David Smith of Santa Clara, Calif. was leading a rather normal life in 2006. The Morgan Hill native worked the graveyard shift stocking shelves for a grocer and then spent his mornings driving his children to school. In between, he obsessed over the San Francisco 49ers. Since his high school days in 1978, in fact, he missed only two home games at Candlestick Park, the weeks that his father and father-in-law passed away. Then the organization’s human resources department, which had Smith’s resume on file from a job fair he attended, called him in for an interview. They wanted to test his nose.

Two years earlier, in an intra-office memo dated December 2004, 49ers executive vice president of stadium development Larry MacNeil wrote that he, then-project executive John Wasson and Santa Clara county assessor Larry Stone discussed six potential sites for the football team’s new home. Staying in San Francisco, the city of its birth, was still the franchise’s primary focus, but it had its South Bay Area options. The sixth such option rested in the northwest quadrant of State Route 237 and Zanker Road in San Jose, next to the city’s water treatment plant. It was spacious, had plenty of on-site parking, faced few lighting and crowd noise issues and, according to Korve Engineering’s June 2005 study, would require few modifications to prove “ample transportation ingress and egress from an NFL stadium.” There was only one problem with “The Zanker Road Alternative.” The place stunk.

MacNeil, a man of facts, needed someone he could trust to do a feasibility study on the funk. Smith of Santa Clara was the perfect candidate, and not just because of his proximity. His grandfather was a horticulturist – he grew up smelling plants and had long been sensitive to sulfurs. He showed off these olfactory skills when taking MacNeil’s Geomatrix-issued test, correctly ranking eight unmarked bottles of varying concentrations of Butanol (or n-butyl alcohol), a “reference odor" because of its strong but inoffensive stench. There was also Smith’s inimitable 49ers fandom. One of the first things MacNeil remembered about his freelancer nearly a decade after hiring him was his red and gold van. On gamedays, Smith would often wake up at 7 a.m. to get five hours of tailgating time at The ‘Stick. He would enter into a one-year contract with MacNeil to help narrow his favorite team’s search for the third stadium in its history.

Where the 49ers didn’t build – this, readers, is the beginning of Levi’s® Stadium’s story. I had to pick one. Other reasonable starting points: the organization’s April 2007 proposal for the 21-acre site near Great America amusement park that Levi’s® Stadium now sits upon; the educated but courageous bet by co-chairmen, Denise DeBartolo York and husband Dr. John York, to forge ahead in the middle of the country’s recession; or the groundbreaking of a $937 million dollar project on April 19, 2012.

For the last seven months, since joining 49ers Studios full-time to assist with covering this brand-new building, I have been shown the ropes, told tales and witnessed first-hand the finishing of an NFL venue. Yes, the narrative of the now-$1.27-billion Levi’s® Stadium is really just beginning, but its construction has officially ended, as celebrated by Thursday’s Ribbon Cutting. The Santa Clara Stadium Authority owns the building, and the team is merely a tenant, but it is home – especially for our smell-sensitive Smith, who lives less than four miles away and will be sitting in section 228 for the inaugural season. “It was a pretty a mundane thing,” Smith said of his limited but important role in the organization’s path to 4900 Marie P. DeBartolo Way, “but it was pretty cool to take a 49ers check to the bank every month.”

“The Zanker Road Alternative,” also known undercover as “The Augusta Project," that wasn’t to be? Smith, by the way, visited 10 locations around the 350-acre space every day for an hour or two starting in 2006. Most of the data he collected has since been destroyed. On July 27, the only recording of his that I could track down, Smith noted “bay” and “horse” stenches near where the 49ers ballpark could have been built. “That,” Smith said, “would not have been a good place to tailgate.” 

Since 1988, Santa Clara has been home to 49ers headquarters, the literal, physical building. Inside, through the double doors underneath the “SF” shield out front and past the lobby’s glass case holding five Super Bowl trophies, there are locker stalls and film rooms, yes, but there are also cubicles and conferences rooms. Accounting, business operations, marketing, technology and human resources – all of the departments of your typical company in your typical office building share this space. Only that these employees (your reporter and producer included) represent more than a company logo – we represent that oval and share the responsibility of supporting its owners’ ultimate goals.

