Next Monday night, the San Francisco 49ers will play their final regular season football game at Candlestick Park. For 43 seasons, fans have been cheering the team on there, so this marks the end of an era.
For many of the 49er Faithful, the game-day fun starts long before kickoff. Prior to each home game, the parking lot outside Candlestick Park comes to life as thousands of fans gather for tailgate parties and to cheer on their NFL heroes.
Dozens of makeshift communities emerge on the asphalt. One of these impromptu neighborhoods pops up around a light pole bearing the letter “E.” It’s here, over the years, that strangers became friends and family.
On a cold Sunday morning earlier this month, excitement built around the “E” pole a few hours before the 49ers played their penultimate regular season home game against the Seattle Seahawks.
Among the first to arrive was the Vigil family, who drove up from Salinas. Danny Vigil Sr., 61, became a 49ers season ticket holder in 1980. The previous season, San Francisco had won only two games.
“When I first got my tickets, I mean, the team wasn’t doing anything,” Vigil said. “We could go in and almost sit anywhere.”
Vigil watched the 49ers win six games during his first year at Candlestick, but the team’s fortunes would change dramatically in 1981. Led by Coach Bill Walsh, the 49ers won 13 regular season games.
The playoffs that season featured maybe the greatest play in Candlestick Park history: "The Catch," when receiver Dwight Clark snagged a Joe Montana pass late in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game against the Dallas Cowboys. The catch gave the 49ers the win and sent them to their first Super Bowl.
“I’m just thankful I had the opportunity to come here for all those years,” Vigil said. “We just had a blast.”
Part of the fun for the Salinas car salesman has been passing on the traditions to his son, Danny Vigil Jr. The 41-year-old has in turn shared the experience of tailgating with his own children and grandchildren.
“This is all part of the atmosphere of coming out to Candlestick," the younger Vigil said. “Eating up, filling up and then getting into the game.”
A few cars down, Darrell Harrington and Ed Heffernan took in the sights and sounds. This was their final game at Candlestick. For nearly two decades, the friends have made the trek from their homes in Solano County to watch the 49ers in action.
“It was kind of quieter coming down,” Harrington said. “Lot of things rattled around in our head. Probably not overly emotional, but we’re just thinking about ‘Wow, this is our last trip down.’”
Harrington and Heffernan won’t be following the team to Santa Clara next year, where a new stadium awaits. They said the added mileage played the biggest role in their decision. Cost was also an issue: With seat licenses and ticket prices, Harrington said, they'd have to pay $5,700 to keep the two seats.
“I brought some ticket stubs that were from the NFC Championship Game against Dallas with 'The Catch',” Harrington said. “The ticket was $20. I mean, that gives you a little indication about inflation,” he said with a laugh.
“We’ve had a great time here and the 'E' pole has been so great to us,” Heffernan said. “And it’s fun. And I think if I’m going to miss anything it’s going to be the tailgate parties.”
One word that comes up repeatedly by those at Pole E is "family." Both real and adopted families can be found scattered in any direction.
“This right here just feels like home,” said Ronnie Basill of San Francisco. “Everybody knows each other. Everybody tailgates, they get together, everybody shares everything.”
Mixed in with the normal excitement of a Sunday at Candlestick was the feeling of resignation knowing the stadium's days are numbered.
Emilio Ramirez, 45, grew up in the neighborhood around Candlestick Park.
“For me this was like a cathedral,” Ramirez said. “It’s all I would see when I would look out my front door or take a walk. I went to school around here, and we would actually take field trips to this place.”
Ramirez, who works for United Airlines at San Francisco International Airport, said he decided to keep his season tickets for next year, but emphasized it won’t be the same.
“I think this city kind of made a mistake to let this place go. I think it helps the community," Ramirez said. "It brings people together that normally don’t hang out together. So this is going to be really — it’s tragic to have let this happen.”
Emotion lined the voice of Nick Lujan, a 35-year-old from Martinez, when he was asked about the upcoming regular season home finale on Dec. 23 against the Atlanta Falcons.
“I’m going to hate it,” Lujan said. “I grew up here. This was Sunday church for me. This was where I came. This was what I looked forward to eight Sundays out of the year ... more than that because there was playoff games, there was championship games.
“I mean history describes this place. We’ve seen the greatest-ever play here. Not everyone came to see Jerry Rice breaking records, Joe Montana breaking records, Ronnie Lott laying down hits. History. One word: history.”
That history will be on full display Monday night as 49er fans everywhere, and around the parking lot's “E” pole, bid farewell to Candlestick Park.
On tonight’s broadcast of KQED NEWSROOM, viewers get an inside look at Candlestick Park and Scott Shafer sits down sports columnist Glenn Dickey to recount the stadium’s rich history. KQED NEWSROOM is a weekly news magazine program on television, radio and online. Watch Fridays at 8 p.m. on KQED Public Television 9, listen on Sundays at 6 p.m. on KQED Public Radio 88.5 FM and watch on demand here.