75 for 75: A Tale of Two Halves

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"75 for 75" is an article series from the 49ers Museum highlighting legendary moments in 49ers history as part of the team's 75th Anniversary celebrations in 2021.

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December 22, 1957

Kezar Stadium hosted its first NFL playoff game after the 49ers and Detroit Lions ended the 1957 regular season tied for the Western Conference championship at 8-4. The winner would meet the mighty Cleveland Browns for the league title.

In what became "A Tale of Two Halves," the 49ers dominated the opening 30 minutes. Y.A. Tittle connected on touchdown passes to R.C. Owens, Hugh McElhenny and Billy Wilson as the 49ers jumped out to a 24-7 lead. 

McElhenny got the second half rolling by taking a pitchout and racing 71 yards to the Lions 9 yard line. San Francisco was stopped there, but kicker Gordy Soltau added a field goal to give the 49ers a 27-7 advantage in the third quarter. San Franciscans eager to celebrate the club's first shot at an NFL championship sensed a victory. They streamed out of Kezar Stadium in search of a party. 

Then disaster struck. On the 49ers sideline, the jubilation started too early. The defense collapsed and Detroit tallied 24 unanswered points to win 31-27, a shocking loss grated at 49ers fans for decades.

"We thought the game was over. No way the 49ers could lose," recalled Larry Saros, former proprietor of The Wishing Well, a popular bar for 49ers fans on San Francisco's Irving Street. "People left Kezar early and walked down to the bars on Haight Street or Irving to celebrate. I'd bet some of them didn't know the 49ers lost until they saw the newspaper the next day."

A teenager named George Seifert, the 49ers future head coach, was in attendance that day, working as a Kezar Stadium usher for his hometown team. The heartbreaking loss inspired a long-standing need in Seifert to bring an NFL championship to San Francisco. 

"I tell you. That was a gloomy occasion," Seifert said. "Losing the playoff to Detroit was such a letdown. But feeling that gloom in 1957 made the victories of the 1980s and 1990s that much better. To be there for The Catch (in 1982) and the emotion we felt beating Dallas and going to our first Super Bowl. I can't express that feeling."

Tittle, the pigskin-slinging quarterback, who was named NFL Player of the Year in 1957 and later guided the New York Giants to three NFL championship games, retained painful memories of that loss for years.

"We got too conservative. We tried to kill the clock by running the ball," Tittle said with a touch of heat in his voice. "It was the pass that got us a 20-point lead and we should have stayed with the pass. We should have been more aggressive."

The 49ers Faithful would have to wait another 24 years to experience a championship. In 1981, head coach Bill Walsh directed the 49ers to their first-ever title at Super Bowl XVI.

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