Faithful Out in Full Force

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At Friday's Mercury News Opening Day of Training Camp, a few thousand of the 49ers Faithful came out to the team headquarters in Santa Clara to catch the 2008 team in action.

Fans were eagerly anticipating the chance of watching their favorite players practice, but it was the opportunity to interact with players and collect signatures on various items of team memorabilia that really made the afternoon too good of an opportunity to pass up.

"It's an intimate experience with football that you won't get even if you go to games," Graham Washburn of San Jose said. "I think it provides a level of access that the general fan can appreciate."

Attending the afternoon practice with his fiancée Heather, Graham was excited to see the new faces on the 2008 roster.

"I always like to see the rookies at camp and see how they blend in," he said.

One rookie, who instantly earned the attention from the spectators, was seventh-round draft pick linebacker Larry Grant. The Bay Area native intercepted a Shaun Hill pass during an eleven-on-eleven scrimmage and was immediately cheered with one of the loudest ovations of the day.

"I stuck within the scheme of the defense and it landed right in my hands," Grant said of his interception. "It felt good to hear the applause from the fans. I've known all my life how faithful the 49ers fans are to their team, because I've been one of those fans myself back in my day."

Besides seeing the likes of first-round pick Kentwan Balmer and the rest of the '08 rookie draft class, Graham and Heather, like many other fans were intrigued by the 49ers potential for success in the upcoming season.

"I want to see how Vernon Davis is developing and if Mike Martz is going to use him differently," Heather said. "Here you get to see the kind of plays they run in practice, what kind of things they do to get prepared for the games and evaluate the talent that's on the team."

Along with catching a glimpse of the 49ers new additions to the roster and coaching staff, fans were treated to a number of amenities that left them in awe of the experience.

For Luis and Veronica Mendoza of Fremont, the chance of having their 3-year-old daughter Arianna and 1-year old daughter Anjelica meet the Gold Rush in person was more than enough reason to come out and watch practice.

"They both came dressed as 49ers cheerleaders, and Arianna brought her pom-pom's," Veronica said. "She's excited now, because she got to see them in person. It's cute and exciting."

While fans entered the premises, they were instantly greeted with a number of activities to keep them entertained, ranging from photo-ops with Super Bowl trophies and the Gold Rush, to interactive games for children, to shopping at the official Team Store.

Fifteen-year-old Wesley Holland of Redwood City immediately began his day by doing his best Joe Nedney impersonation. After his brother, friend and he all took turns booting field goal attempts through inflatable goal-posts, Wesley could not hide his sheer joy.

"It's one of the coolest experiences you can have when it comes to football," he said. "It has games (for kids) and everything. There are cheerleaders you get to talk to and you get to take pictures with the Super Bowl trophies. It's pretty awesome here."

But the enthusiasm wasn't limited to Bay Area locals, as 44-year-old Tim McLean of Whittier CA., was thrilled to watch his favorite team in person.

"We flew up from Long Beach this morning," he said. "We come here every year and this is our fourth year in a row."

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When asked what made the outing so appealing McLean quickly responded, "You get to walk on the same grass Bill Walsh, Joe Montana, and Jerry Rice walked on. There's nothing like this in the world. This is just about as much fun as the season."

And while the practices have the same feel for fans as a regular season game, the players too find themselves with a much higher level of competitiveness when practices are open to the fans.

"It can get really competitive out here, because the crowd is watching you and you don't want to look bad," linebacker Tully Banta-Cain said. "We feel like we're in a game setting with the crowd cheering, and it's good for us to have a game atmosphere."

Safety Keith Lewis agreed that the fans increase the intensity on the field saying, "The fans bring more life to practice."

Once practice was finished, fans who had been lined up along the security railing did their best to get the attention of their favorite player, like 12-year old Christopher of San Jose. The youngster vividly remembers an interaction he had with Banta-Cain the year before.

"Last year Tully gave me his gloves and his towel and I bought a case for them," he said.

The 49ers hope that by again opening up select practices for the fourth consecutive year of camp, many more fans like Christopher will leave with their own lasting memories of the 2008 team.

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