When the team’s front office called upon its own to support efforts toward building a new stadium mere feet from these headquarters, at 4949 Centennial Boulevard, many responded. Between the summer of 2009, when the 49ers and the city of Santa Clara agreed on the basic deal points in this term sheet, and Election Day 2010, they were hard at work. Measure J, or “The Santa Clara Stadium Taxpayer Protection and Economic Progress Act,” hit the June 8 ballot. It asked voters:

Shall the City of Santa Clara adopt Ordinance 17.20 leasing City property for a professional football stadium and other events; no use of City General or Enterprise finds [sic] for construction; no new taxes for residents for stadium; Redevelopment Agency funds capped for construction; private party pays all construction cost overruns; no City/Agency obligation for stadium operating/maintenance; private party payment of projected fair market rent; and additional funds for senior/youth/library/recreation to City's General Fund?

(San Jose Mercury News

What started with an “all-hands” meeting led to weekends at or around the “Yes on J” election headquarters on El Camino Real. Brandon Smith, manager of the “Santa Clarans for Economic Progress” campaign, put them and others to work. As many as 100, 150 or even 200 people, also comprising die-hard 49ers fans and members of local booster clubs, joined the cause. Among their assignments: walking through neighborhoods and providing voters with information; recording data such as which way members of each household would be voting and whether or not they had planted a “Yes” or “No” sign in their front yard; making and taking phone calls; and ensuring that “Yes” voters made it to the polls.

The contingent of 49ers employees who volunteered their time, everyone from executives to those with entry-level positions, were prepped on how to answer citizens’ common questions. Will our taxes increase? Where will traffic flow? Will the team still be called the San Francisco 49ers? They were welcomed into living rooms and sometimes kicked off of lawns. This is what they remember.

Jared Muela, manager of youth football
“We had a lady who wouldn’t open the door because she was naked – this was literally the first house we visited. It was funny because she was super engaged on the topic. So we literally spent 15 minutes talking through the door. She was uninformed initially, but I think when we left, she was supportive. To her and everyone else, we basically said, ‘We’re not the decision-maker and we’re not making promises, but we will tell you everything we know.’”

Brandon Moreno, manager of community relations
“Every Saturday for three or four months, I would bring players to ‘Yes on J’ headquarters. I’d bring them in at 10 in the morning to hype up the walkers. Their thanks for walking was to have this Q&A and autograph session with these guys – our first picks, Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati, as well as Patrick Willis, Brent Jones and Jerry Rice, among others. They weren’t paid for it, but they knew it was important to the organization. There were 200 volunteers the time Jerry came. I met him at a Starbuck’s, briefed him on Measure J and brought him over through the back door. He had a good time with the crowd, pumping them up that day.”

Carri Wills, executive administrative assistant
“I met many people that just loved the fact we were going to put their city on the map and then I had the naysayers that asked me for tickets to get their vote. All in all, it was an educational experience.”

Larry MacNeil, executive vice president of development
“I walked on Election Day and the job was to go to supporters’ homes and make sure they had voted, and if they hadn’t we told them where to go to cast their ballot. Some people were shocked that a senior executive from the 49ers was knocking on on their door. I hadn’t knocked on that many doors since college, when I sold vacuum cleaners.”

Dario Montenegro, security officer
“I remember knocking on the door and a family was eating dinner. When I asked them if they were voting for the new stadium, the whole family screamed, “Yes, because it’s the 49ers!”

Team CEO Jed York shared his own memory of going door to door. The campaign claimed to have knocked on 95,000 by its conclusion, but one was among the toughest: “There was a voter when I was out canvassing that wasn’t going to vote for the project because he was a Cowboys fan.” York told reporters he attempted to get Dallas owner Jerry Jones or one of his front office members on the phone, but the voter wasn’t home when he returned ready to connect them. 

After chasing every vote and helping to secure a healthy 58.2 percent, 49ers employees drove into work on June 9 with the kind of collective feeling that is usually reserved for victories on Sundays. Many hadn’t ever experienced a winning season on the field – San Francisco was .500 or below every year for eight straight years starting in 2003 – but there was a sense that better records lay ahead. Outside their offices, on the corner of Centennial Boulevard and Tasman Drive, they saw a newly-installed sign that read: Future Home of the San Francisco 49ers. There was a flurry of activity around it. Reporters, camera crews and their news vans were flanked by fans. The work – and the attention it gained – was only just beginning.

Traditionally, arenas of all kinds have been completed in three-plus years the way you might finish a coffee-table puzzle over the span of a week – fit one piece next to another and another until those pieces make something bigger, something whole. The 49ers and their partners did something different. During Labor Day weekend of 2011, they put four sets of hands around the coffee table to create their puzzle. Here in Santa Clara, this meant four different construction projects on the stadium site’s four quadrants. Each team of workers employed a 338 foot-tall, 330-ton crane flown in from Austrian company Liebherr. Those working on the northeast corner got their beam up first and were rewarded for it.

