"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.
January 24, 1982
Playing in a Super Bowl for the first time can fray the nerves. For the 49ers and the Faithful, Super Bowl XVI produced a new and utterly surreal experience.
Just two years before the 49ers first Super Bowl appearance, Bill Walsh rescued a flailing club and breathed life into a downtrodden crew of football misfits. Prior to his arrival, the 49ers had played pro football for 36 years as part of two different leagues and had never sniffed a championship. In fact, no San Francisco-based professional sports franchise had ever won a title.
The possibility of seeing history achieved prompted a hardy Bay Area contingent to travel to Pontiac, Michigan. They rode in on an emotional peak, still buzzing from Dwight Clark's "The Catch" in the 1981 NFC Championship Game, and were greeted by a ferocious Michigan snowstorm. Californians accustomed to wearing sunscreen in winter suddenly found themselves wading through waist-high snowdrifts in tennis shoes, braving arctic winds and temperatures barely cracking zero.
The players also seemed numbed by their first exposure to the big game commotion. They arrived at Detroit's Sheraton Southfield Hotel and were greeted by an overly anxious bellhop (Bill Walsh in disguise) trying to wrestle the luggage from their fingers. Walsh had traveled ahead of the team and procured the bellhop outfit from a hotel employee for $20.
"I tried to take suitcases from them, and when I held out my hand for tips, they reacted with disgust," Walsh once recalled. "Lawrence Pillers recognized me, and then Joe Montana, and then everyone started laughing."
"We needed a dose of humor," Clark said. "Everyone was a little tense."
The pregame hijinks evolved into jittery tension on Super Bowl Sunday. As the 49ers made their way to the Pontiac Silverdome, the bus carrying Walsh and about 20 players was delayed by the nasty weather and the sudden appearance of Vice President George Bush's motorcade. Feeling the stress level rise as they waited, Walsh calmed his players by joyfully announcing he was in contact with the rest of the team at the stadium.
"I got on the bus PA and told the players the game had already started and we were ahead, 7-0," Walsh recalled in his book Building a Champion. "I said that Chico Norton, our equipment manager, was calling plays and Ted Walsh, his assistant, was playing quarterback."
Walsh's bus arrived in plenty of time for the coin flip. On the 49ers first possession of the game, Montana completed six of seven passes and capped a 68-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run to put the 49ers in front 7-0.
Throughout 60 minutes of football, the 49ers never trailed. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, grizzled 49ers fans, who endured decades of football futility at Kezar Stadium and Candlestick Park, unleashed tears of joy. The 49ers brought home San Francisco's first major league sports title with a 26-21 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.