving, knowing the 49ers were a two-point conversion away from tying the game.
Suspense took over, as the referees initially ruled the attempt was no good. The fans in the room were yelling at the top of their lungs, “THAT WAS GOOD!” “ARE YOU BLIND?!” and various other exclamations. A booth review reverse the call, and, once again, the place was like dynamite. As the adrenaline subsided, I realized the one mistake the 49ers made that, as a fan, would most likely doom them: they left too much time on the clock.
With 1:19 left, many held out hope that the 49ers could make one more defensive stop, either to force overtime or to get possession back and win the game. A key 30-yard pass play from Drew Brees to Marques Colston dashed those hopes, giving the Saints a 37-yard field goal attempt with two seconds left. One more glimmer of hope for 49ers fans came when Garrett Hartley’s kick was partially blocked … only to awkwardly sail between the uprights, giving New Orleans the victory, 25-22.
It was definitely a game of ups and downs for many who attended that Monday night. And, while the 49ers ultimately lost, a good time was had by all at the Davis Graduate. Many walked away with free food, free drinks and an enjoyable evening of football.
Here’s to an NFL season of memorable Monday nights.