Jack Hill, who replaced a retiring Wasson as the 49ers project executive, said of shaving 12 months off of the stadium’s end-date: “We all got our heads together and said, ‘Let’s do this a year early, let’s overlap the design and the construction and put together a plan.’”

Team project executive Jack Hill, right, and Masel at the stadium, six years after Masel got the job. (Associated Press)

Turner Construction’s Dave Masel remembered it this way: “They thought I was crazy.”

If Levi’s® Stadium, for its Silicon Valley likeness or its sheer steel foundation, is better explained by numbers, consider this one: Eight hundred and nineteen days passed between the Santa Clara Stadium Authority’s groundbreaking and its Ribbon Cutting ceremony. And Masel is one of the people responsible for the feat.

Another starting point: Go back again, this time to March 24, 2006 and inside the football team’s defensive meeting room at 4949. Before ruling out sites like the “The Zanker Road Alternative,” the 49ers unofficial selection committee is going through the arduous “RFP” – the request for proposals from two construction firms. Sitting together are MacNeil, members of the York family and, among others, Devcon Construction vice president Jonathan Harvey, who had been assisting the organization’s stadium efforts, including the Mills Corp. plan next to The ‘Stick, as far back as 1997. What was the committee seeking from the other side of the table? “We were not looking for a flashy sales pitch or guys with shiny hammers,” MacNeil said. “We wanted people with hammers that actually had been used.”

When it was their turn for their five-hour presentation, Turner had one man speak for three. Masel, a veteran of NFL stadium projects in Philadelphia and Denver and Kansas City, has a thick Boston accent and an affinity for the New England Patriots. To the chagrin of construction workers on his other projects, however, Masel strung 49ers flags atop his cranes. To his audience on this March afternoon, he spoke from the heart. He told the committee that he knew how to build their stadium, and he guaranteed that he wouldn’t leave the site until it got done – and that it would get done on time. By summer, with the project officially awarded to Turner, Masel became the Turner/Devcon Joint Venture general superintendent. Eventually, the time came to fulfill his promises.

With $10 million of the Yorks’ money at their disposal in February 2012, the stadium builders raked the ground before breaking the ground. This was the so-called “Make Ready” work, which included scraping the site and moving underground utilities. Later, after the groundbreaking and in conjunction with Berkel and Co. Contractors, Inc., they amazingly finished 3,000 “piles” 50 to 55 feet deep in the span of a month. Naturally, they used four drill rigs to create these literal holes in the ground to begin forming the stadium’s foundation. Another subcontractor, West Jordan, Utah-based SME Steel brought in its skeletal frame. All along, Masel was in charge. “This is Dave’s stadium,” Jed York was fond of saying, “until he turns it over to us.”

Well before the 100-to-900-level Levi’s® Stadium had its shiny, five-story suite tower or its 200 foot-wide, 48 foot-tall video boards, as much planning took place as building. A group of dreamers needed designers. The Los Angeles-based architectural firm HNTB, which was awarded its contract after a meeting in a Boardman, Ohio Holiday Inn, was responsible for the first renderings you saw of expansive plazas, a steel-column framework and clear glass-enclosed spaces. Theirs was also what ultimately became the NRG Solar Terrace, a 27,000 square foot green roof atop the west-side tower, that could become the stadium’s defining feature. Like the pedestrian bridges it looks down upon, it’s chock-full of solar panels, helping the impressive edifice become the first NFL venue to open with a LEED gold certification.

The stadium was drawn up to be as high-tech as it is sustainable. With founding sponsorship partners like Yahoo!, Intel and SAP, you wouldn’t be surprised to find charging stations around its wide concourses, plus an anticipated mobile app and Wi-Fi connectivity. No, this is not just a place for football, although the 49ers already announced the sellout of the team’s 10 home games on July 1. Later in its debut year, Levi’s® Stadium will welcome Major League Soccer and Pac-12 Conference football squads to its field, which will transition further down the road for the already-scheduled hosting of Wrestlemania 31 as well as monster truck and motocross events. In the meantime, here are six milestones that came first and deserve highlighting:

linton “Speedy” Horton is the least technically sound person working on the most technologically advanced stadium in the country. While he does have a smartphone, he doesn’t really know how to use it. He is not on Facebook. He doesn’t Tweet. But he is your first call on a construction site. True to his nickname, he’s the fastest to finish a project, big or small. “And he’s more well-known than anyone else,” said Turner colleague Sean Brummer. “Everyone knows who Speedy is.”

