Nothing stands out more than my first Niners game 

click to enlarge Merton Hanks
  • 1997 AP file photo
  • Niners defensive back Merton Hanks (36) celebrates with teammate Marquez Pope (23) after scoring a touchdown against the Denver Broncos on Dec. 15, 1997.
I’ve spent my fair share of time at Candlestick Park, especially since I’ve been covering sports for The San Francisco Examiner the past two years.

I’ve spent a game sitting next to legendary Cal football broadcaster Joe Starkey. I was on the sidelines for the final minutes of the 49ers’ playoff win against the Green Bay Packers last season. And I’ve interviewed players and coaches.

None of those moments are the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Candlestick Park.

No, the first thing I think about is the first time I attended an NFL game. I had just turned 19 and was about to leave home for the first time. I didn’t want to leave the Bay Area without seeing the Niners, so at the beginning of the season my brother and I bought tickets for a Monday night game against the Denver Broncos in December.

We sat about as far from the field as you can in that stadium, with our backs against the concrete at the top of the upper deck in a corner. The view was still spectacular. This was 1997, when Steve Young and Jerry Rice were at their peaks and the memories of winning Super Bowl XXIX were still fresh. But Rice had torn ligaments in his knee in the season opener and hadn’t played since.

Lucky for us — and for the 49ers — Rice made a triumphant return in that Week 16 game. I still remember John Elway and the Broncos putting up a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, Rice grabbing a 14-yard touchdown pass that would be his only score of the season — he cracked his kneecap on the catch — and Merton Hanks doing that dance that made you wonder how his head didn’t fall off after returning an interception for a touchdown that put San Francisco ahead for good in the third quarter.

It took the two of us so long to get out of the parking lot in my mom’s minivan that my brother had fallen asleep before we hit the freeway.

Candlestick was never a jewel of a stadium like AT&T Park, or like I expect Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara will be. But it’s a piece of history, both in the sporting world and in my life. The place will be missed — but I may need to throw on an extra sweater when I think about it.

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