This sunk in when Speedy, a soon-to-be-68-year-old logistics manager for the construction firm, guided me toward a Levi’s® Stadium service elevator last month. The young operator there sat up straight in his chair when he saw us and asked, “Sir, where would you like to go?” as if he was willing to take Speedy to the moon. We were only our way to the 300 level and down to lower bowl seats, where I was going to ask Speedy to literally look over his body of work.

When we arrived and plumped down in section 101, Speedy told me he’d been working here since April 2012. It was hard to get a read on exactly what he did. He said he saw the miles of piping arrive for the Santa Clara Stadium Authority’s groundbreaking and that he has managed everything that has come on and off of the site since. As he explained, I began to understand why Hill suggested I speak with Speedy in the first place: to learn about Levi’s® Stadium through the protective glasses-covered eyes of a real construction worker. In his long-sleeve collared shirt, blue jeans and boots, Speedy more than looked the part.

“He has an uncanny ability to know when stuff needs to happen before it does,” said Brummer, Masel’s assistant superintendent. “Almost nightly, me and him will go around the site and say this needs to happen or somebody should do this. Two weeks later, lo and behold, if we hadn’t done this or that, we would have been screwed.

“You’re never going to see him at a press conference or a ribbon-cutting, but he’s put more blood and sweat into this job than anybody.”

And time. Speedy has worked shifts matching or resembling 4:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. There was one night (or morning, that of July 4, 2012) when he worked until 4 a.m. He and Masel, who calls Speedy one of his best friends in the world, were overseeing the pouring of concrete in their first summer together in California – and they were wearing winter jackets under their vests and ski hats under their helmets.

Speedy left this out in our hour-long conversation. He also didn’t offer other details. For one, he’s known around “Trailer City,” the movable offices most contractors and subcontractors work out of, for his barbecuing. Ironically, however, it’s because of the time he takes to prepare weekend lunches and dinners for his coworkers. Horton won’t reveal his southern-style, dry-rub recipes, but we do know that he slow-cooks his pork ribs for six hours after three or four days of preparing the meat. Eventually, it hits his five-foot-wide Weber charcoal grill, a gift from a past job. There’s similar care given to his fried chicken.

I learned later about Speedy’s Louisiana upbringing. One of six children, he grew up relatively poor, working in the fields. Then he moved to Chicago and became a laborer for Turner, initially earning $3.50 per hour. Fifty years later, he’s a third-generation employee: His grandfather put in more than three decades with the company, his dad more than four. Speedy wasn’t trying to set records. He pressed himself back into work on the Kansas City Chiefs renovation of Arrowhead Stadium after his wife died in 2008.

I tell Speedy about my grandpa, who made staplers at Swingline’s first manufacturing plant on Long Island in New York before he became a foreman out west, too. Like Speedy, his hands were always busy. “This kept him going, like me,” Speedy tells me. “His work was a part of him.”

Speedy – nobody calls him anything different, so it would feel wrong to – had already worked on stadium projects for the Denver Broncos and Chicago Bears. He was actually in the Windy City for more than 30 years. With them, come other stories. “Like walking the edge of high-rise buildings with a wheel-barrel full of concrete mix,” Brummer said. Speedy worked on the Standard Oil Building, now known as the Aon Center, Chicago’s third-tallest skyscraper. He also had 129 men reporting to him while serving as a labor foreman on Chicago O’Hare International Airport’s United Airlines terminal. It was during that fast-tracked mega project, after he spent all night alone clearing a dozen truckloads of debris, that he earned his nickname.

It still fits. Speedy puts more effort into each step these days, but he bounces when he walks, and he is always moving, on foot or driving around in a dirty Polaris buggy. After 7:30 p.m. on the Wednesday before Ribbon Cutting, Speedy was spraying a fireman-like hose at the stadium’s east side, knocking dirt off of the steel, white structure. “It wouldn’t be where it is without him,” Brummer said. “He continually puts in 12-hour days, seven days a week. He is, by far, the hardest working person on the job site – to point that we have tell to him to go home, and he’ll ignore me. He works through lunch and dinner every day, and he’s constantly on his radio.”

Speedy’s walkie-talkie sounds off, garbled, from his breast pocket near the end of our talk in the red, lower-bowl seats. One of his 30 laborers is asking for direction. Before we walk out, I ask Speedy for his email address. He pulls out a black, incased iPhone that Brummer has tried to tutor him on. “I’m an old dinosaur when it comes to this freaking thing,” he says, fumbling from app to app. “Don’t worry,” I say. “One last question, though: What do you want fans to think of the building of Levi’s® Stadium?”

“Life is a funny thing,” says Speedy, who will stick around the rest of July and August to assist the team’s stadium operations department with the transition. “Some people will take it for granted and some won’t. Some will say, ‘They did a hell of a job,’ and for some, it will never cross their mind. So long as we get more positive than negative – and we will, because this one has all the bells and whistles – I will be happy. That’s how I look at that.”

he 49ers, which started play as part of the eight-team All-America Football Conference in 1946 and became an original NFL member club in ’50, have always lived in San Francisco. For 25 seasons, the organization, for all intents and purposes, resided at 755 Stanyan Street. Kezar Stadium, known in part for its wooden bleachers, was home. Then the team spent 43 seasons at Candlestick, a ballpark built for baseball that saw one great moment after another on the gridiron. Mail postmarked then arrived at 602 Jamestown Avenue.

Address hasn’t affected winning. And it actually makes sense that, at 43.3 miles, the 49ers are now further from the city they're named after than any team in pro football. They have the largest reach. Which, in part, is why the organization outgrew its last two buildings. Kezar, which opened in 1925, cost $300,000 to build. The ‘Stick, which was publicly financed, saw a bill of $32 million for its inaugural baseball campaign in 1960. The price tag for Levi’s® Stadium, about a million square feet larger than its predecessor, approached $1.3 billion billion by the end.

Now that it’s upright and intact, Levi’s® (the shorthand fans are bound to employ amongst friends) comes with high expectations to go along with the high-fives. Here’s what’s been said about the house they built:

Eddie DeBartolo Jr., owner (1977-1999)
"Candlestick Park is legendary. It’s legendary for baseball. It’s certainly legendary for football. It was the scene of some of the greatest triumphs and some of the sadness that the 49ers had over the years. We couldn’t have played in a better place. But Levi’s® Stadium’s going to be the preeminent stadium in the country.

George Seifert, coach (1989-1996)
"I’ll have been involved with all three stadiums: Kezar as a fan and as a high school player myself playing games in Kezar, and then working and coaching at Candlestick. And then being fortunate enough to be inducted into the Hall of Fame at the new stadium. So it kind of goes one, two, three."

Jerry Rice, wide receiver (1985-2000)
"This place is just beautiful. What I wouldn’t give to just be able to run out on that football field." 

Jim Harbaugh, coach
"Everything about a new stadium will be exciting. Especially all of the things for the first time, including practicing in the new stadium, the public seeing our team in the new stadium, going into the locker room. I know the grass is going to be great. It’ll be like a pool table, billiards table. This will be like Augusta (National Golf Club) fairways."

Patrick Willis, linebacker
"This new facility, if you haven’t seen it, it’s amazing. To hear about all of the things that are going to be in it and that are going on about it, it’s state of the art. Like I said at the groundbreaking, I hope I’m fortunate enough to play in this stadium for a little while."

Robert Alberino Jr., vice president/executive producer
Being asked to lead a team that will populate content for Levi's® Stadium was a one-in-none opportunity for me. The first moment I saw the blueprints for the stadium and imagined what it could offer the fans in terms of sight, sound and interactivity, my mind began to race, and the ideas haven't stopped flowing. Sit down. Grab hold. It's going to be unlike anything NFL fans have ever experienced."

Al Guido, chief operating officer
"All the fan experience pieces around concession stands, bathrooms, the convenience – and they may be simple, stupid things – but I guarantee the fans say the experience blows Candlestick away. It’s going to take time on the nostalgia part. We’ve got to earn that, but there’s no question in my mind, from a stadium perspective, there will be no one who doesn’t have their jaw drop when they walk into that place." 

Paraag Marathe, president
"I think a lot of the mystique carries over. That’s what we love about sports is moments that you remember you were there and things that you were a part of. You don’t forget about Candlestick. At Candlestick, everyone still talked about Kezar. I think fans are going to feel the same way about Levi’s® Stadium. Nobody’s sat in their seat before. It’s their seat. In this first year, everyone’s going to feel like they’re not just fans, that they kind of own the team in their own way."

Trent Baalke, general manager
"One of the great things about the San Francisco 49ers is the history, the tradition. There have been a lot of great players, a lot of great coaches, a lot of great teams. Going back to Kezar and then obviously Candlestick and now Levi’s® Stadium. We haven’t played a game there but are certainly looking forward to creating our own history."

Jed York, chief executive officer
"Our fans are going to really appreciate the hard work that went into Levi’s® Stadium, and I think they’re going to see it’s not just lip-service that we said we wanted an unparalleled fan experience."



Story by Andrew Pentis
Produced by Eric Stark
Graphic Design by Kyle Chuises
Videos by 49ers Studios
Photography by Terrell Lloyd, Associated Press
Special Thanks to Daniel Beaton 


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